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Non-Review Review: Stake Land

Stake Land is a B-movie. It’s pure schlock, with a hefty amount of cheese thrown in on top. That might sound like a criticism, but it’s more of a fact. The movie itself is well-made, a little bit sharp, not so insecure as to take itself overly seriously, and delivers something akin to an old-school creature feature with a hint of the social conscience one expects from horror. It’s not amazing, but it’s a solid addition to the slew of post-apocalyptic movies we’ve seen of late, with a refreshing awareness of its pulp roots.

He knows what's at stake...

In watching the film, it seems quite clear that the writers and director know that “vampire apocalypse in the USA” isn’t the stuff that mainstream success is made of. It would be tempting for the film to offer us a po-faced self-important and serious tale of mankind living through the end of days, akin to The Road – but with vampires thrown in. Such an idea is a silly one, and it’s hard not to picture the cast and crew laughing at the idea with a welcome humour. There are, undoubtedly, serious moments handled remarkably well, but the film never forgets it’s a movie about vampire-hunters at the end of the world. It is, quite frankly, ridiculous.

So we get moments like the arrival of a dim-witted vampire in a Santa outfit, or training montages where our leads handle their stakes in a stylish slow-motion manner like something out of a kung-fu movie. There’s no attempt to rationalise what the vampires are, no attempt to masquerade as science or reason. There’s no sense of shame in using the word “vampire”, and the word “vamp”appears in newspaper headlines documenting the fall of civilisation – this isn’t a movie so serious it’s afraid to call a monster by its given name. And I like that, even if it does make the movie’s tone a bit uncertain from time to time.

Societal breakdown...

However, the movie does well to emulate the sort of metaphors one expects from a classic monster movie. Night of the Living Dead explored racism, and Dawn of the Dead picked apart unchecked consumerism. The movie takes the classic monster movie advice that the creatures aren’t the real monsters – they’re just mindless catalysts that expose something terrifying that was already there. In particular, the movie looks at religious fundamentalism in the United States, festering in a cauldron of racism and rhetoric, with orators organising militias. It’s frightening to think of what might emerge from the rubble of society, and these sorts of organisations are actually perfect candidates, with their existing mistrust of authority and long-term planning. Some of it packs a powerful punch.

On the other hand, the movie does seem just a little bit too clinical and smart for its own good. It’s a classic horror trope, for example, to use the death of children to garner audience sympathy and create uncertainty, to provoke an audience reaction. However, the impact of such a device is diminished if the film falls back on it too often, as this one does. The death of a child is a horrible thing, but it’s so terrifying in horror movies because children seem especially innocent (and thus more likely to survive). Killing a child subverts that, and knocks the audience off balance. However, the movie seems to exploit that far too often – to the point where we’d be surprised to see any child survive the film. It suffers from diminishing returns.

I salute this indie horror...

Another weakness of the film, and one that’s initially quite frustrating, but eventually seems to balance out, is the pacing. At the start of the film, we’re thrown into the deep end really quickly, and given the details of the plague in one quick personal flashback and some exposition. We spend about five minutes witnessing the routine of our survivors, then we stumble across a religious group, which eats up about forty-five minutes, before we trek into the wilderness, before a big confrontation, before a nice little meeting, before the end. The community of survivors we follow balloons and contracts, repeatedly and frequently, over the course of the movie – and there’s a sense that the film’s scope is huge.

That’s certainly not a bad thing. I admire ambition, and – as I said – this gives the movie a sense of energy when you get used to it. However, it also means the film has to rely on narration from its lead to fill us in on little exposition. The movie makes the most of it, and none of it is badly written, but it feels like we’re being told instead of shown. Most of our knowledge of these characters comes from this voice-over rather than their own actions. Indeed, the only character who develops his own personality is the “gruff but loveable” anonymous “Mister.”Again, it’s a trade-off. The film wouldn’t be able to draw in the same scope if it didn’t use such narrative devices.

Talk about a pain in the neck...

And the ideas are good, clearly the work of somebody who loves their classic horror and isn’t afraid to play with some unusual concepts. In particular, I adore the idea of vampires as a form of biological weapon. Or the small details, like how vampire teeth are traded as currency in this story at the end of the world. There’s a sense of warmth and humour in the way the story’s told, but without ever becoming light and campy. The movie is able to convey a sense of dread and horror with great skill, perhaps stronger for being contrasted with the levity.

I’m fond of Stake Land, if only because it feels like a classic old-school B-movie horror film. It’s nasty, but never takes itself too seriously. Any film that allows its lead to kill his new friend’s vampire ex-boyfriend while still making me feel distinctly uncomfortable has to be doing something right. There are problems with the film, mostly in terms of pacing and the occasional manipulative feel, but it is a decent monster movie in the finest B-movie tradition.

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