We’ve all seen apocalypse movies, we’ve seen a lot of them. The tropes, from cannibals to zombies, are so well tread it’s questionable if anything new can really be brought to the genre. Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, the makers of Stake Land, have done their best to introduce a new wrinkle to the canon with the introduction of a new villain for their apocalypse movie, the vampire.
Stake Land takes place in the not too distant future when society has collapsed under a vampire induced apocalypse. Which, when you think about it, is a little fluffier than the traditional zombie apocalypse. I mean, at least you get the sunlight hours off with vampires.
Our main protagonists are “Mister”, an appropriately gruff vampire hunter, and a teenager named Martin, which seems to be a nice nod to Romero’s Martin and it’s title character. These two wander the vampire landscape on their way to Canada or “New Eden”, as they refer to it. On their journey they interact with several broken characters which range from emotionally damaged to maniacally evil. Most noticeable in their roles are Danielle Harris and Kelly McGillis, who both bring impressive performances and some much needed humanity to the film.
The most impressive thing, however, is how well crafted this movie is considering the budget. According to the all knowing Internet, Stake Land cost approximately $625,000 to make. For some perspective, that means you could make about four-hundred Stake Lands for the money it took to make one John Carter.
The director, Jim Mickle, creates so much effective atmosphere here it raises the story from a pure high concept vampire movie into something more tactile and relatable. We see real dilapidated locations, houses destroyed, towns in ruin, and colonies of tent villages. They manage to make all of this seem real which is a success that much larger movies often fail at, avoiding that feeling that everything is staged and someone is going to call cut at any minute.
Strangely all of his craft and skill is also a symptom of what is wrong with this movie. It seems like they spent so much time on atmosphere and realism they kind of forgot you’re supposed to have a story at the root of it all. Mister and Martin go from place to place, town to town with only the vaguest sense of purpose, which makes the movie feel more like a series of vignettes than one long narrative. Also, threats are mentioned, characters are alluded to, but many of them are never explored or even referred to again.
The only palpable drama and subsequent theme that rises from this rambling is a run in with an especially nasty religious group who clash with our hero’s world view. Even this doesn’t really follow through story wise, with the exception of an unneeded bookend.
I guess that’s really the problem with this movie, with so much skill and such a promising premise, the film seems content spending its time skimming over the surface of the magnificent atmosphere for most of the movie. The successful portrayal of a hopeless environment makes it difficult to have any motivations or even hope. Even the goal of New Eden seems superfluous. The place is never really described, it’s hope never explained. With all of that in mind, Stake Land successes are pretty amazing but in the end it will probably leave the audience feeling unsure what they were supposed to latch onto exactly.