Eye For Film >> Movies >> Stake Land (2010) Film Review
Reviewed by: David Graham
Indie director Jim Mickle follows his breakout horror Zombie Virus On Mulberry Street with a new take on the apocalyptic vampire fable, starring co-writer Nick Damici. Stake Land hews close to the likes of I Am Legend with its marauding undead hordes that resemble gut-munching zombies more than traditional blood-suckers, but the film bravely opts for a tone closer to The Road in its emphasis on survival amidst desolation.
Connor Paolo plays Martin, a young drifter fighting for his life after America has succumbed to a bloody tide of vampirism. The film opens with his family being attacked by one of the savage neck-biters, his escape leading him into the path of a grizzled vamp-slayer known simply as Mister. The two plot a course for Canada, driving down abandoned highways and through debris-strewn ghost towns, always wary of the danger that night brings. Some of the other humans they encounter offer hope and respite from their solitude, but others prove to have a deadly religious agenda, seeing the devastation around them as God's doing.
Despite its undeniable ambition and good intentions, Stake Land is just too derivative to distinguish itself from its peers. The tone is unremittingly somber and earnest, but sadly fails to wash due to weak performances and the lack of an interesting story. Events unfurl at a snail's pace, without enough depth of characterization to make the audience care about the situations. Damici makes for a suitably flinty lead, even though his role is woefully one-note, but Paolo never seems to be particularly affected by the horror around him, and his third act romance with the wooden-as-ever Danielle Harris's pregnant country gal fails to convince. The script fearlessly throws some of its more interesting characters into peril, with the second half just about piquing interest through some sustained attacks where anyone seems to be fair game for the monsters. An unrecognizable Kelly McGillis brings some emotional investment through her role as a former nun stricken by doubt, but for all the lofty themes that Stake Land wrestles with, it's fundamentally as shallow as the omnipresent puddles of rain and blood.
The film's greatest strength is its visual elegance; the landscape and art direction juxtapose authentic degradation with effortless natural beauty, captured in bittersweet detail by the gorgeous cinematography. Unfortunately, the over-used device of Paolo's narration makes even these arresting moments somewhat cliched; we've heard it all before, and it robs the film of much of the atmosphere it could easily have had. Even at just 98 minutes, things feels stretched, and there's a distinct lack of a properly satisfying denouement, the climactic one-on-one battle being underwhelming due to an under-developed villain. The creature design is effective if uninspired, but they lack the frightening intensity of 30 Days Of Night's animalistic enemies, and the lack of visceral gore effects means they're nowhere near as menacing as they should be.
As a DVD this would just about be a mildly enjoyable diversion, but as a cinematic offering it suffers in comparison to the many recent hits it riffs on. The relatively low budget isn't an issue, Mickle impressively achieving a genuine sense of scale, but the clunkiness of the script and relative inexperience of the performers are impossible to ignore. Hopefully the young director and his cohorts can make a more rounded, involving effort that fully exploits their raw appeal in the future; for now Stake Land joins Mulberry Street as a deeply flawed genre piece that's too familiar for the mainstream viewers it desperately wants to win over, and not full-on enough for the horror crowd it could so easily have courted.Reviewed on: 14 Jun 2011
If you like this, try:I Am Legend