Genre flick puts smarts before gore

By Drew Hunt

Finding its footing somewhere between Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and the 2009 film “Zombieland” is the vampire film “Stake Land,” an exceedingly entertaining thriller from writer/director Jim Mickle.

Borrowing from a number of cinematic genres, “Stake Land” is a beautifully composed piece of work, which is equally as successful as pure horror escapism. Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici—who also stars in the film—excel in fleshing out fully realized characters with minimal dialogue and virtually no exposition.

“Stake Land” often works on the same level as the best films of the silent era, with gestures and entendre taking the place of the kind of obtuse screenplay gimmickry that plagues genre films.

The film centers on Martin, played by Connor Paolo, a teenage boy whose family is killed during an epidemic of vampirism that has beset the country and thrust society into apocalyptic chaos. He is soon taken under the wing of a man known as Mister, played by Damici, who teaches Martin to defend himself against the horde of vampires. Together, they travel north in search of safer ground.

As they barrel down the desolate highway in a vintage convertible, “Stake Land” becomes an ultra-cool ode to the films that inspired it. Taking cues from films as varied as “The Road Warrior” and “Night of the Living Dead,” Mickle is the type of movie buff-turned-director who clearly demarcates between fandom and artistry. He refuses to revel in geeky genre tropes, making for a surprisingly intellectual exercise.

Photographed eloquently on the increasingly popular Red One Camera, Mickle and cinematographer Ryan Samul achieve a highly textured visual palette. The battered and broken highways seen in this post-apocalyptic land are shot with a kind of forlorn admiration, like monuments for a mythical Americana that has eroded throughout time. The film’s greatest strengths lie in this kind of subtlety, not in the typical horror trappings that lesser filmmakers fail to stray from.

In avoiding excessive gore and gross-out humor, Mickle creates something far more visceral. The monstrous foes who hunt our heroes are given surprisingly little screen time. The main villains of the film are The Brethren, a malicious and cannibalistic Christian militia.

By relegating the force of the vampires to the background, Mickle turns his lens toward society and allows for tastefully unaggressive social commentary to weave its way through the narrative. It’s impossible not to analogize the nefarious Brethren of the movie’s world with extremist groups in our world.

As a result, the undead creatures who haunt “Stake Land” seem more aligned with the mass of brainless movie zombies of yesteryear—yet another allusion to “Night of the Living Dead” and the likes of George Romero—than the illogically constructed vamps of today’s fashions. This subversive approach complements the film’s minimalist aesthetic.

With such sparse dialogue, Mickle relies heavily on the performances of his actors. Thankfully, there isn’t a slouchy effort to be found in the bunch. Damici is a grizzled, Charles Bronson-channeling tough guy, radiating cool and pathos in equal dosage and anchoring the largely character-driven film.

Those seeking clear-cut explanations for the narrative will likely find little to enjoy in “Stake Land.” It’s never explained what causes all this trouble to begin with, but the film is pure brains-before-blood. Its austere tone marks it as decidedly unique from any other horror film released this year.