If you thought Zombieland was too warm and fuzzy in its depiction of a post-apocalyptic America overrun with the undead, fear not. There is a film for you.
Stake Land is a vampire film that apes the form of a zombie film for great effect. After watching his family get killed by one of many vampires who have overrun the world, Martin is taken under the wing of Mister. Mister is an expert vampire killer trying to find a safe place to live out the rest of his days on earth. Together, the pair track, trap, and kill the vicious night-dwelling undead. That is, until they accidentally cross paths with a vengeful cult.
Stake Land is not an easy film to watch. It has an oppressive atmosphere that’s hard to shake off. The vampires are scary, sure, but the people are even more dangerous. You never know how a person is going to respond in a survival situation. Some build safe havens where anyone is welcome to move in for survival. Others choose to destroy anyone who doesn’t meet their ideal vision of what a new civilization should be, even if it means losing all semblance of civility and compassion.
Screenwriters Nick Damici (also Mister) and Jim Mickle (also the director) craft a wandering narrative of war, survival, and horror. The story is genuinely unpredictable because they are not afraid to assume the worst of humanity. Some people are just bad and disaster can bring out the worst in the kindest among us. Damici and Mickle also assume that an audience can handle a film where the good guys don’t win every battle and the bad guys don’t stay down. It’s a potent combination that flows well onscreen.
Stake Land is a horror film that isn’t afraid to horrify the viewer. The vampire design isn’t glamorous at all. These are human corpses decaying as the years go by, falling apart but moving on through their unending thirst for blood. They fight dirty and drag any survivors down to their vicious and inhumane survival tactics.
The violence is quick and brutal. Mickle refuses to sensationalize the gore or glorify the combatants. Martin, Mister, and the other survivors are humans, not heroes, and that is the key to Stake Land‘s success. The characters act like real people, not marionettes tugged onscreen to scare you. Their story–so wild and disturbing–rings true. It’s an honest approach to a genre that by its very nature relies on artifice to survive.
Most of the time, the entire creative team of a serious horror film does everything they can to convince you what you’re seeing could happen. Here, the approach to the story is so honest and understated that you can’t help but buy into it. The scares and suspense come from the natural progression of the narrative. After one totally justified jump scare in the opening sequence, the film relies on the lawless world of the apocalypse to build terror and dread.
Stake Land is a must see film for fans of intelligent horror. It is a novelty without relying on gimmicks. It is a vampire film modeled after zombies, an apocalyptic story without blatant emotional manipulation, and a character-driven horror film with a definite story to tell. Stake Land shows what is possible in indie horror when loyalty to a believable story is prioritized over extremity and shock value.