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Review: Stake Land, starring Danielle Harris and Nick Damici

Apr. 5, 2011by: Eric Walkuski

PLOT: After an unexplained plague turns most of the world's population into bloodthirsty vampires, a suddenly orphaned teenager by the name of Martin must team up with a mysterious man known only as "Mister", a savvy loner armed only with a stake.. and whatever else he can use to kill a vampire. Together, the two pick up stragglers like themselves as they search for any safe haven they can find... They soon learn, however, that it's not only vampires they must fear.

REVIEW: STAKE LAND is the sophomore effort by Jim Mickle, who in 2007 brought us the impressive low-budget feature MULBERRY STREET. In that film, he utilized a minuscule amount of money and a lot of ingenuity to relay the impression that the world was coming to an end thanks to a freakish virus that transformed the majority of New York's population into rat people. Yes, sounds ridiculous, but Mickle's admirable filmmaking skills and character-based screenplay (written by himself and actor Nick Damici) made you buy the crazy, epic scale of the idea for ninety minutes. Now, Mickle is once again laying waste to the world with a rancid pestilence, and while the budget has gotten a little bigger, he's still depending on creativity to sell the size of the apocalypse.

This time it's vampires scourging the country, although the cause is never explained - and wisely so, because what does it matter? If you're a young man like Martin (Connor Paulo, from TV's "Gossip Girl") and your family has just been ravaged by bloodsuckers, the why is low on your list of concerns. Nor does it matter to Mister (Damici), a take-no-shit hard-ass who has evidently been preparing for this very event, seeing how well he's adapted to the situation - not to mention his dexterity in bringing down the enemy. Mister and Martin form an immediate bond after the former saves the latter from being slaughtered, and a mentor-pupil relationship follows. As the two travel across the country looking for vamp-free areas, STAKE LAND reveals that it isn't exactly going to take place in real time, but over a series of weeks and months, after ad hoc communities have been set up and all semblance of normalcy and hope has been abandoned.

Though the two make friends with a pregnant woman (Danielle Harris), a traumatized nun (Kelly McGillis) and an ex-soldier (Sean Nelson) at various intervals, their most meaningful run-in occurs with The Brethren and their crazed leader Jebedia (Michael Cerveris). The Brethren is a group of religious zealots who have taken over a large portion of the countryside; the kind of wackos who believe the plague is God's way of wiping out the sinners and teaching us a lesson. They've even seemingly made some of the vampires their deadly pets, or at the very least, have found a way to contain them. Naturally, Mister don't truck with their way of thinking, and once the two groups have violently converged, our heroes find that the vampires are the least of their worries.

Even if the budget's limits are often evident, Mickle's film has heart and moxie on its side. As our leads roam the countryside, with just staying alive their daily goal, STAKE LAND is mostly a road movie, eschewing a standard horror-thriller format for something more... pastoral, for lack of a better word. The movie is at it's best when it's serene and contemplative. That doesn't mean Mickle won't ramp up the action with a fury; there's a very effective chase scene in a corn field, as well as a frankly bizarre sequence in a makeshift village that jumps off with the villainous Brethren dropping vampires out of a helicopter! You've got to hand it to Mickle, who frequently shows that he's not afraid to go for the WTF?! moments; trying out something that absurd deserves a bit of credit.

Like MULBERRY ST., however, STAKE LAND's focus is on the relationships forged between the characters. Both of Mickle's movies evoke early Romero, telling human dramas against a backdrop of fantastic, horrible events. As with Romero's classics, it's usually not one of the flesh-eating undead who proves to be the real monster, and STAKE LAND has itself an enjoyably detestable fire-and-brimstone fanatic with Jebedia, who's given a full, scenery-chewing performance from Cerveris. As far as our heroes go, both Paulo and Damici are appropriately somber; the weight of the world appears to be on their shoulders, and it shows. The rest of the cast is very likable, with the eternally sweet-faced Harris and McGillis - who is most certainly not hiding her age in the slightest - being stand-outs.

STAKE LAND is a very admirable example of making the most of what you have. It never fools you into thinking its budget was significant, but it wisely never attempts to overreach its grasp. It's an engaging experience filled with sympathetic, interesting people. Indie filmmakers take note: that's a damn good starting point.

Extra Tidbit: STAKE LAND opens on APRIL 22nd.

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