Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 16 May 2011
Source IFC Films 35mm print
Categories The 2011 Independent Film Festival Boston
At IFFB’s midnight screening of director Jim Mickle’s buzzed-about new vampire saga Stake Land, the director introduced his film by playfully asking if there were any Twilight fans in attendance before explaining that the aim of his film was “to make vampires scary again.” That aim is certainly evident up on screen in Stake Land, which is the sort of picture where gnarly, bestial vampires with discolored skin snatch up human infants to have as snacks. It’s unapologetically a horror film, one with admirable ambition and notable visual flair.
It’s unfortunate, then, that as a narrative, Stake Land disappoints to a degree. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of the United States, one that has drawn comparisons to the world of the similarly titled, but far less serious, survival flick Zombieland from 2009. After his entire family is slaughtered by bloodsucking monsters, our protagonist and narrator Martin (whose name is a confirmed homage to George Romero’s 1977 vampire flick) throws in his lot with a vampire hunter known only as Mister, and together they attempt to make their way to Canada (now dubbed “New Eden”), where things are said to be better. Along the way they amass a twisted little family of sorts, including Kelly McGillis as a displaced nun and horror icon Danielle Harris as a pregnant singer.
Yet while this set-up is potentially promising if not all together unfamiliar, Stake Land’s heavy reliance on voiceover narration becomes something of an Achilles heel. Too often we are told what we want to be shown—the character moments that would make this story meaningful for us are routinely glossed over, leaving us with the Cliff’s Notes version of the story’s key relationships. The storyline itself doesn’t quite pick up a full head of steam - shifting too-episodically between vampire encounters, showdowns with sick Southern cultists (and yes, sick Southern cultists are a bit of an easy trope to fall back on), and new character introductions - an issue that is perhaps rooted in the film’s origin as a potential Web series.
There are some truly nifty ideas here, including the concept of different strains of vampires that require different modes of attack, and the creatures themselves are impressive—grotesque beings that roar like lions and eagerly lap blood off any surface it happens to be splattered across. What’s more, Stake Land was shot for “well under a million dollars” according to Mickle, and the shooting location for his opening sequence was his father’s backyard. In many ways, Stake Land represents exactly the sort of picture that horror fans and supporters of independent film actively root for. But if I’m honest, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. I look forward to Mickle’s next effort - hopefully the Joe R. Lansdale adaptation that he hinted at during his Q&A - but Stake Land feels like a near miss.
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