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1 review, 4 user ratings

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Stake Land
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by Jay Seaver

"Coming of age after the end of the world, with a few new wrinkles."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2011: Jim Mickle's first feature (also with co-writer/star Nick Damici), "Mulberry Street", was as low-budget and do-it-yourself as you're going to see, and pretty impressive even when not grading on that sort of curve. "Stake Land" doesn't quite represent a move up to the big leagues for Mickle, but offers a pretty strong case that he deserves to be there sooner rather than later.

There's a zombie/vampire virus going around, spreading fast and far enough that American society has more or less collapsed. On a micro level, that means Martin (Connor Paolo) watching his family get wiped out, surviving mainly because of the timely appearance of "Mister" (Nick Damici), who is just a vampire-slaying machine. He takes Martin along with him, training him to fight the infected. They're on the road to New Eden, up in Canada, but vampires aren't the only monsters they'll have to face along the way: Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris) is a doomsday preacher reveling in doomsday actually coming. Mister's and Martin's path will take them through Loven's territory, picking up new companions along the way - a pregnant girl (Danielle Harris), a good-hearted nun (Kelly McGillis), and a disgruntled veteran (Sean Nelson).

Just as Mulberry Street was basically a zombie siege movie with some interesting details, Stake Land is a post-apocalyptic road movie that's a little bit more clever than the vast majority with the same template. At some points, a lot more clever - like an actual virus, the vampire plague mutates and has different symptoms, and rest assured, when the narration mentions people loading vampires onto helicopters and then dropping them on enemies like bombs, you will get to see it and it is pretty darn cool. Mickle and Damici have a nice handle on using the structure of the road and horror movies to switch between focusing on Martin and Mister alone as well as add other perspectives on the world they now live in; they also do an unusually good job of working characters back in when they might usually be left behind.

As post-apocalyptic worlds go, Stake Land is a good one. Damici and company have found a lot of good locations to use for their fallen world, and that run-down aesthetic extends to the whole picture: Very few scenes look pristine, and the make-up jobs for the infected, while seldom elaborate, are suitably grubby and feral-looking. As much as there are signs of thrift, it seldom shows up in quality. There are big, impressive scenes, like one that involves a real train, and the action scenes are executed very well indeed. It's not necessarily flashy, but you can tell what's going on and that Mister and company have a fight on their hands.

And Damici's Mister just looks like a guy who has been through the wars; he tears through vampires not so much by being preternaturally gifted as much as by being to stubborn to lose. Mister is a gruff, working-class guy, and Damici does a good enough job of letting us get a sense of who he is now that we don't need any background information to understand him. Paolo's Martin, meanwhile, is not that sort of guy. That's not to say he ever appears weak or helpless; he becomes more capable and realistic but still retains a certain amount of optimism. The dynamic of Mister trying to safeguard that part of Martin is there, of course, but not pushed. Mickle also gets strong performances from his supporting cast - McGillis's nun and Nelson's vet are memorable characters. Danielle Harris and Bonnie Dennison both play well off Paolo, and Cerveris makes for a charismatic but thoroughly monstrous villain.

It's good that the cast is so good, because this is the sort of horror movie that's not really that scary. It's frequently tense, and dramatic, which is certainly a more than acceptable substitute. "Stake Land" is good at pumping some life into potentially played-out territory, and I'm very curious to see what Mickle tackles next.

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originally posted: 05/24/11 13:54:46
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2010 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2010 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

User Comments

10/21/11 Flipsider Pretentious, cliche, and not at all scary. 1 stars
6/18/11 othree The Road with zompires! 4 stars
10/02/10 Paula shock & awe horror with beautiful acting 5 stars
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  22-Apr-2011 (R)
  DVD: 02-Aug-2011

  17-Jun-2011 (15)

  DVD: 02-Aug-2011

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