Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2011

'Land' of the dead

Jim Mickle's surprisingly effective 'Stake Land' is a strong entry in an otherwise played-out genre

Stake Land
IFC Films
Director: Jim Mickle
Screenplay: Nick Damici and Jim Mickel
Starring: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Danielle Harris, Michael Cerveris, Kelly McGillis, Sean Nelson and Bonnie Dennison
Rated R / 1 hour, 38 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

Physically restraining a zombie/vampire and driving a stake through its heart seems like an awful lot of work, doesn't it? Cutting its head off is the way to do it. It's quicker, cleaner, safer and just about foolproof. Everyone knows that.

I know, I know, technically the creatures in Stake Land aren't zombies - they're vampires, though I have no idea why. They behave like zombies, attack like zombies, growl like zombies, look like zombies. They just happen to have fangs and an aversion to light, too. But let me put it this way: crucifixes and garlic ain't killing these things. I promise, folks: Chopping off their heads is going to do the trick. It's worked on zombies for decades. Let's not complicate things.

In fact, I think that rule applies to just about everything you might want to kill. Just sayin'. Anyway, the film is called Stake Land, after all, so a stake has to be involved somehow; Decapitating Sword Land wouldn't be nearly as catchy.

All trivialities aside, Jim Mickle's Stake Land is a film that grew on me over the course of its 98 minutes. I wasn't sure how well it was going to work, if at all. I mean, do we really need another postapocalyptic wasteland movie, of either the zombie or vampire variety? No, we do not. I think we could put a moratorium on apocalyptic movies right now and wouldn't miss much, am I right?

Anyway, point being: Stake Land was going to have to sell me. And sell me it did. For all it could have done better, this is a well-crafted film, made by a filmmaker who clearly knows what he wanted to accomplish. It looks and feels like a much bigger-budgeted picture than it actually is. I have no idea who Jim Mickle is, but I believe he has a future as a director.

He creates a rather startling sense of beauty and grace to contrast the film's inherently grimy setting, taking full advantage of the on-location shoot. (It looks like somewhere out east, probably Pennsylvania or somewhere in Appalachia.) And instead of hammering us with wall-to-wall violence and action - a common tendency of the genre - he allows an atmosphere to set in, and gives us a feel for the grueling nature of the characters' fight for survival. Instead of relying on the action as a crutch, Mickle uses it to punctuate the calm.

Stake Land's central character dynamic is the relationship between a notorious vamp hunter known only as Mister (Nick Damici) and his 16-year-old apprentice/sidekick, Martin (Connor Paolo). As the film moves forward, the group of two grows into a group of several.

What impressed me about Mickle's use of the characters is how he resists indulging too much in the cliches of the "group of survivors" archetype. While we certainly didn't need to have the obligatory pregnant woman along for the ride, for the most part the film manages to avoid the stereotypes that would typically dominate this scenario.

When was the last time you saw a movie like this in which the characters never sit around and talk about what their lives were like before everything went to hell? Can you recall a single one? Well, you can count Stake Land. I don't know how the filmmakers resisted it - I mean, it's such an easy, obvious go-to scene - but I was impressed.

The film subtly suggests details about certain characters, but lets those suggestions stand on their own; in other words, the characters are afforded their privacy. Consider the way, in one scene, Mister seems uncomfortable around a cop - even in a time when law and order has completely broken down. What does that suggest about his past? Was he criminal? A convict? An outlaw? Those were my guesses, but the movie doesn't tell us. Nor does it need to.

That being said, the screenplay is the film's weakest element, using Martin's narration too often and at times superfluously. Stake Land is doing well enough expressing its ideas without the voiceover, which often seems like an unnecessary intrusion. Especially when it's offering details we can infer on our own anyway.

I have other modest qualms here and there - for instance, how one segment of the otherwise nice musical score blatantly rips off Nick Cave's score from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - but I found myself more than a little impressed by the filmmaking here. It remains true that this is an over-saturated subgenre; we weren't asking for another movie like Stake Land. But when a movie is this well-crafted, its necessity doesn't really matter, does it?

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