Sunday, 5 June 2011

Stake Land: Horror With Bite

Okay, so this was quite the surprise.

It's the near future and the world has been ravaged by feral vampires. In North America humanity is reduced to pockets of small isolated communities struggling to survive against the blood hungry night walkers as well as against bands of roving religious extremists – basically racists, rapists and other assorted sickos using their own twisted take on religion to justify what they do. Amongst it all, a lone man rescues a boy from a vampire attack that kills his parents, trains him to fight, and takes him on a journey up north, heading for the promised New Eden (i.e. Canada). Along the way, the pair hook up with (and lose) various people, clash with nutters and vamps, and generally try to survive long enough to reach the fabled place of peace.

Before I started watching it I didn’t know what to expect of Stake Land. I hadn't seen the trailer. I just thought it would be some kind of pulpy action/horror flick, like Underworld or John Carpenter’s Vampires.

Not at all.

It turns out that Stake Land has far more in common with the likes of Frank Darabont’s The Mist and The Walking Dead, classic Romero, The Road, Winter’s Bone and the recent Monsters.

Like the best horror or genre films, Stake Land is all about people. It's a slow burn tale whose primary themes are of family, parenting, and the dangers of religious extremism, but also of faith and sacrifice. Though critical of religion, faith is still very much at the heart of this story with the whole journey north being one baased on pure faith. After all, the destination is called New Eden. But this feels more like a faith in people and humanity than in any supernatural force.

The film's direction by Jim Mickle is gritty and naturalistic. Great use is made of the rugged, desolate and worn-down locations (very Winter’s Bone) with the photography equally effective being drained of almost all colour and warmth. The tone of the piece is deadly serious, unrelentingly grim and uncomfortably chilly. Dialogue is sparse with long stretches of silence. The emphasis here is on mood and on theme.

The cast, all very good, includes an almost unrecognisable Kelly McGillis as an ageing nun, and cute Danielle Harris from the Halloween remake as a pregnant girl the man and boy hook up with.

Though this is an arty, serious genre film, there is still some quality vamp slaying action to be had. Much of the action comes often in short, sharp, violent bursts with my personal fave being the religious nutters using helicopters to drop live vamps in to the midst of a small community’s night-time party, thus causing utter bloody mayhem.

In short, if you like your horror films to be smart and more than just monsters and mayhem, then give Stake Land a go. It's not perfect and may be too dour and fun-free for many, but I was completely hooked. 4 (out of 5)

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