A vampire film with smarts: There’s beauty in the bleakness of ‘Stake Land’
Post-apocalyptic scenarios never used to be inundated with the undead. Take the classics: “Soylent Green,’’ “Planet of the Apes,’’ “The Terminator.’’ Plenty of unsavory characters who’ve fashioned impressive wardrobes out of leather, your pick of unspeakable acts. But no zombies.
Of late, our dystopian worlds tend to be overrun with the plague-ridden. Whatever killed off the humans and caused the US government to collapse was not nuclear, not alien, but viral, spread one sweet bite at a time.
In the case of “Stake Land,’’ blame a vampire epidemic. Unlike standard animated corpses, who stumble about while comically shedding limbs, these “vamps’’ are more orc-like: buff, agile, growling, with a bad case of ’roid rage.
Still, the standard wooden stake to the heart does the trick.
When “Stake Land’’ begins, a vampire hunter known only as “Mister’’ (Nick Damici, of “World Trade Center’’) saves young Martin (Connor Paolo) and takes him under his wing, training the boy in anti-vamp hand-to-hand combat. Together, they cruise northward in a clunky gas guzzler, hoping to reach Canada, a.k.a. “New Eden,’’ a promised land where life is supposedly better. They pick up a nun, played by a haggard-looking Kelly McGillis (a long way from her “Witness’’ and “Top Gun’’ days), a pregnant girl (Danielle Harris), and an Army deserter (Sean Nelson). In the weakest plotline, they must fight off a creepy cult leader (Michael Cerveris) and his burlap-wearing minions.
As in “The Road Warrior,’’ a young narrator’s experience is the prism through which we see rape, death, devastation. We watch Martin morph from wide-eyed boy to jaded man. Damici plays Mister as all brood and no bluster. He keeps watch while the others sleep, and utters advice like “One day you’ll learn not to dream at all.’’
Other undead movies needlessly foreground the action. “Stake Land’’ has its fight scenes, but here they’re secondary. While paying debts to John Carpenter and Sam Raimi, director Jim Mickle (“Mulberry Street’’), who wrote the script with Damici, has his own aesthetic, which smartly lingers on poignant details — a ruined factory, an abandoned home the travelers scavenge, a Virgin Mary figurine left on a makeshift grave. The beautifully bleak vision is enhanced by Ryan Samul’s exquisite cinematography and composer Jeff Grace’s plaintive piano and violin arrangements.
This doomed world may feel familiar, but “Stake Land’’ remains one of the genre’s smartest entries in years. As in “The Road,’’ our hope hinges on the survival of this makeshift family. Which suggests the hidden purpose of zombie movies: Given these folks’ post-apocalyptic woes, can the recession be all that bad?
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com.