Stake Land's opening reel is a virtuoso example of taut top notch genre film making. Director Jim Mickle throws one hell of a sucker punch in film's first 5 minutes in a sequence that's likely to draw comparisons to the openings of the Dawn of the Dead remake and 28 Weeks Later. It's the type of introduction that can make or break a film. There's usually drawbacks to laying out all of your aces at the start of a poker game. Although the film certainly never sinks and has a few standout set pieces sprinkled through out, nothing that follows ever captures the same electric potency found in the initial setup. Still, Stake Land is a solid dramatic horror film.
The other unfortunate point to be made with Stake Land is its timeliness Had the film been released 10 years ago, it would have been something of a revelation. As strong as the material is, it simply isn't unique or original enough to elevate or separate itself from the non stop out pour of vampire, zombie, and post apocalyptic films that have been flooding the festival scene the past five years and comparisons to The Road are unavoidable. Both pictures share similar art direction and scenery made even more noticeable with the fact that Stake Land was lensed near the same area of Pennsylvania. Both stories are road trip films with an unnamed man and child futilely seeking refuge in a barren landscape. Neither stories explain how the apocalypse came to be. Stake Land gives no exposition on how vampires took over America or whether there's been outbreaks across the entire world. Like The Road, Stake Land is a minimalist study of the main characters' survival. Although it has genre elements such as vampires, the creatures here are much closer to the feral, tribalistic beasties of 30 Days of Night and I am Legend making them no more supernatural than the desperate cannibals of The Road. .
Another unavoidable comparison is Days of Heaven. While Mickle and co-writer/star Nick Damici have cited The Searchers and other classic westerns as an major influences, the most noticeable of all is the work of Terrance Malick. Stake Land is actually a quiet and somber film that's carried through with a loose, almost rambling narration provided by the younger boy set against long lingering shots of nature, and beautiful panoramic landscapes. It also features a score that feels ripped straight out of Days of Heaven and The New World. In many ways, this is both a great strength and weakness for the film. It's an intriguing and engaging experiment to filter a gory, post apocalyptic action film through the contemplative perspective of a Malick picture. At times, the film almost becomes transcendent, at others, the homage is too obvious and distracting.
But even with all of that said, Nick Damici lands a fantastic performance as Mister, the stoically badass vampire hunter who takes an orphaned teen under his wing. Damici brings nuance to a role that most would have exaggerated. As a fearless, remorseless killer, Damici brings a balance of scenery chewing levity and grave seriousness to the proceedings.
On a technical level, Stake Land is flawless. Director of Photography, Ryan Samual provides lush and sumptuous cinematography. The make up and practical effects handled by Brian Spears and Pete Gerner are also stunning. The level of polish and production value is all around superb. Considering the film's budget and the fact that it was made for south of a million dollars is almost intimidating, I simply don't know how Mickle and crew pulled it off.
Stake Land certainly warrants a strong recommendation, but your familiarity with other contemporary genre films of this ilk may waiver a lot of your enthusiasm for it. My strong criticisms for the film should be taken as tough love. Mickle's second feature has been garnering a lot of buzz this past year with a lot critics unfairly tossing around a fair amount of hyperbole. While the film didn't live up to all of that hype for this critic and genre fan, that's not to say that I did not find it impressive; it is. It marks Mickle as a new talent to keep an eye on, but it's best to approach Stake Land with tempered expectations.