"And it was over like that. All that goodness, shattered by some Christian crazies droppin' vamps from the sky."
Stake Land is a recent American post-apocalyptic horror film which arrives amidst a glut of such titles, from the I Am Legend remake and 28 Days Later, to The Road film and Justin Cronin's soon to be adapted novel The Passage, plus about a gajillion others that all owe more than a share of their existence and inspiration to Richard Matheson and George Romero. So immediately the movie is faced with an uphill struggle as it attempts to balance its memorable and 'touching' moments against the slogging derivation of its theme. At heart, though, this is a primarily a 'human' drama dressed in a bit of animated gore and fighting, quite a lot like the televised adaptation of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead comic only not nearly as good. In fact, I found that the human elements worked both for and against Stake Land, because they represented both its finest scenes and its perplexing inconsistencies, in addition to its absurd stance on the Christian right wing which almost seems as if it were born directly through the liberal propaganda of something like MSNBC.
Some unforeseen and unexplained 'plague' has swept across the world and turned a percentage of the population into zombies...or vampires...or whatever you want to call them. They have fangs, they eat people, they're occasionally stronger than the average human, and they have the minds of animals. We're not talking Bill Compton or L'estat here, but a pack of rancid savages whom often look like they just got drunk at an Insane Clown Posse gig. Through it all, we follow the travails of the stone cold vampire killer 'Mister' (performed by actor/writer Nick Damici) and his young sidekick as they journey through the treacherous South to arrive at the fabled New Eden, some Northern locale which is safest for human survivors. There are a number of punctual and violent scenes depicting the youth as Mister trains him to cut his teeth on the sawed off fangs of would be predators, and eventually they meet up with 'Sister' (Kelly McGillis) and a hot teen girl that's just about the right age to be a love interest for the lead...
Ready to gag yet? Well, it gets a bit worse when we realize that the vampires are not actually the antagonists here, but the crazy Aryan-themed 'Brotherhood', a society of Christian loonies that have eschewed the Ten Commandments in favor of using feral vamps to assimilate all of the remaining survivors and start their New World Order. Of course these guys wear hoods like the KKK, are probably racists (they dump one black guy at an outhouse and leave him for the vamps until our heroes come along to save him), rape women (even the Holy ones) and are basically a political metaphor for Americans' morbid fascination with the right wingers, Jesus Camp or Bible belters. The director and writer don't come out and say this, of course, and it's perhaps the case that they meant no such harm, but it's almost impossible to watch Stake Land and not come away with bile rising in my throat.
Now, I'm no Christian and no Fundamentalist, nor even am I particularly conservative or the member of any right wing, red flag militia, but I cannot stand when a horror film, which makes money off gore and thrills, is preaching to me about the dark divide of humanity. I also find it incredibly inconsistent in the world of this film. These vampires are not quite so tough...a pair of wanderers kill a great deal of them, and they are known to have weak spots. So what exactly was the problem here? How did they manage to destroy so much of our civilization when it's clear with advanced weaponry and organization we could have slaughtered them by the thousands? And how did this 'Brotherhood' manage to wreck Washington by dropping planes of vampires on it, or take over what amounts to much of the human-inhabited South, when just about EVERY scene we see of them depicts them as bumbling idiots who fall for the oldest tricks in the book!?
I also just don't buy the main character, since he seems entirely flat and devoid of personality despite his central role and overlying narrative. I figured since I saw the kid's family get diced by vamps in an early scene that I'd develop some sort of bond for him, but I felt nothing. Hell, I'd take Jesse Eisenberg's narrator/character in Zombieland any day of this guy, even if he was playing it for laughs. There's also a moment where Sister got on my nerves, as she begins to work her moral ramblings upon Mister, who promptly tells her she'll be deposited at the next stop so she can go save some souls. Really, Sister? These beats are killing Gods' creations indiscriminately, but I half feel like she'd rather feed us along to the afterlife with our collars unbuttoned.
All of this negativity aside, I must say that I cannot completely fault Stake Land, because there are a number of strong points that render it at the least watchable (once) if not entirely enjoyable. For one, I rather liked Nick Damici's take on the ruthless vampire killer. This guy takes no shit, and if something like this plague were to occur, I'd like to know that we can all become a 'Mister', and get each others' backs as we deal with the problem. He's also smart. He has a small tool to lift lips and check for fangs. He sets up traps that the stupid vamps cannot resist. He knows exactly how to disable any of the vamps, whether kids ('scamps'), newly turned, or powerful specimens (who are known as 'berserkers').
The location shots are great, and add to the realism of the film. The landscapes are not completely destroyed, but they're solemn and empty enough to allow for the ambiance of the pianos to pluck at our heartstrings. There's a similar atmosphere to The Road and The Walking Dead, only not as gray-toned as the former and not so wonderfully filmed as the latter, and the music seems to get better as it grows more intense. The scenes of drama and action are very carefully balanced, so it never grows dull in the near 100 minute running time, and even though part of its central journey feels hokey, it at least feels as if you've been traveling alongside these characters, which I suppose is necessary for such a plot.
Stake Land has problems, primarily in that the whole brother killing brother mentality which has always made little sense to me when there is a far greater threat at hand (to all of us). It's not the monsters that are the problems, guys, it's them darn humans! Always the humans you gotta look out for. We get it, now can we all hold hands? There's also the fact that this stretch of terrain has already been trampled to oblivion, and it's rapidly becoming a horse deader than the starved ghouls from which the protagonists are fleeing. But, worse than either of these flaws, the film is just never scary. Even the scenes that might feel 'startling' are obvious from a mile away. It's serious in tone, granted, but never all that uncomfortable, and the makeup and effects aren't all that interesting (The Walking Dead, or that French film Mutants I recently covered are both far better in this area). Obviously a large degree of effort was placed in its development, but I came out of this feeling pretty blasé.
Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]