“And God smote the world asunder”
While Hollywood continues to give us vampire flicks that are wrapped up tidily by their conclusion, independent cinema still lives to save us from contrivance and idyllic happy ends. Jim Mickle’s Stake Land is one such venture, combining the styles of 28 Days Later with The Road, his post-apocalyptic world populated by creatures of the night looking for blood. They can’t talk, think, or work together, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous. Whereas most entries to the genre let a simple prick by a wooden stake to the heart evaporate the beasts for eternity, a little biology is used here. With breastplate strength making a clean hit difficult, kills need to be made in close. It takes a special kind of person to willingly risk their life as a hunter and as far as the survivors scattered around the world are concerned, there are none left.
Luckily for rural teen named Martin (Connor Paolo), the lost breed of hunters has one more card-carrying member. Answering to Mister (Nick Damici, who also co-wrote the film with its director), this badass knows the tricks and has relinquished all emotion in order to remain vigilant, collecting fangs and saving stranded souls. Miraculously tracking the monster that roamed into Martin’s garage, massacring his parents and baby sibling, Mister takes the boy under his wing, avenges the fallen family, and tutors him in the ways of effective offense against humanity’s new nemesis. With America ravaged, the government gone in a massive exodus of fear, and the vampires spreading like a plague, these two head north, weaving east to west on the way to the rumored New Eden. Some talk about cannibalism and false promises is heard, but any chance for safety is worth the trek since standing still isn’t going to do the trick.
Along the way they acquire some friends: a raped nun going by Sister (Kelly McGillis), her faith in the lord shattered as the boys who took her in as Christians prove malicious and sinful; a young pregnant girl named Belle (Danielle Harris) trying to get away from the place her family was killed; and Willie (Sean Nelson), a former soldier who was recalled to help with the security on the mainland at the outbreak. They cultivate a pack mentality, each serving a specific purpose in their group. By forgetting the past, they are able to welcome each other in with open arms, becoming hardened by the actions they’ll need to willingly undertake. A life of peace and harmony isn’t a possibility, all must be ready to shoot, stab, and trap the vamps without pause. It’s no life for a kid, but Martin and Belle look at the faces surrounding them and quickly learn what it means to survive. They receive reprieves, sporadically stopping in dream-like utopias appearing to be fortified and safe, but not all survivors have joined their side.
For everyone they meet grateful to see the collection of fangs at their side, Mister’s pack also come by a religious cult called The Brotherhood. Zealots rallied around a deluded leader named Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris in a great villainous role), these tattooed, murderous monks in burlap have concocted a grand plan in the name of God. The vampires were his doing, sent to cleanse our world and leave the righteous to turn, feed on, and ‘save’ their fellow man. Once complete, the savior will transform them back into humans to continue living in a new world. While waiting they sabotage the resistance, help the vampires find victims even if it means flying them into sanctuaries and dropping them from the sky. And since it’s God’s work, they can also glean from the land what they will. Nothing else appears sacred anymore as women are raped, men are murdered, and The Brotherhood roams free to partake in the fun.
A slow burn from start to finish, Stake Land is not for the MTV generation looking for action and brutality at every turn. Don’t get me wrong, the violence is extreme and gory, these shrieking creatures disgusting and scary. But it isn’t just about hunting monsters 24/7; no, it’s also about finding salvation. Mister does what he can to survive and keep those in his care safe, setting nightly traps and constantly watching until dawn. He trains Martin and pushes them to move during the day, putting as much distance between them and where they came from, forever closer to an assumed oasis. Damici is a cross between Mickey Rourke and John Corbett, the tenaciousness of a pit bull mixed with the compassion of a man without a family. We never learn about his past but we have to believe he lost all those he held dear. And no matter how much he tries to keep emotional distance from Martin, you know he lives for the opportunity to model him in his likeness.
The plot progresses towards an end worthy of the genre, one that doesn’t give you all the answers, doesn’t finish with the characters you’ve been following from the start, and only leaves you with one thing—hope. Because hope is all anyone in a world run over by vampires can find to get him through. Hope and human connect, knowing you’re not alone. No matter the ‘beserkers’ and ‘scamps’ running amok in the wild, picking off friends left and right, the goal is to keep moving and find others in their mold, bred for staying alive. No matter how many days pass, people like Peggy (Bonnie Dennison), proficient in the crossbow and unafraid to fight the good fight, will be found. And thankfully Stake Land gives us the chance to find them, lets us watch a film that progresses naturally and realistically despite its supernatural subject. We see the evolution of Paolo’s Martin growing into a man and the true motivations behind Damici’s Mister. Hope is what drives them and no matter how bleak is the thing that can never be left behind.