If you like your vampire films rare and bloody, then Stake Land is for you. Rare in that there isn’t a conventional fanged fiend in sight. And bloody because, well it’s simply awash in the stuff!
After his family have been wiped out by a particularly virulent strain of vampirism which is sweeping across America, turning the population into a horde of life draining, flesh tearing, animalistic fiends, Martin (Connor Paolo) is befriended (though perhaps that’s the wrong word as he hasn’t much choice considering the circumstances) by Mister (Nick Damici). This stranger, a ruthless and brutal hunter, appears to provide Martin’s only hope for survival, and the two wary compatriots set off through the backwoods and urban outskirts of America’s east coast, heading for the rumoured safety of the north.
There was something about old vampire films (and by old I mean pre-1980’s, with it’s glut of Fright Night (1985) prepubescent teenagers, old dark houses and abandoned Vamp (1986) inner-city alleyways, which quite frankly you deserved what you got if you entered), that was beautiful, poetic and almost pastoral. Forget the creatures themselves and the, let’s face it, basically inhuman and in some cases downright disgusting things they did to their victims (all be it in a sanitised, censored way). The settings and environments in which the story lines unfolded, were almost characters in themselves. Somehow open fields, deserted country lanes and remote woodlands or forested hills, were much more chilling than modern housing estates and the sprawls of urban America.
And this is what Stake Land goes back to, using the deserted byways and abandoned roads of backwoods America, to create the depressing, almost despairing gloom, which hovers over the main protagonists and film as a whole (this is definitely not the film to go and see if you want your spirits lifted). When the narrative does require the characters to enter towns (or what’s left of them), things aren’t much better. These areas, like so many in modern movies which try to imagine what the world would look like post apocalypse, are reminiscent of a bomb site, where anarchy has set in, and those that have survived live in communes, cut off from the outside, suspicious and hostile towards anyone who stumbles across their path.
But what of the other main characters in the film, the humans themselves? The central story revolves round Martin and Mister, and their journey to a supposedly safe area up north, which has managed to keep the vampire plague at bay. It is this theme which reminded me of that other blood sucking epic, Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot‘, one of the few King tomes I have managed to read to the end. It’s depiction of two people brought together by a kindred hatred of the evil which they see as slowly taking over their world, is eerily similar to that of Stake Land, the main difference being that in ‘Salem’s Lot’ they are chasing the vampires, instead of running away from them. There are other similarities too, not least that both are set along America’s east coast and inland environs. In a similar way to King’s duo, you also find it hard to feel for Martin or Mister. By the very nature of their fight for survival they have become introverted loners, wary of everyone and everything, particularly in the case of Mister. You never really get beneath their skin, which makes it hard to have empathy with them on anything more than a superficial level.
Any colour that there is in their grey struggle for survival, is added by various unfortunates whom they happen across, both human and vampire, brief lovers, religious fanatics and cult following zealots. However these (on the whole) secondary characters, are there mainly to provide fodder for the increasingly gruesome ways of despatching them, and an excuse to let the blood flow. And boy does it flow!
Those of you who have read my writing before, will know that subtlety and atmosphere usually wins over in your face splatter. However even I enjoy slam, bam stomach churning, visuals now and again. Though Stake Land, uses suggestiveness and atmosphere to build the tension effectively, when it lays on the gore it does so in a no-holds-barred fashion seldom seen in today’s politically correct cinema. The film’s wonderfully tortured death scenes are so grimy and penetrating, that it’s hard to differentiate between the dirt and mud in which the poor victims of the vampiric pestilence wallow, and the blood which pumps from their wounds in visceral fountains. I don’t want to spoil one of the most original elements of the film, but suffice to say the remaining humans have discovered a new way to rid themselves of the undead. Forget stakes in the heart, decapitation and dousing with holy water, the only way to despatch the latest embodiment of haemoglobin sucking freaks is to literally sever the chord which connects them to humanity. As a result they’d be well advised not to turn their backs on any human hunter.
I mentioned earlier that this was not the film to go and see if you wanted your spirits lifted. Perhaps I was a little hasty in that prognosis. For Stake Land leaves the viewer with hope. Hope that there is still life in the old vampire movie corpse, and with teams like those behind this film, we might just be seeing its resurrection.