Thursday, October 13, 2011

2011 Halloween Film Festival: Stake Land

Once again, the Catacombs has chosen a few select feature films to review in recognition of this months perennial holiday, Halloween. Last years films were all science fiction-horror hybrids with plenty of nudity to appeal to horny genre pervs, and I freely admit that the inaugural selection for my 2011 Halloween Film Festival really made me wish that I had chosen a repeat performance of that. Instead I chose a few random movies, both new and old, that I had not seen. First out of the gate is an independent 2010 post-apocalyptic vampire film from director Jim Mickle. Honestly, Stake Land left me dumbfounded. The reviews for this overly-praised movie used phrases like "gritty", "stylistic flexibility", "nerve-wracking", "harrowing", "bloodcurdling" and "clever". Seriously? What the hell were those critics smoking? Were they paid off or something?  I mean, damn. I totally missed that directors cut, or was sent an entirely different version by Netflix. Does Ashton Kutcher punk bloggers now?

When an epidemic of vampirism strikes, humans find themselves on the run from vicious, feral beasts. Remember that point, because this is actually where Stake Land ultimately fails, by violating its own internal logic later in the film. When his family is slaughtered, young Martin (Connor Paolo) is taken under the wing of a grizzled, wayward hunter simply known as "Mister" (Nick Damici) whose new prey is the undead. As the pair journey through the locked-down towns of America's heartland, they are joined by a ragtag band of fellow travelers including a nun (Kelly McGillis), a marine newly returned from the Middle East (Sean Nelson) and a pregnant woman (Danielle Harris). As this disparate family cautiously moves north toward Canada (which is now New Eden), they are plagued by a fundamentalist Christian militia called The Brotherhood, headed by Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris; aka "The Observer" on Fringe) that believes the vampires were sent by God to do his work. This particular sect is much more of a threat to the group than the vampires, who frankly just aren't all that scary. The most threatening type of vampires, called berserkers, are harder to kill as their chest carapaces have become like toughened leather, so they have to be staked through the base of the skull to kill them, and even when some of them actually show up, there isn't any real sense of palpable tension on display in the film. 
Nick Damici as "Mister" (top) and Connor Paolo as "Martin" (bottom)
Only genre veteran Harris manages to evidence any visible degree of fear through her facial demeanor, and that ain't saying much. Most of the time the whole cast doesn't truly seem to take their predicament seriously enough, if you ask me. These aren't Christopher Lee vampires we're talking about, or Bela Lugosi vampires or even twinkly-Twilight Robert Pattinson vampires. The mindless vampires in Stake Land are portrayed as savage, feral, NON-SPEAKING beasts. At least up to the moment when Cerveris cult leader returns after having become a vampire himself. As the cast suddenly starts getting whittled down by an unseen (and thinking) vampiric opponent, Stake Land quickly burns through whatever amount of goodwill you may still accord the film, as this aspect completely breaks with the previously established on-screen scenario. By this point in the film, the characters have survived quite a bit, and this about-face moment mars an otherwise semi-consistent B-film. To its credit Stake Land at least looks greater than the sum of its parts, thanks to effective cinematography, and it is here that perhaps the movie earns comparisons to "The Road", but only here. The overall acting is absolutely sub-par, and its too bad to see Kelly McGillis in a film like this after her sterling early career triumphs in Witness, Top Gun and The Accused. Everything else about this movie is somewhat akin to a film school "Horror 101" student project. I can't recommend this movie at all, other than as a curiosity. There are better post-apocalyptic vampire films of recent vintage available to waste your Halloween rental dollars on (I Am Legend, Daybreakers, Priest, etc.), so skip this utterly shitty romp of a flick. The only other thing that I can add is that I completely understand why this movie only grossed about $22, 970 at the box office.

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