Stake Land (US - BD RA)
Gabe was expecting a documentary on the Ruth's Chris Apocalypse of 1999...
The nation has fallen into disarray following the outbreak of vampirism. Most of the survivors avoid confrontation, and even rebuild small vestiges of society, but others roam the wasteland, stealing, raping and murdering the other survivors they cross. The most frightening of these villains are a group called The Brotherhood, a fundamentalist militia that interprets the plague as the Lord's work. One survivor, a gruff hunter known only as ‘Mister’ (Nick Damici), saves a young man named Martin (Connor Paolo) when Martin’s family is attacked and killed by vampires. Mister decides to take the kid under his wing as a vampire slaying ‘helper’, and together, Martin and Mister move north, where the promise of a vampire and Brotherhood-free life beckons them.
Most post-apocalyptic vampire movies utilize Richard Matheson's ‘I Am Legend’ as a basis (which, not so ironically, was the inspiration for the proto-post-apocalyptic zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead), creating an agglomeration of retellings that slowly become less and less interesting ( Last Man on Earth > Omega Man > I Am Legend). Besides the directly Matheson inspired flicks, this relatively rare field is pretty much empty, excepting a few partial entries like Leif Jonker's mega-low budget Darkness, Kurt Wimmer’s terrible Ultraviolet, and Peter and Michael Spierig’s Daybreakers, all of which are more post-epidemic/sci-fi infused, rather than strictly post- apocalyptic (I hear Scott Stewart’s badly received Priest might count). Literature, especially comic books and anime, tend to take advantage of the possibilities, but in my experience these revolve around warring factions of humanity and vampires, rather than the vampires plague-like effect on society (the original vampire movie, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu counts as a sort of proto-post-apocalyptic vampire story). Keeping all of this in mind Stake Land isn’t exactly the first of its kind, and it’s vampires are just barely removed from George Romero’s flesh eaters, and Danny Boyle’s ‘infected’, but it might be the purest post-apocalyptic take on the vampire myth.
Stake Land is admirable for its attempt at a unique method, which doesn’t allow for more than an iota of amusement in the material. However, unlike so many of the films I just mentioned, it runs headfirst into the unfortunatefailing of taking itself way too seriously. Writer/director Jim Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici (who plays one of the two leads) have immediate and obvious intentions on us drawing comparisons between their film and The Road or Book of Eli, rather than Day of the Dead or Last Man on Earth (there are also a strangely high quantity of Into the Wild references), and for better or worse they have created the closest thing to a Cormac McCarthyistic vampire movie. I’d even take this comparison even further, and consider accusing Stake Land’s writers of blatantly ripping off McCarthy’s approach to the death of human society. I’m sure plenty of others will see traces of The Road Warrior, but the Mad Max series is generally action-based, not exceedingly melodramatic, and invites the audience to laugh. I found Mickle’s tone exhausting about ten minutes into the film, and think it’s probably the major element that kept me from fully embracing his film, but I also reluctantly respect him for sticking with this intended feel, and refusing to skimp on the darkest elements of a society driven by the prevailing law of the survival of the fittest (though he also has the good taste to look away from the worst of it). If I hadn’t recently seen, and previously been exhausted by The Road, Book of Eli and The Walking Dead I would probably be more apt to accept Stake Land for what it is.
The Spierig Brothers ultimately (admirably) failed with Daybreakers because they ultimately failed to deliver on their impressive high concept (a world run by vampires running out of human food). Stake Land has an entirely different problem – it tells a coherent story, with logical plot developments (minus a bit on the end), but it has no original concept to fully justify its existence (that sounds meaner than I mean it too). The storyline is built around the obvious episodic, road movie structures. Though a given sequence may run on familiar themes and arcs, the journey itself is effective, and relatively engaging. There is a strong sense of déjà vu (I kept recalling plot elements from the Walking Dead and Y: The Last Man comic series), and the ‘world-building’ elements, along with the not so subtle political bits are generally too obvious (one character appears to exist only to spout expositional facts about the government), but the narrative mostly works as it pushes towards the climax. The problem is that, in keeping with the The Road comparisons, the climax never really comes, and we’re left with a series of haphazardly connected events. Worse yet, the logical climax (if we can call it that) is followed by almost ten minutes of good news, good news that works in favour of the main character’s arc, but threatens to betray the prevalent tone of the rest of the film (yes, the prevalent tone I was just complaining about). The dubious choice of telling parts of the story through Martin’s narration is the most erroneous decision on the part of the writers. The practice cheapens almost everything the filmmakers set out to achieve with their earnestness by goofily stating the obvious, and stating it through the mouth of an agnsty teenager who fancies himself deep (another unfortunate comparison to Darkness, by the way).
I enjoyed the manner in which Mickle and Damici continue to add characters to their group of misfits, and found the major performances adequate to very good, especially considering the constraints the actors were given to work with. The momentum of the plot is such that most characters aren’t given any time to develop, so the writers are forced to work with archetypes. This, in and of itself, is fine. It would’ve been better had the audience been allowed to discover the personalities as they unfolded, but given the time constraints this time saving obviousness works well enough. Problems arise when we’re expected to really care about these characters when the vampires start unceremoniously killing them off. Perhaps if Mickle and Damici had enough original ideas to sustain a larger canvas, like a TV series or comic book, they would’ve had the time to craft people we’d be willing to take the time to care about. What’s disappointing is that the team’s previous film, Mulberry Street (also an outbreak flick, only instead of vampirism or zombism, the victims turned into rat-monsters), was even shorter, and had even more major speaking parts, yet managed to impress with its well-rounded, realistic, and amiable characters. I was rooting for their follow-up to continue the trend (I didn’t realize Stake Land was that follow-up until I started actually writing this review), but I’m afraid I consider this a slight step back.
Mickle has a good eye, and utilizes his scope frame to solid effect. The on-screen image is never boring, and the compositions are attractive without developing into overly arty monstrosities that don’t gel with the rest of the film. The action scenes aren’t particularly stylish, but make dynamic sense, and usually capture the appropriate sense of urgency. That said, I actually found Mulberry Street, which was made for an estimated $5.94 million dollars less than Stake Land, more inventive, exciting, and graceful filmed, and kind of expected a little more from the fledgling filmmaker. There’s also a lack of chills in Stake Land. This isn’t to say Mickle tries and fails to scare his audience over and over, but that there are only a handful of outwardly suspenseful or shocking bits. The emphasis here is on the dreadful atmosphere, over a spooky one. The gore and vampire related violence pushes the R-rating pretty far, but I’ve certainly seen worse, and would like to emphasize that there aren’t a lot of violent moments played simply for the sake of filling the gore quota. This also dips the fun quotient, but keeps that whole ‘respectful production’ thing going.
Dark Sky continues to do right by Blu-ray. They don’t put out a whole lot, but when they do, they take the job seriously. Stake Land, which was filmed utilizing those fantastic Red One digital HD cameras, is presented in 1080p, and in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Colour quality is as vibrant as can be expected given the film’s desaturated, mixed sun-baked/overcast look. The daylight scenes are mostly yellowed, and occasionally cooled with lush greens. Dusk (overcast?) scenes are cool with sharp white highlights, and occasionally blue-dulled black levels. Night sequences feature dueling rich blackness and amber glow, though occasionally these are also slightly perverted by what I’m guessing is unintentional green tinting (according to the behind the scenes footage there was an excess of digital grading, so perhaps it was not intended?). Details are striking and life-like throughout the film, while still maintaining the production’s sense of style. Mickle splits the film between deep set wide shots, and shallow focus medium shots and close-ups, and both look close to perfect, or at least as perfect as lighting and contrast levels allow. In my brief, anecdotal experience, the Red One cameras seem to do soft gradation changes quite well ( Insidious), so the lack of super sharp contrast isn’t a problem for details overall, and helps the transfer to avoid common issues like blown out highlights and edge haloes.
I’ve got no complaints about this particular DTS-HD Master Audio (ignore the box art’s claim of the audio being Dolby Digital 5.1 based), but am also not overly impressed with the overall effect. There are a handful of impressive surround effects that are effectively utilized to create scope, and though directional effects are at a minimum, there is one big action set-piece at the top of the third act that is mostly told aurally, including a helicopter effect that wraps around every channel. The monster’s vocal effects are a bit on the loud side, but generally sound pretty cool, and the narration is subtle in its warmth and volume increase over the other dialogue. Much of the film’s dead serious tone is attributed to Jeff Grace’s consistently melancholy score. There aren’t many fright-stings (minus one super stereotypical one when Martin discovers a little girl vampire in an attic), and there isn’t a whole lot of urgency in the pace of the music. Occasionally big, heavy percussion comes into play, which dances across the stereo channels, and gives the LFE something important to do.
Special features begin with two audio commentary tracks. The first track features writer/director Jim Mickle, and co-writer/actor Nick Damici, actor Connor Paolo, producer/actor Larry Fessender, and producer Brent Kunkle. This track never particularly takes off into ‘must listen’ territory, but is largely a nice mix of technical information, anecdotes, and genuinely funny back and forth. It’s good to know the dire feel of the film does not extend to the filmmakers, or the filmmaking experience. Interestingly enough, the film started life as a web series, which would actually make more sense, and negate several of my personal bugaboos with the film. Early in the commentary this is discussed in some detail, and everything about it sounds fabulous. The second track features Mickle with producers Peter Phak and Adam Folk, director of photography Ryan Samui, sound designer Grahm Reznick and composer Jeff Grace. This track is largely more of the same in terms of tone, but doesn’t overlap excessively with the other track. This track allows Mickle a little more room to take over, and talk about the actors he was speaking with before. There are a couple of good bits of knowledge dropped by the other participants pertaining to their more specified jobs. I was most intrigued by tales of an earlier, more western infused musical score. These tracks both make me wish I liked the film a little more than I did.
‘Going For the Throat: The making of Stake Land’ (1:01:50, HD) is a mix of raw behind the scenes footage, highlighted with text explaining who we’re watching, and some vague musical cues, but the lack of interview or voice-over kind of makes for a dry, fly-on-the-wall experience. About half-way through this hour long trudge the behind the scenes crew does start asking some questions, but the answers are mostly along the lines of the usual EPK stuff – informative, but bland. So, mix dry, contextless footage with bland interviews, and what do you get? An extra only the film’s biggest fans will really enjoy. This is followed by five production diaries – pre-production, storyboards, VFX, post-production and Toronto International Film Festival premiere (49:00, HD). These featurettes create a much more interesting behind the scenes story, and include the back-story of the film, footage from the early teaser campaign, effects tests, location scouting, crew meetings, ‘vamp camp’, prop construction, storyboard comparisons, effects comparisons, music, ADR, sound effects, and footage from the premiere red carpet and first screening introductions/Q&A. This is followed by seven ‘Character Prequel’ shorts (34:50, HD), including ‘Origins’ (a child’s home video project that goes horribly awry), Sister, Jebediah, Willie, Belle, Martin, and Mister. These stand as further proof that a web series would be a better idea for the material. Everything comes to an end with a trailer.
Stake Land is worthy of praise, and unmistakably better than most big studio horror releases in recent memory, but never quite rises to levels beyond ‘good’. Writer Nick Damici, and writer/director Jim Mickle’s show a whole lot of promise between this, and their lower budget feature length debut, Mulberry Street, they just haven’t reached beyond clichés and tropes to create a genuinely original and exciting work yet. This Dark Sky Blu-ray release looks great in 1080p, and the DTS-HD soundtrack (not Dolby Digital as stated on the box art) occasionally rises above expectations. The excessive extras are a more hit than miss (the behind the scenes featurette really drags), leaving almost no stone is left unturned, and covering several hours of fan time. I’m very happy with the attention Dark Sky has put in to this release.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray's image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 2nd August 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, PCM 2.0 English
Subtitles: English SDH
Extras: Director, Writer and Cast Commentary, Director and Crew Commentary, Going for the Throat: The Making of Stake Land, Character Prequels, Video Diaries, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jim Mickle
Cast: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis
Genre: Drama and Horror
Length: 98 minutes
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