WEBTAKES: Stake Land
Reviewed by Robert Cashill

Produced by Derek Curl, Larry Fessenden, Brent Kunkle and Peter Phok; directed by Jim Mickle; written by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle; cinematography by Ryan Samul; production design by Daniel R. Kersting; edited by Jim Mickle; costume design by Liz Vastola; music by Jeff Grace; starring Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis, Michael Cerveris, and Danielle Harris. Color, 98 min. An IFC Films/IFC Midnight release

Given the undying popularity of vampires and zombies at the box office, I worked up a script treatment, cunningly titled Vampires vs. Zombies. That stuff wasn’t hard to develop (“Zombies corner the lone vampire, who lashes out with his fangs”) but I stumbled over the human element, when it occurred to me that the monsters had nothing to fight over—the vampires could drain the blood of their mortal victims, leaving the rest for the zombies.

In other words, it’s hard to come up with original concepts involving the undead. Enter Larry Fessenden, a one-man band (actor, producer, writer, director) who for the past twenty years has dedicated himself to recontextualizing and reinvigorating the Frankenstein story (1991’s No Telling), bloodsuckers (1995’s Habit), and primal myths (2001’s Wendigoand 2006’s The Last Winter). His Glass Eye Pix has now produced Stake Land, a relative epic for the company, which usually sticks close to the streets of New York (its writing/directing team brought us 2007’s Mulberry Street, where an infection reduces Manhattan residents to ratlike creatures). “Call me Martin,” says its teenage protagonist (Connor Paolo) as the film opens—and with that ignition of Melville we’re on the road, and on The Road, as its trip through a desiccated America will also signpost Cormac McCarthy, Westerns, and The Night of the Hunter.

Though not to be confused with the hit comedy ZombielandStake Land also takes place in a country ravaged by monsters. Orphaned by a plague of vampirism, Martin is adopted by the taciturn Mister (cowriter Nick Damici) and briefed in the ways of killing the undead, one of the few trades worth pursuing in a nation reduced to barter. Wending their way through the Northeast to the promised land of disease-free New Eden, Canada, in their stake-filled convertible, the pair pick up other survivors, notably the despairing nun Sister Anna (Kelly McGillis) and the pregnant Belle (Danielle Harris). A star of TV’s Gossip Girl, the Top Gun actress and Eighties survivor, and a scream queen who appeared in theHalloween remake make strange carfellows with a lead vampire hunter channeling the biker-movie actor William Smith, yet the group manages to cohere.

Throwing up continual roadblocks is Jebedia, the leader of The Brethren, a fundamentalist cult that has filled the gap left by the collapse of organized religion. Played with righteous gusto by Michael Cerveris, Broadway’s most recent Sweeney Todd, Jebedia ruthlessly exploits the notion that God visited the “vamps” upon us humans, an idea that rural communities locked down against assault are powerless to keep out. Stake Land is strongest when it depicts how easily fear can be manipulated among the powerless in a broken-down society rendered with some acuity.

Surprisingly the vampires are its weakest element, dumb, ravening beasts a few I.Q. points below George A. Romero’s shuffling corpses. No matter how good the makeup effects are, when you’ve seen Mister and Martin put down one braying creature, you’ve seen them all, and even with an enlivening detail here and there (one vamp is staked in a Santa suit) there are too many shrill and monotonous scenes of slaying.

Daybreakers (2009) had one of those genre brainstorms, where an aristocratic ruling class of vampires, having siphoned off the human blood supply, reverts helplessly to their primitive Nosferatu selves as an artificial alternative is sought. Stake Land has the makings of one, when Jebedia enforces his self-proclaimed mandate by using helicopters to drop vampires into a village functioning outside Brethren control, then goes a step farther into embracing the darkness for “Christian” ends. But these are scenes, and the movie keeps on truckin’ to refuel on blood and guts. Too bad: While more thoughtful than most of its brethren, Stake Land leaves its best ideas on the side of the road.

Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Associate and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.