The zombie apocalypse vein of horror stories has become well-worn in recent years. Thanks to the popularity of Left 4 Dead, 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead, just about everyone knows what a zombie outbreak would look like. As much as I love the genre, it's been done to death. It's in television, movies, books, video games, and even on t-shirts. This poses the problem for writers and filmmakers. How do we have a zombie apocalypse without being a zombie apocalypse? Take out the zombies and put in vampires! Problem solved!
Stake Land is a 2010 vampire movie starring Nick Damici (Mulberry St, World Trade Center) as the enigmatic Mister and Connor Paolo (Gossip Girl, Revenge) as Martin. A wave of vampires has spread across the world as humans try to save themselves. The government has fallen and only small towns remain. A young man named Martin is saved by the vampire hunter Mister after a vampire kills his family. Mister trains Martin to kill vampires, explaining that guns hurt them, but stakes to the heart kill them. They travel through America's heartland on the way to the supposed safe-haven of New Eden in Canada. The visit small towns where people are still trying to live their lives amidst the carnage. One day, a nun runs in front of their car, pursued by two men in robes. Mister kills the two men and the nun, only known as Sister (Kelly McGillis, Top Gun, The Innkeepers), joins Mister and Martin on their journey. They stop in one seemingly-abandoned town only to be captured by members of The Brotherhood, a Christian cult, that has been taking over the country through violence. Their leader, Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris, The Vampire's Assistant, Fringe), reveals that one of the men that Mister had killed was his son. Mister is left in front of vampires in the woods while Martin and Sister are taken back to camp. Loven allows Martin to leave, who manages to find Mister still alive. They continue to make their way when they pick up another traveler, a pregnant girl named Belle (Danielle Harris, Halloween II, Left For Dead) and a marine named Willie (Sean Nelson, The Freebie, The Wood). They return to where The Brotherhood was camped and Mister leaves Loven to be eaten by vampires. The group manages to find Sister in a small town, but the Brotherhood drops vampires into the town via helicopter. How will Mister and Martin survive and will they ever reach New Eden?
I prefer my steak medium well, not stuffed into a vampire's mouth
Before I get into things like the acting and violence in the movie, I have to address two very big plot devices: Politics and Religion. The movie has a huge Libertarian bent to it, to the point where they might as well be smacking the audience in the face with a copy of Atlas Shrugged. I don't buy into the cult of Ayn Rand and Ron Paul, so having to sit through a movie where a) the government folds faster than Superman on laundry day, b) towns and villagers still exist through self-regulation and C) everyone is thrilled that the government is gone is downright silly. The world may be coming to an end, but everyone is thrilled to have their guns, liquor, and drugs. If the movie had been subtle about this, it wouldn't have been such a big sticking point, but there's nothing subtle about Stake Land. That brings me to my second point on religion. Just like with libertarians, I am no fan of the fanatical Christian Right. Making the villains (besides the vampires) into religious zealots is fine, but making them specifically evil Christians came off as a bit vindictive. Combine that with the character of Sister giving her cross to Martin, carrying around a mini figure of Mary, and then pairing it with a mini Jesus and I've had my fill. The least subtle moment of the movie comes when Sister runs into a skeleton literally crucified in a corn field. Subtley is a virtue and Stake Land takes that virtue out back and clubs it in the head with a shovel. There is even a scene where a bartender tells Mister that they don't talk about politics or religion inside the bar. Oh that's good because you're so busy doing that for the other 96 minutes of the movie. Look, I appreciate social commentary in horror movies, but there is a certain way to get your points across without coming off the like a propaganda film.
The story, written by Nick Damici and director Jim Mickle, plays out like every other zombie apocalypse film and just replaces the zombies with vampires. It's never explained why the vampire plague started or where they came from, which I found annoying. At least give me some hints. Characters just kind of drop in and drop out with very little in the way of development. A new character is introduced as Martin's love interest literally 7 minutes before the film ends. What the hell? And really, did you have to name the one African American character “Willie”? The final battle scene, which you'd expect to be long and drawn out, takes about 4 minutes to finish. I will say that the movie did have a lot of good action with plenty of bloody violence. The acting is good and the Jim Mickle crafts a good-looking and atmospheric movie. The location scout deserves credit as many of the scenes look straight out of an apocalypse. There are lots of abandoned buildings and worn-out backgrounds which are fun to see.
The action and violence in Stake Land is perfectly fine. It's entertaining and thrilling to watch and would make horror fans squeal with bloody glee. The acting and direction isn't the problem either. It's the slanted writing with an obvious agenda that really gets to me. I hate the politics and don't enjoy having it slap me in the face. There are no anti-Christian overtones, just anti-Christian tones. If these two themes had been subtle and cleverly written, it wouldn't be such a big deal. There is nothing subtle about this movie though and it makes everything that much worse. There plenty of holes in the story, and issues throughout, like “if Martin is being trained, why can he never kill a vampire?” If you're able to ignore things things like this, you'll really enjoy Stake Land. If you're like me, you'll be annoyed and frustrated at a movie that couldn't just leave well enough alone and be a horror movie.