(This is cross-posted from my blog over at Grady Hendrix.com where I write about movies and machine guns on a regular basis. Originally posted when the filmed at the Toronto Film Festival it reappears now for the public release.
)"And then all that goodness was ruined by Christian crazies dropping vampires out of the sky."
Any movie that has a line like that in it, and that means it literally, is my kind of movie. Fundamentally nuts, Jim Mickle's STAKE LAND is essentially a movie about people running away from vampires. And that's it. But it explores the idea of people running away from vampires so thoroughly that it blows away lots of the ostensibly more ambitious films also playing at the Toronto Film Festival simply through the purity of its ambitions and the rough, redneck energy of its filmmaking. This is a film that is totally comfortable with being a b-list, genre flick, a straight-up shot of exploitation moonshine with no chaser and as such it is the best movie it could possibly be. Just think of Jim Mickle as an American Neil Marshall (The Descent, Dog Soldiers) and you'll have an idea of what you're in for.
Mickle's previous film, MULBERRY STREET, was a stripped-down
flick shot on a shoestring in one location. A lot of people thought it
was so clench-jawed and fuel efficient because Mickle made if for $3.45
plus a Quiznos half off coupon. But actually, STAKE LAND goes to show
that Mickle doesn't know how to make a movie any other way. He directs
the way a three year old drives: he jams the pedal to the metal and
plows through anything in his way.
The story follows Martin
(Gossip Girl's Connor Paolo) who teams up with Mister (Nick Damici) to
try to get away from a vampire plague sweeping the nation. Mister is the
Punisher of the vampire world: he likes killing vampires because it
gives his life purpose. And because it's cool. The two of them take off
through a post-apocalyptic America that feels like a Lynyrd Skynyrd
song: all Harley hogs and country bars and cowboy boots and Bowie
knives. Because of all the lousy, stinking vampires the survivors of the
plague have either become giant assholes, turned to religion or started
having yard sales. This is very depressing. Mister and Martin on the
other hand have responded to the plague by packing a bunch of weapons
into a muscle car and wiping out vamps with stake-fu. Now ask yourself:
which are the real Americans.
STAKE LAND is basically the story
of Martin and Mister's Amazing Vampire Killing Road Show with stops for
Kelly McGillis (playing a nun) and some other interludes, most motivated
by the fact that Martin's peach fuzz charms are like catnip to the
ladies, vampire and nonvampire alike, who haven't seen a non-bearded and
non-stinky man in some time. The gore flows fast, free and wet, but the
movie's greatest special effect is Nick Damici, who was also the star
of Mickle's MULBERRY STREET. Damici has all the craggy authority and
tight-lipped intensity that it takes some actors a lifetime of being
left out in the rain overnight to achieve, and he doles it out in
heaping portions. There hasn't been a man this macho in a horror movie
in a long time, and sneaking into screenings of STAKE LAND is going to
jump start puberty in 12-year-old boys everywhere.
project a lot onto STAKE LAND, the same way that people go back and read
context and meaning into Howard Hawks's films or Walter Hill's. But,
like them, Mickle is just happy and unashamed to be making a genre
picture with no pretensions to Deep Meaning. One could say that the fall
of George Romero happened because he started telling people what his
movies were about rather than just making them. Mickle hasn't fallen
into that trap. As of now, he's just making movies and if you want to
read theory onto them, that's your business not his. But in the
meantime, if you want to see people run away from vampires, and
occasionally skewer, slice, chop and mutilate them, then you're in good
hands with STAKE LAND.
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