Three of my all-time favorite horror novels stem from the premise that the vampire is an invasive specie, leading to an epidemic of catastrophic proportions: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson; 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King; and Midnight Mass by F. Paul Wilson. Unfortunately, the screen adaptations that I have seen have rarely been satisfying. The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price, and The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, both adaptations of Matheson's novel, are entertaining because of their leads; yet both lacks something special making them truly great. Both television adaptations of King's novel have their strengths: Tobe Hooper's 1979 version has better casting of the leads and stronger performances by David Soul, Bonnie Bedelia, and James Mason, for example; but the mini-series suffers from poor pacing and structure. It's biggest flaw is with its rendition of the villain, Barlow. The 2004 version is better-paced and the collateral characters are better cast: Rutger Hauer plays an excellent Barlow, and while I enjoy Mason's performance in Hooper's version, I much prefer Donald Sutherland as Straker. James Cromwell was particularly affecting as Father Callahan. The 2004 version of 'Salem's Lot, however, suffers on all other fronts with its biggest flaw being its modern-day setting. There is also an adaptation of Midnight Mass which ranges from the occasionally brilliant to completely fucking up the source material. I would be curious yet reticent to see another film which had as its premise a vampire epidemic, leading to an apocalyptic situation. When the recent Stake Land (2010) was announced with a DVD release, my curiosity was piqued, yet I wasn't interested enough to give it a gander. I gave in when I learned that its director and co-writer was Jim Mickle and its star and co-writer was Nick Damici: the same duo who made Mulberry St. in 2006. Mulberry St. was unique in the fact that it was a modern-horror film which created a real sense of community, buttressed with likable characters with good performances. I have a rule when I watch horror films (really any film but especially horror films): if any character within the first fifteen minutes of the film annoys the shit out of me, I cut it off and go do something else. I didn't even think of my rule while watching Mulberry St. The atmosphere of the film was adeptly-drawn, and the visuals were extremely creative. So with a creative team of filmmakers and a very intriguing premise, I gave Stake Land a spin.
At the beginning of Stake Land, the vampires have taken over the world, and survivors are few. Most humans have banded together in makeshift towns, scattered throughout the country side, away from the big cities. One evening, a young man, Martin (Connor Paolo), and his parents and infant sibling, are taking shelter in a farmhouse. The family is attacked by vampires, but Martin is saved by an older man whom he calls "Mister" (Nick Damici). Now alone, Martin accompanies Mister on a trek to a place called "New Eden," a community in Canada where vampires have not been seen. During their journey, Mister teaches Martin how to take care of himself in this new world. The two also make new friends along the way who become traveling companions: a nun (Kelly McGillis), a pregnant young woman (Danielle Harris), and a young marine (Sean Nelson). In addition to the vampires, who are feral and animalistic, there is a violent cult called the Brotherhood who are kidnapping and murdering their fellow survivors. Stake Land is going to be an adventure.There are grander philosophical ideas within Stake Land about humanity, but they reside in the background and really only take focus in reflection. The human drama is focal in Stake Land, and Mickle and Damici are able to recreate that strong kinship from its characters, so evident in Mulberry St. Dialogue is sparse, and the character motivations are surprisingly simple. Mister and Martin help people without asking for anything in return. It is so refreshing, because the modern character is drawn as if he/she has to earn the audience's trust. It lacks the post-modern irony that every relationship is built around power: you must want something, don't you? Mister and Martin do not. Likewise, the Brotherhood characters appear as despicable characters, especially a leader named Jebediah Loven (Michael Cerveris). Their single motivation is that they are the few to be saved while the other survivors are food for the vamps. With the simplicity of the focus of Stake Land, human drama, and the simplicity of each character motivation, Mickle and Damici can add depth to details. For example, when Danielle Harris's character is introduced (named Belle), she is singing in a bar in one of the makeshift communities. It's a sweet performance and quite endearing. With the subsequent images, not with some trite dialogue, the viewer realizes that her performance bought her a meal that night. There is not a lot that a pregnant young woman can do in this new society to earn her keep. She is going to have to depend on others' kindness, at least a little. Stake Land is full of these enriching yet subtle scenes. Visually, the duo of Mickle and Damici top their work from Mulberry St. Ryan Samul, who also lensed Mulberry St., captures some arresting compositions. Post-apocalyptic imagery and images of destruction are often affecting, and Samul makes many of these images beautiful. None are overt and none are designed to be shocking. Later, Martin in voice-over, after a vampire attack, relates his feelings about the carnage. The victims are piled together in the center and covered with blankets. A child victim is amongst their number. Her small feet protrude out from the blanket. It is this image that affects Martin, and he comments upon it. Likewise, there are many such images within Stake Land which have a similar effect upon the viewer. In addition to the visuals Graham Reznick did the sound design. He is responsible for work on Ti West's The House of the Devil and Trigger Man, for example. With his body of work as it stands now, Reznick is one of cinema's finest technicians. The sound design of Stake Land is wonderfully layered from echoing screams to the effective use of music throughout the film. The vampire sequences are particularly intense with a standout sequence occurring at the beginning of the third act. It's survival horror. Period. Veteran actress Kelly McGillis gives an outstanding performance. She has such an inherent beauty and vulnerability that is as evident in Stake Land as in say, Witness. Danielle Harris has blossomed into a fine young actress, and it is very easy to fall in love with Belle. Cerveris as Loven almost steals every scene that he is in, and Damici plays Mister as a kind-hearted and wounded warrior. He brings a tragic quality to his role. Connor Paolo has to carry the film as the proverbial heart of Stake Land: wide-eyed and innocent, it is though his eyes that the viewer takes this journey. After Mulberry St. and Stake Land, I'll see anything that the duo of Jim Mickle and Nick Damici make. Like Ti West, the two are clearly superior to their contemporaries in the genre. So, Stake Land gets a hearty recommendation, cool cats. See it.