It's a gamble any time a film attempts to stretch outside its genre constraints. Successfully merge two or more ideas in a film and it can do wonders. All too often though, what you wind up with is a muddled film that can't decide what it wants to be.
Not so STAKE LAND, the 2010 vampire/post-apocalyptic/road movie/coming of age film that works on a variety of levels, being genuinely thrilling and action packed, disturbing and at times truly frightening, while also manaing to be a commentary on the perils of religion and the evil of man without condemning faith as a whole. Working on a small, independent budget (the film was produced by indie/horror auteur Larry Fessenden and distributed by his Glass Eye Pix), STAKE LAND is beautifully shot, well-acted, and juggles multiple conventions without slipping, an incredible feat from writer/director Jim Mickle in only his second feature film.
The film is loosely narrated by Martin (Connor Paolo), a teenager traveling North with the hardened, battle-scarred man known only as Mister (played by co-writer Nick Damici). Without relying on too much explanation, we learn that something happened in the South, releasing a plague that has turned much of the world into bloodthirsty vampires. The reality of the world is captured in an early scene where Martin simultaneously loses his family and meets Mister: in a few moments we get all the explaining we really need to understand the world Mickle and Damici have created , and it's wrapped up in a great fight scene to boot. After this meeting the film comes back to the present where Martin, now a few years older, is traveling with Mister North to Canada, dubbed "New Eden" because it is supposedly free of vampires. Mister and Martin train constantly to be proficient and efficient vampire killers, a jot hat carries weight in the various lockdown communities that dot the American landscape. Along the way they save a nun (Kelly McGillis) from being savagely raped by two men who belong to The Brotherhood, a religious cult that has sprang up under the leadership of Jebedia Loven, who has proclaimed that the vampires are a plague from God to assist with the purifying of the Earth. Indeed, Loven and his crew do seem to have some small influence with the beasts, and STAKE LAND continues to escalate the risks and scares as Martin, Mister, and their growing family contend with evils both human and supernatural as they continue to make their way North to a sanctuary that may or may not exist.
There is a keen sense of America in STAKE LAND. The landscape of Middle America is used to great effect, and for such a small movie, the scale of the apocalypse is remarkable, precisely because Mickle wisely remembers to have the world be something we can instantly recognize and be familiar with. As the. And gets further North and the landscape becomes colder, whiter, it actually begin to get more beautiful. It's a unique look for a film like this, and the big set pieces: a small town square, a corn field, a junkyard, all feel tangible and found, as opposed to specifically constructed for the purposes of a film. This may be one of the few vampire films where there's more day than night scenes.
The vampires of the film act as a force of nature in STAKE LAND. Mindless berserkers can only be killed by piercing the brain stem, while other, younger beasts can be stopped with a stake in the heart. All perish by the light of the sun, but we see this used more as a release for the survivors, as townspeople chain captured vampires to boards to watch them fry as the sun rises. What's interesting about the vampires is that the film doesn't see too concerned with stopping them: they're a part of the fabric now, an elemental force to contend with the same way you would a savage storm or pack of wild dogs. The pack imagery is used to great effect in a chilling chase sequence, perhaps the best sequence of the film, a small town party is interrupted by The Brotherhood in a way that you never see coming.
STAKE LAND is truly a wonderful surprise, not only as a horror film, but as a film. It's a great example of a lot of disparate ideas coming together in a singular vision that manages to stretch beyond its confinement as a "genre" film, and a testament that you don't need a lot of money to execute grandiose ideas. This film deserves to be widely seen, so check it out.