Thursday, 20 October 2011

Watched - no 23 - Stake Land (Jim Mickle, 2010)

It won't have escaped the attention of even the most casual of cinema-goers, literature fans or TV audiences that Vampires and apocalyptic scenarios are both as popular now as they have ever been. With the likes of the Twilight series, True Blood, Let the Right One in, Melancholia, The Road, The Walking Dead and others sharing critical praise, box office success, high ratings and impressive sales figures audiences enamored of all things fang related or 'end of the world' have never had it so good. Whether the market is reaching saturation point or not new entries into these genres are released seemingly every other week and Jim Mickle's Stake Land, released this week on DVD, is the latest to see the light of day. Co-written by Mickle and Nick Damici, who also stars as the enigmatic vampire hunter Mister, Stake Land combines the genres mentioned within a road movie scenario to memorable effect in what could well be the horror movie of the year.

With society broken down due to a plague of vampirism and groups of survivors holed up in locked down, uninfected towns and outposts, Mister and his young protege Martin (Connor Paolo) roam the ravaged states of the US slaying the infected and accepting warmth and sustenance from the townsfolk they come across. Heading North to the fabled 'New Eden', an area rumoured to be heavily protected and free of vampires, Mister and Martin, in true road movie fashion, meet a variety of characters – from Kelly McGillis' Sister, a nun struggling to marry her religious beliefs with the chaos around her, Belle (Danielle Harris), a pregnant teenage drifter and Willie,a cynical ex-marine (Sean Nelson). Along with the nocturnal creatures, reminiscent of the Candarian Demons from Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series, danger comes in the form of a clan of right wing Christian fundamentalists, as happy to kill the uninfected as they are the infected as they spread their extremist ideology and brutal forms of territorial control.

Mickle and Damici's genre crossing movie is beautifully shot by DOP Ryan Samul in a variety of run down small towns, backwoods roads, abandoned and disused buildings and vast expanses of woodlands and wastelands. There's a real Tarkovskian feel to the devastated landscapes and architecture, all shot in suitably gloomy lighting, that raises Stake Land above the average genre movie and places it as being more akin to John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's aforementioned The Road. If you took the plot of Zombieland, crossed it with the milieu of True Blood, removed all the humour and added a bleak social realist metaphor on the state of recession hit America, both in the era of The Grapes of Wrath, the present day and an imagined future, then Stake Land is what you'd come up with. Where other lesser movies of this ilk would rely on ADHD afflicted editing and a ramped up soundtrack, Mickle, who also took on editing and visual FX duty, and Jeff Grace, with his affecting, melancholic piano led score, take Stake Land close to the realms of the arthouse movie whilst still providing enough thrills, moments of tension and serious bloodletting to keep even the most ardent genre fan happy.

Superbly directed, played straight as an arrow by its impressive cast, atmospheric, almost unrelentingly downbeat and providing a genuinely inventive take on three genres that are as well worn as many of the characters clothes Stake Land delivers from start to finish. Terrific stuff.

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