In an America overrun by an epidemic of vampirism. A vampire hunter takes a young boy under his care as he travels towards Canada, and the rumored safety of 'New Eden'.
Well, this came as a surprise.
I knew absolutely nothing about STAKELAND before viewing, other than having seen one image that pointed to a post apocalyptic vibe. Its always a kick going into a film blind, and finding yourself caught completely off guard by the work. In this case, I expected a cheap and cheerful vampire romp, maybe with some neat gore effects and some decent cheese to nk my teeth into. At best I hoped for a lesser veron of DAYBREAKERS. What I got was a film that was far closer in concept to the recent zomcom, ZOMBIELAND, yet with a far, far darker tone.
In fact, STAKELAND is most comparable to 2009's devastating THE ROAD. A film that left me shaken for day afterwards. of course, STAKELAND features vampires, (of a sort, more on that later), so it's never going to hit hard in the soul the way THE ROAD hit, but the influence of that film on the jet black tone here is very prominent. Both feature a ravaged world where moral bankruptcy is rapidly becoming the norm. And both are unflinching in their depiction of suffering. This film opens with a very shocking shot of a baby being bled dry and discarded like so much garbage. Its not an easy watch, and sticks to its guns till the very end.
What many are talking about, and what seems to be a point of contention for some, is the films political slant. In this vampire infested world, there is a far greater danger awaiting those trying to rebuild some semblance of life for themselves, and it comes in the form of right wing religious extremists. Vampires feature heavily in the film, yet its their human counterparts who are the real threat. As we all know, theres nothing more terrifying than man himself, and here the cruelty and the terror our heroes suffer through comes in main from the new worlds Christians, who have decided that the 'rapture' is underway, and that the vampires are, in essence, the clean up men; ridding the earth of all nners.
We see attempts at societies being reformed, and succeeding, until the human element tears the whole thing down. Its disturbing to witness. And the point is pretty heavy hitting, but I'd argue that this film isn't anti-religion, but is in fact anti-ignorance. Christianity is shown in both light and dark shades here. And there is a VERY clear distinction made between belief and fanaticism.
The world is which STAKELAND is set is a very believable one, and the actions of both the good and the bad are not only conceivable, but are downright inescapable. Its director, Jim Mickle's commitment to authenticity and showing life's harsh realities that helps elevate this film above the pack. He's taking this whole thing VERY seriously, and its refreshing to see a horror film which in essence is based in fantasy, taking such a heartfelt and serious stance. I have to commend his vion. The film looks and feels like hell on Earth, just as it should.
Performances are excellent all round, the standouts being Nick Damici as the cold as ice 'Mister', and Danielle Harris as the heavily pregnant and cute as a button, 'Belle'. Mister is a wonderfully layered character, betraying his stone cold emotionless exterior with the barest hint of a smile here and there, and acts of human compason that bring a tear to your eye. Danielle's 'Belle' is pure innocence and hope. She brings a lightness and naturalism to her role that cannot fail to endear. The rest of the 'family' are fantastic as well. I was shocked to learn that Kelly McGillis is one of the stars here. She's unrecognisable and while she has little to do, she makes a lasting impreson, as do Connor Paolo as 'Martin', the orphaned teenager that Mister takes under his wing, and Sean Nelson as 'Willie', the good hearted marine, returned from Iraq and bitter as hell with the betrayal of his predent and government.
The script is very sparse. Dialogue is rarely used as expotion. It all feels real. Its the actions, and the body language of the characters that conveys their internal struggles. You'll care deeply for this band of hopeful survivors, and you'll feel loss when loss should be felt. And the same goes with all the individuals they meet on the road. the world is so fully realised that by nature, you find yourself caring. This is an emotionally powerful film, that understands happiness can be torn away at a moments notice, and isn't afraid to portray this harsh truth.
If theres any downde, it would be the vampires themselves. They're great looking, and pretty damned frightening, yet they really are very milar to the more modern 'running zombies' we've seen time and again in recent years. We never learn where they came from, or gain any inght into their habitat or their behaviour outde of killing, (apart from one truly chilling scene in which a young, sleeping vampire is rudely woken by Martin. A scene burned into my mind). I'd have liked to have seen a little more intelligence than the mindless animals we're presented with, but really, they only serve as a natural, unavoidable threat here. The films more concerned with exploring deeper issues than vampirism. Its about the human condition, for good and ill. And how we behave when faced with an unthinkable tuation. We don't all rise up to become heroes, in fact, we rarely do.
There's is hope here though. Its not all despair. As hard and painful as it is to witness what we do, there is still light. Human perseverance. The need for dreams and the chance at love in a mostly loveless world all shine through the darkness. Its all a matter of perspective.
STAKELAND is, for me, the best surprise of the year so far. Its a dark, serious film which uses our genre to explore societies weaknesses and strengths, and it bravely depicts the concluons it reaches, whether we like them or not. this could be a future clasc. Time will tell.