And now, Scary-Crayon reviews... Stake Land

If you saw Stake Land during its limited theatrical release, you already know whether the newly released DVD is something you want to add to your collection. (The picture and sound quality seem pretty good to me, but note I'm not particularly demanding with respect to those categories -- a more dedicated DVD review site can help you there.) But if you're not familiar with the film, you might be surprised at what you get.

Stake Land (This is the movie poster; on the DVD cover the positions of the tagline and title are reversed.)The DVD cover, admittedly, is less than inspiring, with the title in a really subdued sans-serif font (except for the 'D'; I wonder if there was some meaning behind that decision) and an image that places Mister (Nick Damaci) up front and center like the badass vampire hunters you find gracing the covers of many bargain bin vampire flicks. (Having seen the awful Reign in Darkness, I'm much more likely to turn and run from a movie with a cover that reminds me of it.) On the other hand, the title -- Stake Land -- brings to mind Zombieland, a pretty hilarious and clever zombie comedy. So with the cover, title, and familiar setup of Stake Land (perhaps also because of Larry Fessenden's involvement; his I Sell the Dead was pretty funny stuff), I was expecting a low-budget horror comedy in the vein of Zombieland... but with vampires instead of zombies.

What I got when I popped the review copy of Stake Land into my computer, however, was quite different. It's not a big budget film, but it still looks good (which is only surprising because the cover led me to expect much, much worse). There are a few cute moments here and there, but it's not funny. And while the monsters that have overrun the United States are referred to as "vampires," they're not even really that. With one exception, they're simply blood-drinking zombies. I like my vampires with personality, darnit.

This is one of my main problems with the film, and it really has more to do with the premise and backstory than the movie itself. The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting, supposedly because these vambie things have totally wrecked society. But really, for all of the ferocity that some of them exhibit -- others just kinda perch on crates and tables and look at humans like cats before slowly inching forward and attacking -- the vampires of Stake Land just don't seem all that formidable. Even zombie apocalypses are a tough sell given how slow moving and stupid the reanimated corpses typically are, but these vamps largely suffer from those weaknesses and can't be out and about during the day. It's hard to imagine them even successfully overrunning a small town, let alone tearing through the Secret Service and killing the President (a development referenced in an offhand comment). Heck, if given the choice between being locked in a room with one of these vamps or a bear, I'd take the vamp. If you stake a vamp, it dies. If you stake a bear (and good luck with that), you just get eaten by a pissed off and bleeding bear.

Vamps are from GOD!

That's not the only part of the Stake Land world that I find difficult to believe. Much of the territory is labeled "Brotherhood country" -- land that, following the collapse of society, has been claimed by a crazy Christian cult that believes vampires were sent by God to cleanse the world of unbelievers and whatnot. Typical backwoods cultist stuff -- and appropriately rife with hypocrisy, as our first introduction to the group sees a couple of them scrambling after an aging nun (Kelly McGillis) with rape on their minds -- and yet this group somehow has helicopters and other tech at its disposal. It's not necessarily unrealistic, but it is kinda hard to accept these guys as a conquering force when they're living in tents and raping old ladies and spewing insane religious drivel. Maybe I just have more faith in humanity, but I'd think people working together would be able to rout these nutjobs almost as easily as they'd be able to stamp out the vampires.

And then there's the seeming aimlessness of Mister and Martin's quest. They're supposed to be looking for New Eden -- your general promised land free from vampires/zombies/infection, where people live in peace and harmony even as the world burns -- but their journey takes them through several towns that seem pretty nice (they've obviously got plenty of liquor and pistachio nuts). Sure, they're not what Mister and Martin are looking for... but given that it's hard to imagine them finding better, one legitimately wonders why they don't just stay. (Of course, that would considerably diminish the film's running time, or at least make it more like a modern-day Western with vampires in place of outlaws.)

Martin (Connor Paolo) and Mister (Nick Damaci)

But these elements are really just a backdrop for Martin's coming of age story -- and for portraying the relationship between Mister and Martin (Connor Paolo) as they try to survive in a collapsed world. Despite the lack of dialogue between them, the film really does convey a sense of how they've become family throughout this ordeal. Just as members of a large family might handle dinnertime tasks or move to support their older members without being asked -- partly because of routine, but also because they anticipate needs and understand their place -- Mister and Martin move as one in training sessions and take up their duties with minimal words. When they feel sunset approaching, they know what to do. Along the way, Mister teaches Martin how to be a man.

The largely silent family dynamic expands when Mister and Martin add other members to their group -- the aforementioned nun, and later a pregnant singing barmaid (Danielle Harris) and a lone veteran (Sean Nelson) -- but here it's a bit less satisfying, particularly with respect to the latter two. We have the whole movie to become invested in Mister and Martin, so not knowing their background is less of a problem. Yet with the later additions to the group, while we get a sense of the relationship between the characters, we don't have time to form a connection with them ourselves. As such, when tragedy strikes, the impact isn't as strong as it might have been. We feel for Martin (Mister probably cares, but he's not one to show it), but we don't share his pain.

Seems like a nice place; I think I'd have stayed.

If it sounds like I'm down on the movie, it's because I find it easier to write (hopefully) thoughtful criticisms than praise -- it's definitely worth watching if you're a fan of horror media that isn't really about monsters ripping into people. Another point in favor of grabbing the DVD are the director commentaries, or at least the first one. Admittedly, I don't often find commentaries to be particularly entertaining. I don't generally idolize the performers and don't especially need to know how visual effects were achieved, so I don't really care about their behind the scenes anecdotes or the specific lenses used in a certain scene... and it's always annoying to hear the participants praise aspects of the film that I don't find to be all that impressive.

But I do care about the writing and adaptation process -- so the fact that Damaci and Jim Mickle (Mister and the director, respectively) wrote the film made their commentary particularly interesting. Among other things, they noted that the post-apocalyptic setting and the religious vampire cult were either completely absent from or less important parts of the original drafts, which sort of legitimized my problems with those elements and gave me more to think about with respect to those shortcomings. They talked a bit about ways of revealing information, like the way Harris's character rubs her belly to indicate that she's pregnant. Larry Fessenden was also on board, and it was very interesting to hear how his criticisms and suggestions for the project influenced its development. Sure, there was a lot of anecdotal commentary as well (though here it seemed less pointless because the writer and director often noted how they used some of these developments in the film), and there were mentions of red cameras (that stuff went right over my head) and praise for the music (which I didn't think was largely effective, though it wasn't horrible either) and other things that might appeal more to fans than interested but casual viewers. Even so, this was probably the most satisfying commentary track I've ever sat through.

Cool necklace -- too bad it's not actually available for purchase on the website!

So while I admittedly wouldn't have gone for Stake Land given the off-putting cover, I'm very glad the powers that be saw were willing to provide Scary-Crayon with a review copy. As said, it's not a perfect film -- or a vampire film, really -- but it is an enjoyable and thought-provoking one that aspires to rise above your typical horror fare, and the commentary featuring Damaci and Fessenden is easily among the more substantive and informative that I've heard. I encourage you to give it a look.

-- Wes --
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