Vampires That Look Like Zombies, and an End Times America That Looks Like Sundance

04/20/2011 4:00 AM |

Stake Land
Directed by Jim Mickle

Strangely libertarian and pro-Canada, horror-road movie Stake Land boasts the stock archetypes and mythic aspirations common to comic books, but filtered through the unsmiling misery of realism—a glaring tonal disconnect that makes the movie silly, but witless. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic America overrun with vampires, except the bloodsuckers are feral and monster-faced, more like zombies than the debonair living dead to which storytellers from Anne Rice through Stephanie Meyer have accustomed us. It may be a vampire movie, but Stake Land comes via George Romero; unfortunately, in its lameness, it has more in common with Survival of the Dead than Dawn.

Gossip Girl‘s Connor Paolo stars as Martin (a Romero nod?), our hero and narrator, who begins his tale with a classic origin story: his parents are killed one stormy night by a vamp, but his life is saved by the mysterious Mister (co-writer Nick Damici), who remains throughout as ill-defined as his generic name. He kills vamps, and teaches the boy how to do the same as they travel north, through America toward Canada, now known as “New Eden.” Director Jim Mickle makes excellent use of extant Southern settings to create his washed-out doomsday scenery, forming a textured portrait of depressed towns and deserted landscapes that speaks to American desperation, both contemporary and future-imagined. But Stake Land is filled with Sundance cliches for characters, and thus joins a recent spate of indie genre movies, like Monsters and We Are What We Are, that set its dime-a-dozen dramatis personae against unique, fascinating backdrops, more deeply realized than any of the human (or inhuman) roles. You wish the actors would just get out of the way.

Instead, we follow Martin and Mister as they assemble a makeshift family of fellow survivors and fight off members of a pro-vampire cult—like a Little Miss Sunshine coterie moving through Book of Eli times—because what kind of End Times road movie (as in, The Road) would this be without some shallow religious pretensions? Those are embodied by the ultra-religious “Brotherhood,” who look like Daniel Myrick’s Believers and commit atrocities like rape and murder in His name, as in the film’s best scene: a long, unbroken tracking shot of a Refugee City’s outdoor hootenanny, broken up by vampires dropped from a helicopter like bombs. The filmmakers evince exasperation with the religious right, but they’re no “liberals,” casting their heroic band of irregulars as real frontier patriots in a Tea Party wet dream: abandoned by Washington, fending for themselves with nothing but their weapons and homegrown gumption, living by a New Hampshirean motto revamped for vampire times: “Live free or die trying. Fuck the cannibals.”

Opens April 22