Stake Land is a movie of few words, most of the dialogue driven through narration of Martin (Connor Paolo). He’s the only survivor in his family of a vampire, “totally not zombie” invasion that has swept the U.S. Picked up by a hero vamp hunter named only Mister (Nick Damici), they begin a cross-country trek to find the final remaining paradise.
The film is proud of its somber, moody tone, wallowing in disgust and filth. A crazed religious cult has taken over most of the States, raping, pillaging, or slaughtering all who pass on land they call their own. The secondary threat saves money on impressive make-up while adding a human element to expand on the lost civilization ideals.
Stake Land likes to drag its feet, falling into repetition before it has a chance to ever recover. It’s slow because it wants to feel sparse, ditching traditional structure for something a little more free flowing. It’s biggest sin is not taking advantage of that, Martin and Mister running across survivors, picking them up, losing them, and moving on. They find two different camps that conform to same structure, either of them interchangeable. Action has a way of creeping up too, nighttime vampire raids becoming instantly predictable and the fights pointless.
There’s still enough to benefit from, as wallowing in its own sense of self-pity does create a meek, desperate quality. Given the dearth of zombie… err, vampire comedies capitalizing on a trend, Stake Land tosses all of that out. It has little energy, spreading itself thin to spend more time showing a downfall and how different sections of the US have dealt with the disaster. Empty houses, barren grasslands, and abandoned cars are more common than the living, and no effort is wasted in presenting these visuals.
Violence is certainly glorified. Whether that is meant to showcase a will to survive or simply sell a product because watching stuff get stabbed sells is still out for discussion. There’s no shortage of blood, and our leads come well equipped to dispatch a horde if that’s what it comes to. Of course, it does more than once, and even on familiar terms, the battles wring out their own share of emotion and tension. One involves the slaughter of a young girl, recently turned, still containing a brief glimpse of her humanity. It’s terrifying for all of the right reasons, something Stake Land needed more of. It would have broken the monotony of day-to-day apocalyptic life.
Tight on budget, Stake Land dives into digital, the results rather forgettable if a cut above a typical outing from the Red One. Notably, despite some glaring inconsistencies, black levels hold up better than usual. When they lose out, boy do they ever lose out, but generally the movie takes on appreciable depth and intensity. That’s crucial since so much of it takes place in ever oppressive darkness.
Most of the time, Stake Land battles noise too, relegated to a slim number of backgrounds where it merely adds a bit of texture that is so badly needed. Once or twice the images totally succumb to the irritation, floundering at 34:51 when the screen becomes awash with artifacts. That’s not this AVC encode from MPI either; it’s purely the source material running amok.
Pale as it may be, the film sticks to its guns where palettes are concerned, bringing in nothing but earthy browns, grays, and oranges (where flames are concerned). Flesh tones would be imperceptible between human and zombi… damn it… vampires were it not the make-up. Open plains are slowly dying out, the grass beginning to lose its color and the trees always barren leaving behind nothing but dim bark.
Definition fluctuates, fine detail maintained best during those segments where the small team of remaining humans are driving past forests and such. The camera sits low to the ground, revealing sparkling road textures and the individualized blades of grass are no joke. Facial detail is typically meager, a profile or close-up here and there distinctive, the rest somewhat soft and even a little murky. They never have as much bite as the vampires, content with general mediocrity, although not enough to totally dilute a generally pleasing presentation.
A DTS-HD mix comes in and doesn’t pack much of anything, sort of expected when the world isn’t with us anymore. Middling ambiance inside of dueling bars is about it for surround use outside of the action scenes. The score will find its way behind the viewer too, just enough to be notable and a presence.
Stake Land has one scale action sequence, a zombie dropped into a camp from a helicopter, the vehicle then taking it all in from the air. It swirls around for the entire scene, the design equally matched in terms of gunfire that begins popping off as people struggle to survive. Panicked squatters begin screaming and running about, all nicely tracked as need be.
The stereos prove more useful, used to identify a car radio, indistinct chatter of a prisoner, or other little effects meant to spook the viewer. That’s all it really needs to do, keep someone on their toes in preparation for the next assault.
Two jam-packed commentaries feature writer/director Jim Mickle. In the first, he’s joined by actors Nick Damici & Connor Paolo, producer/actor Larry Fessenden, and producer Brent Kunkle. Track two brings in producers Peter Phok & Adam Folk, director of photography Ryan Samuel, sound designer Graham Reznick, and composer Jeff Grace.
That’s plenty to go on, but the Going for the Throat making of is even better. Comprised of all fly-on-the-wall footage, some might find this hour long affair dry, but it feels like being there. It delivers a better sense of how the movie came to be rather than strung together interviews. Five production diaries follow, these nearing the 50-minute mark, a nice replacement if the making of wasn’t your style. Seven character prequels turn into small films, detailing the events before they were discovered in the feature’s narrative. These run 34:25, and are followed by a trailer.