It’s not often that a genre film doesn’t realize that it’s a genre film. A comedy plays within the conventions of its niche and most horror films do the same. Daybreakers is one of the best vampire films since the 1980’s unleashed Fright Night and The Lost Boys because, like its forerunners, it knows how to play to the genre trappings as intelligent entertainment. That’s usually the best horror fans can expect from the genre. But films like The Blair Witch Project, Let the Right One In or Stake Land treat a horror tale like a drama and not a creature feature – which makes it all the more frightening.
Equal parts road movie and coming-of-age tale, Stake Land follows vampire killing badass Mister and his newly acquired protégée Martin as they proceed through the unforgiving landscape of the rural northeast, trying to reach the fabled New Eden. Vampires are an ever-present threat, victims of a plague that has put civilization asunder. In the wake of tragedy follows The Brotherhood, a gang of Christian fundamentalists who are more of a threat than the vamps as they rape nuns, steal supplies and plug travelers in the back of their skulls.
It’s an understatement to call the world of Stake Land unforgiving; the atmosphere of lurking menace is due in part to actor and co-writer Nick Damici’s uncompromising script. The film’s opening scene pipe-bombs any notions of safety, letting you know that this film is willing to get uncomfortably real. Dying humans and vampires alike refuse to go quietly, adding an extra degree of disquiet as men scream and crawl away with a stake in their back, or a vamp requires both a stake and a serious hammer to put it at peace. In many films deaths will motivate a character to action or the death of a baddie will provide catharsis–but a thirst for gore theatrics isn’t quenched here.
Director and co-writer Jim Mickle is in full control, capturing the haunting decay of Americana in a way that equally reflects the current financial insecurity as this vampire armageddon. Coupled with the lyrical pathos of Jeff Grace’s score (clearly drawing inspiration from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and Ryan Samul’s bleak cinematography, it’s a swan song for what once was and what might never be again.
Films like Night of the Living Dead and The Thing used the monster to say something about the humans they were terrorizing, but I can’t recall another tale that uses the vampire in the same manner (possibly Let the Right One In). The vampires of Stake Land command a surprising degree of sympathy, particularly in contrast to The Brotherhood. In a mature nod to the real world, showcasing The Brotherhood’s encouragement of the vampire plague doesn’t leave the vampires holding the bag for man’s plight. More dishearteningly, the monsters are another means to an end for greedy men with delusions of grandeur and God’s divine will. Yet the film avoids diving headlong into religion bashing by including a nun, merely known as Sister. Kelly McGillis’ portrayal of the woman has no right to be as good as it is considering what little screen time and dialogue she’s allotted, but she exemplifies the type of love and compassion Christians are expected to live by.
All of this content within a film with production values hiding it’s indie budget. Massive abandoned buildings, freight train blockades, and a remarkable special effects/makeup team breathe life into the undead feature. The variations in the vampire makeup and the regular sightings of crispified skeletons of vamps that caught too much sun are as unnerving as they are a reminder of what’s lurking in the shadows.
Though the film struggles with its themes (Does it want to have compassion for the vampires or not? Is God on the side of The Brotherhood in the final battle?) and there are a few scenes that don’t belong in a film taking itself this seriously (training montages and a terrible cut to the film’s opening title), it still stands as a stunning work of art. Equal parts The Road meets The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford , and with a touch of the vampiric, it’s a refreshing mix of the familiar spun into the new, completely transcending its genre trappings.
*Stake Land is currently available on DVD.