31 Days of Halloween Hysteria: “Stake Land”

Living here's like cutting teeth...
Living here’s like cutting teeth…

 

As vampire apocalypses go, the one which gives “Stake Land” a backdrop seems all too credible.

Director Jim Mickle paints a grim and plausible view of an America which has collapsed under the weight of a viral onslaught and left large swathes of the country either unihabitable or policed by extremist fundamentalist militia.  Doing their best to survive the everyday horrors are grizzled bloodsucker disposalist Mister (Nick Damici) and Martin (Connor Paolo), a young boy Mister rescues when his family are brutally murdered by a passing vampire.

There’s a useful comparison to be drawn between this film and Ruben Fleischer’s delightfully entertaining “Zombieland”.  On the face of it the two films deal with the idea of an inciting supernatural event radically changing the make-up of the United States and the ways in which our protagonists deal with the upended social order which results.  Whilst Fleischer’s film is a comic effort played for equal parts chuckles and thrills, Mickle’s film is a decidedly dark and glum proposition with minimal glints of humour poking through the necessarily dour whole.

“Stake Land” uses the inciting threat of the vampiric catastrophe overwhelming the country to paint a picture of dogmatic beliefs result in appalling inhumanity, when crisis gives people a licence to behave at their worst.  At a time when the USA’s underpinning systems have collapsed beyond repair, it is this base human cruelty which seeks to paint vampires as a punishment from above for sin and pits bands of survivors against self-imposed leaders of petty fiefdoms like Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris, who you might remember as the Observer in “Fringe”).

Science fiction, fantasy and horror, of course, use a surface layer of fantastical imagery and weird locales to mask potentially controversial or difficult to digest underlying messages about society and humanity – “Stake Land” is no exception.   At a time in our collective history when we’ve never seemed more divided and liable to cling to comforting ideas of faith in the face of challenges and change, this film’s message of suspecting false prophets and the worse kind of xenophobic rabble-rousing has never seemed more relevant.

It’s difficult to say that I enjoyed “Stake Land” – it’s an absolutely captivating take on the idea of vampires and whethere they or our fellow humans are the real enemy.  It’s a thoughtful piece which made me ruefully consider just how the world would go to hell in the event of a global outbreak which dismantled society as we know it.  So, you know, it isn’t necessarily Friday night funtime fare – it has a certain weight to it.

It uses a low budget to best effect by not relying on elaborate set-pieces and CGI work, using more realistic action and practical effects to underpin an emphasis on our old friends, story and character.  When the members of our party and incidental characters meet untimely ends, it is all the more affecting as the ground work has been done to build our empathy.

Of special note are the performances from Kelly McGillis, playing a brutalised nun and horror veteran Danielle Harris, as a pregnant singer, who form part of an extended non-traditional family group with Mister, Martin and former soldier, Willie (Sean Nelson).  It’s quiet and unfussy acting from a really rather good ensemble which is sensible enough not to paint all people of faith as being zealots and gun-toting loons.  Though the film’s essential liberal credentials are very much on its sleeve, I don’t feel as though you have to share the film’s underpinning convictions to find it a compelling spin on the idea of vampires, plagues and inquisition-like states.

 

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