The world has been torn apart and over-run by vampires, leaving the survivors inert, dead-eyed refuges in a burned-out America. No, I’m not talking about the aftermath of the Twilight phenomenon, but rather Jim Mickle and Nick Damici’s new horror drama, Stakeland. As hard as it may be to believe, the duo finally bring a refreshing and robust verve to the overexposed vampire genre. Produced by indie horror godfather Larry Fessenden, who did similar duty on 2009’s stellar House of the Devil, Stakeland is the best horror film I’ve seen this year.
What works is a no nonsense approach to a rather absurd premise; an unexplained vampire outbreak has occurred and swept across the United States, helped along by Aryan religious zealots who saw it as the purging they had been waiting for. Led by the loathsome Jebediah Loven, this Brotherhood treat the creatures like their own personal weapon from God; in one terrifying scene they fly over a city in their helicopters, dropping the beasties on the populace below. Once D.C. fell, so did the government.
Now the rest of country resembles something straight out of Mad Max or The Road, with small enclaves of people scraping to achieve normalcy amidst constant barbarism. There are rumors of a place called New Eden, somewhere north of Pennsylvania where it’s possible that humanity has managed to scrap together a reasonable existence. Others scoff at this, suggesting cannibalism and other human horrors, anything to minimize needless hope.
Striding across this despairing landscape is seventeen-year-old Martin (Connor Paolo) and the man who saved his life, a rugged vamp hunter and tracker known only as Mister (Nick Damici). Mister has taken Martin under his wing and shows him what little care and concern he knows; how to kill the monsters and survive. He sees this as both crucial and a kindness for the young boy. Violence and death are Mister’s particular gift, one he uses to save a harassed nun trying to outrun a pair of rapists. The waylaid woman is played by Kelly McGillis, the mileage picked up since Top Gun put to good use here. The sister has found a pragmatic struggle with her faith; in the face of this darkness where can God be found? She takes up with Mister and Martin, and along the road to New Eden they pick up two others, a pregnant singer named Belle and Willie (Sean Nelson), an ex-soldier who was tied up and left for the vamps by the Brotherhood because he is black. Ahead of them lie all the dangers that befall folks in horror films.
But, you see, Stakeland doesn’t play quite like your average horror movie. To be sure, it has a few good chills and a heaping amount of gore, nastiness and ferocious beasties. What sets it apart is that it focuses on its characters and navigates a bleak set-up with a surprising amount of hope. Fans of Cormac McCarthy might very well find more to savor in this straight-forward and terse vampire flick than in the soggy adaptation of McCarthy’s own The Road. The dialogue is written with economy and a certain gothic style. Martin’s narration is sometimes more broad than necessary, but when the characters speak, what they say sounds like the language used at the world’s unraveling. Sister questions why Martin should be along this quest, exclaiming ‘He’s a boy!’ to which Mister replies sardonically ‘Yea, he is. A live one.’
Mickle and Damici previously worked on Mulberry Street, the best entry in the After Dark Horror franchise. That movie was a seriously low budget fright fest about rat zombies taking over New York. Here, there’s much more to work with and the production values and the filmmaking are so good as to remind of early John Carpenter. Their movie alternates between slick scares and achingly lovely moments of human nature pushing through blackest night. The score has a classical bent that matches the beautiful, lonesome cinematography; the combined impact of both mark Stakeland as a kind of Southern-fried penny dreadful. The creature effects are gruesomely simplistic and efficient. The eerie image of a vamp nested in a barn loft, gnawing on what might be a human baby is the stuff of nightmares.
Damici cut a heroic swath through Mulberry Street as a retired boxer fighting to save his daughter, here he adds layers of grisly resolve to that performance and comes up with Mister, a man who is a loner at heart but will offer friendship in his own way. Mister is one of the few recent cinematic bad-asses who makes an impression without hip one liners or explicit weaponry. Everything is down to his character, and dark circumstances have caused him to evolve into an organism who is not to be screwed with. Connor Paolo as Martin does a good job of playing a kid in the midst of two different kinds of change—he’s growing into an adult physically at the same time he’s been defaulted into a man due to his circumstances. He has excellent camaraderie with Damici and the scenes of the two training against vamps at magic hour are some of my favorite ones in the film. McGillis is especially poignant in her role as a woman of faith looking for reasons to believe in the cess pool around her. Harris is no newcomer to horror films, having starred in Halloween’s 4 and 5 when she was just a child. Instead of gearing up for screams, she’s the sunny, sweet reminder of why the world deserves a second chance. When Mister relents and carries Belle because she’s too pregnant to walk, she teases his gruffness with a smile that forces his surrender.
There’s nothing wasted here, not the gore or the sets or the action scenes. Mickle wrings plenty of thrills out of his vampires, who aren’t the traditional fops with fangs or raging punkers with blood addiction. Instead they come off much like Romero’s zombies with fangs, ravenous critters that carry few traces of who they used to be. A late-in-the game twist moves the narrative closer to Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and in a certain way this is an adaptation of that book if the screenplay had been penned by Flannery O’Connor. It’s as elegant and merciless in its mission as Mister is, and it works because we care about every last one of the central characters . I can’t recall the last time I’ve been this tense watching one of these things. Oh wait, I do remember; it was Ti West’s House of the Devil. Here’s to Mickle and Damici who join West as part of the small stable of horror directors whose next film I’ll eagerly anticipate.