Directed by Jim Mickle.
2010. Rated R, 98 minutes.
The world is in the throes of an apocalypse thanks to it being overrun with vampires. Humans have been relegated to huddling together in various factions. A few stragglers are trying to make it to a place called New Eden, said to be a safe harbor for humans. That's not an easy task because these are a pretty nasty band of vampire. Then there's the issue of whether or not New Eden even exists. One of the people trying to get there is Martin (Paolo), a teenager who has lost his family. He's taken up with Mister (Damici), himself a pretty gnarly dude who clearly derives some sort of pleasure froom killing "vamps" as he calls them. The two trying to make it to New Eden ensues.
Based on my plot summary you might have guessed this movie shares a number of similarities with 2009's Zombieland, title included. In fact, the first half of Stake Land plays like a darker, grittier remake bereft of its predecessor's sense of humor. Helping to bolster the notion, the vampires in this movie come off more like zombies than the traditional vamps we're used to in both appearance and action. The only real difference being we never see these guys during the day. They're pretty nasty bunch, too. To paraphrase the slogan of a certain hamburger chain, they eat like they mean it. We know they mean business right away because the first one we see nonchalantly drops the baby he just finished feeding on. Aside from the sunlight thing, information about them is spotty. We know they can be killed by wooden stakes (or arrows) through the heart or by decapitation. However, what they do to kill some people while others are turned into vampires is unclear. This detracts from the overall experience because it becomes a nagging question that goes unanswered, but clearly comes into play.
This portion of Stake Land is fun to watch, even without the barrel of laughs found within Zombieland. However, it feels rather empty. Thankfully, for us, but unfortunately for them, our heroes run into The Brotherhood and things begin to crystallize. These guys rule their territory with an iron and religious thumb. Mister is not the religious type, setting up a clash between him and The Brotherhood. Ensuring that this is a life or death proposition, it so happens that of the many vamps Mister has killed, a few of them were former relatives of Jebedia (Cerveris), the leader of the holy rollin' bunch. This gives the film shape and purpose. It becomes a scathing diatribe against religion and the ways it is misused in the name of God. Stake Land is then elevated from simple fright flick to thoughtful commentary.
Our cast turns in solid, if unspectacular work, as a whole. The standout here is clearly Nick Damici as Mister. He manages to be engaging as the strong, quiet type. His feelings are ably conveyed without a ton of exposition. His performance is the reason we have more sympathy for Mister than we do Martin despite having a negligible back-story and the script's numerous efforts to make us feel for the youngsters. Marin gets a mother figure, a love interest, a second potential love interest, and of course, a father figure. Nice gestures all, but all done rather blandly except for the first love interest, a pregnant girl named Belle (Harris). It doesn't help that Connor Paolo is merely adequate in his role. Nothing he does turns us off, but nothing turns us on, either.
Regardless of the missteps outlined above, the story of Stake Land works pretty well, particularly once The Brotherhood shows up. It works well enough that we're almost willing to forget some lazy writing when it comes to a couple of characters actually being alive. The fact they survive seemingly insurmountable odds is not necessarily the problem by itself. Movie characters do this all the time. The issue is we're not clued in on how. Episodes of the 1960s TV series Batman used to end with our heroes in tremendous peril. When we come back for the next episode, at the same bat-time on the same bat-channel, it started by showing Batman and Robin making their daring escape. Imagine if that were skipped. Imagine if we never saw what item The Caped Crusader was barely able to reach on his utility belt that got him out of the sticky situation. We'd just see Batman and Robin catch the bad guys with now clue how they got out of a potentially fatal situation. That happens in Stake Land. Twice. It's bothersome and detracts from everything else going on in the film.
"Everything else" is actually a really good vampire flick. Its got lots of fun and gory action. Our vampires are vicious beasts not sparkling emos. When they're on the screen there is a real and palpable danger. And they are not the only threat. This makes the story work pretty well, but the commentary works even better. It gives the film multiple effective layers. This means it functions whether you just want to see a grimy The Walking Dead style chase-and-hack-fest or a vampire film with a little more on its mind than that.