I have to admit that when I first got wind of Stake Land, all I could think was that it was a low-budget vampire-centric riff on Zombieland. After seeing the first trailer, I was even more convinced. Here we had a vampire-killing lone wolf teamed up with a scrawny teen traveling companion making a cross country journey to a seemingly mythical place where they hope to find respite from the plague that’s destroyed everything they held near and dear. All that seemed to be missing were the zombies! Now that I’ve actually seen the film, I can say that, with the exception of the title, Stake Land is not only nothing like Zombieland; it’s a more violent, disturbing, and surprisingly heart-wrenching movie, and the better of the two films in nearly every way.
The film opens with a bit of whispery narration by the young orphan, Martin (Connor Paolo), as he and “Mister” (Nick Damici, who also co-wrote the screenplay) drive through the ruins of Middle America en route to Canada and “New Eden”. We get a quick flashback of the night Martin lost his family to a victim of the vampire plague that’s swept the world, and of how Mister saved him from a similar fate. Now, as something of a protégé, Martin assists Mister in taking out vampires on their push north, stopping in various locked-down towns along the way where they trade in vampire teeth and scrap, gathering supplies and homemade liquor for their journey.
In this post-apocalyptic world, vampires aren’t the only threat. Society has split into factions, each occupying different territories. From the trigger-happy militia to the overzealous Brotherhood – an Aryan offshoot that looks at vampires as God’s way of cleansing the human race of what they consider its less desirable elements – bloodsuckers are just one of myriad dangers awaiting Martin and Mister on the road. Mister runs afoul of one of the factions when they happen upon Sister (Kelly McGillis) fleeing a pair of Brotherhood rapists. Mister delivers his own brand of justice, killing one of the men and leaving the other to die in the road. Unfortunately, the latter turns out to be the son of Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris), the leader of the Brotherhood, who will now stop at nothing to avenge his child. Now Mister, Martin, Sister, and fellow travelers, Belle (Danielle Harris) and Willie (Sean Nelson) must fight by day and night, against both man and beast, on their pilgrimage New Eden.
Maybe it was due, in part, to my low expectations going in, but I was thoroughly blown away by Stake Land. Yeah, occasionally the budgetary restraints show, but so, too, does the pioneering indie spirit of Mickle and his crew, who manage to turn these limitations into strengths. One particular scene, involving an unseen helicopter dropping vampires behind the gates of a locked down town to feast on its inhabitants, is a prime example of said ingenuity. Instead of showing the chopper, we see its blinding lights; we hear the deafening sound of its spinning blades, and watch as terrified townsfolk scramble for safety as vampires drop into the scene. It’s a nifty money-saving technique that works better than the big-budget alternative because the confusion generated by the wind, lights, and noise actually makes us feel as though we’re in the middle of the scrum rather than mere spectators. Mickle employs such tactics and, as a result, his film feels more epic for it.
For a fraction of the budget of most movies, director, Jim Mickle, has miraculously created a universe so well-realized and immersive that, after viewing the film, it took me a long while to claw my way back out of it. Filmed under what seem like perpetually gray skies, against a backdrop of rural decay, Stake Land is a dark, oppressive place; one that feels like the bastard offspring of Cormac McCarthy and Richard Matheson. Unlike Zombieland (which, let’s face it, based on the title alone, this film will always be compared to), laughter is in short supply. There are a couple of chuckles here and there, but they’re more of the gallows’ humor variety, and as short-lived as one of Mister’s many “relationships” with the working women in the various towns they stop in along the way.
The Blu-ray from Dark Sky Films presents Stake Land in a sharp and clean 2.39:1 transfer. The film, shot on the RED system, has a gorgeous filmlike quality to it, with deep, rich blacks that are free of noise and grain. Colors have been intentionally desaturated to compliment the film’s dark tone, but there are occasions where things warm up a bit visually, especially during the night scenes set around campfires or the soft glow of lantern light. Detail is very strong, from Mister’s craggy features to the knit in Belle’s hat. The image is complimented by a robust 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track. The dialogue is mixed up front and center, perfectly balanced with the pulverizing bass and arsenal of nifty directional effects that work the surrounds. A second PCM 2.0 soundtrack is also available.
Extras feature a pair of cast and crew commentary tracks, the first featuring Mickle, Damici, Paolo, as well as producers Larry Fessenden and Brent Kunkle, while the second track features Mickle; composer, Jeff Grace; sound designer, Graham Reznick; cinematographer, Ryan Samul, and producers, Peter Phok and Adam Folk.
Going for the Throat: The Making of Stake Land (HD) is a comprehensive behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, helmed by director, Eric Stanze (who served as an assistant director on the film), that offers a sort of “fly on the wall” look at the process behind several of the film’s scenes as well as interviews. If you’re even remotely interested in moviemaking, consider this featurette a must-see, as Stanze has put together something that goes well beyond the typical talking heads supplement, delivering a very intimate look what goes into making a film.
Production Video Diaries (HD) offer even more peeks into the process, from location scouting and casting all the way through to the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, while Character Prequels (HD) offers a series of short films that showcase some of the film’s main characters lives before the events of the film.
Rounding out the extras are the film’s trailer, as well as trailers for other Dark Sky/MPI releases (presented in HD).