If Jim Mickle's brilliant Stake Land has one thing above all else to teach us it's that cliches do not matter in the slightest if the person using them knows what they're doing. Stake Land tells the story of a world devastated by a plague that turns people into vampires, and a young boy's coming of age after this blood-sucking apocalypse. But it's light years away from throwaway fluff like Daybreakers, and it has none of the self-conscious reliance on wisecracks and in-jokes of something more technically accomplished like Zombieland. There are recognisable parts of half-a-dozen other films in Stake Land, true. It's steeped in fairly predictable Americana and the plotting does fall down once or twice. But overall Mickle manages to craft something that's a solid, melodramatic, darkly entertaining graphic novel of an adventure and a melancholy, bittersweet road movie all at once, far better than films with many times the budget.
The young hero is Martin (Connor Paolo), whose family gets slaughtered in the dead of night as the vampires start to spread across the country and the emergency warnings on the radio - stay indoors when the sun goes down, lock your windows, bolt your doors - prove too little, too late. Martin's saved by the arrival of the taciturn wanderer Mister (Nick Damici, who co-wrote the screenplay) who takes the boy under his wing. The two of them set off across the devastated country, hoping to reach the mythical New Eden survivors have supposedly established way to the north, with Mister patiently teaching Martin how best to fight the undead hordes and imparting some hard-bitten life lessons into the bargain. Naturally, as Stake Land progresses it becomes increasingly apparent man is the real monster - or at least that the fanatical cult of the Brotherhood is an equally pressing threat, one whose leader Jebediah Loven (Michael Cerveris) doesn't appreciate an off-white knight taking issue with their vision for what's left of America.
Mickle doesn't skimp on pleasing the genre crowd. It's readily apparent early on pretty much anyone is fair game, and vampire hunting is a breathless close-quarters mess of yelling, struggling and black blood everywhere that puts you in mind of John Carpenter's Vampires if it had actually been any good. One or two of the FX are a little ropy, but the director knows the value of restraint as well as splatter, leaving select shots to the imagination or playing very effectively with the audio. Stake Land is a more than worthy action flick; not without the odd moment of shaky choreography or self-indulgent gore, but also some fairly inventive set pieces and deft use of location and art design (not unlike Gareth Edwards' recent Monsters) to flesh out the idea of a ruined America. There's never really that much going on at once, but the film still feels like an expansive vision.
But it's the pacing and tone that really make it. Mickle goes for a wry sense of humour tinged with bleak melancholy, much quieter and more contemplative than you might expect yet with none of the nervous jitters and self-referential gags of Zombieland. Stake Land is played largely straight, which could have been grindingly mawkish or worse, dull, but Mickle and Damici's story manages to be surprisingly mature; the characters are fairly stock types, but though there's quite a few for an hour and forty minutes none of them feel short-changed or throwaway, with only Cerveris' bad guy tending towards the cartoonish. And the storytelling is refreshingly free of exposition or speechifying for the most part, with much of the character development developing from people speaking, acting or even carrying themselves differently. It might seem a simple thing but still, when Martin describes their little band as a family it feels like a statement of fact, not sentimental manipulation. When they suffer, you care; when they triumph it feels like actual growth. The final sequence is predictable, but still a genuinely moving conclusion.
Admittedly Mickle can't maintain the same standard all the way through. Several plot points feel suspiciously convenient, with the leads fearless vampire killers one moment, then abandoning all sense and reason the next just so very bad things can happen. To give Cerveris his due the cult leader does come across as genuinely frightening on occasion, but it's by far the weakest role and veers dangerously close to parody in the final act. And it may not be sentimental, but Stake Land definitely hinges on a very particular aesthetic; Mickle does make his influences his own, but at the same time the Southern-fried, woozy comic-book melodrama of it all might put a few people off. Nonetheless, this is fantastic stuff, clichés or no clichés; raw, energetic action and spectacle married to a thoughtful, compelling narrative that's head and shoulders above much of the competition. Any horror buffs who want in before Mickle, his cast and crew move on to bigger and even better things should consider Stake Land very strongly recommended.
(Stake Land was screened as part of the 17th L'Etrange Film Festival at the Forum des Images in Paris from 2nd-11th September 2011. There's one more showing Saturday night at the time of writing, for anyone in Paris - catch this in a cinema if you can.)
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