** Contains Spoilers **
I have a confession: I hate vampires. There are exceptions – NOSFERATU, NEAR DARK, TRUE BLOOD and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN are all personal favourites – but the majority of vampire films and TV shows, well, suck. For one thing vampires are so fussy, with a seemingly endless array of arbitrary afflictions (the inability to cross a threshold unless invited, an aversion to garlic [??], running water, wooden stakes, sunlight), and for another they’ve been redefined in the public imagination to the point of parody. Either they’re fey Gothic princes, lamenting their plight and succumbing to frequent bouts of ennui, or they’re pale, brooding boys designed by committee to appeal to preteen girls. Never in the history of horror has a supposedly fearsome supernatural predator been so effectively defanged.
STAKE LAND, from director Jim Mickle and co-writer/star Nick Damici (the pair responsible for 2006’s hugely enjoyable rat infection caper MULBERRY STREET), is doing its best to fight back. America (and quite possibly the world) has fallen victim to a vampire infestation, bringing human civilisation, and humanity itself, to the brink of extinction. And there’s not a wan, erudite Goth in sight. The vampires in STAKE LAND are primitive, feral creatures, closer to animals than humans. Filthy and bestial, they’re a cross between wild dogs and the EVIL DEAD demons. It’s telling that the first time we see one it’s poised halfway up a kitchen wall, eating a baby. This brutal, unsentimental aesthetic continues throughout the film, and is one of its greatest strengths.
The teenage Martin (named after Romero’s classic maybe-vampire?) is rescued from the creatures by ‘Mister,’ a laconic vampire killer and contemporary Man With No Name, played by the charismatic Damici. Mister not only protects his young ward but teaches him the tricks of his trade, as the pair head north through the wreckage of America in search of ‘New Eden,’ a vampire-free paradise where humanity can start again. Along the way they collect a number of waifs and strays, including the pregnant Belle (Danielle Harris) and brutalised nun ‘Sister’ (Kelly McGillis).
It’s a harrowing trip, reminiscent of both ZOMBIELAND and THE ROAD. The sense of desolation, of everything having collapsed into despair, is palpable. Decay and destruction lurk around every corner, and even when our heroes reach what should be a safe haven, a makeshift town erected by the survivors, their respite is short-lived. ‘The Brotherhood,’ a band of religious zealots dedicated to the unfolding apocalypse, destroy the settlement by ‘bombing’ it with vampires. It’s an act of religion-inspired supernatural terrorism that only reinforces the idea that even more than the vampires, people are the biggest threat to humanity’s survival.
From the grainy, washed-out visuals, to the minimalist storytelling and unsentimental treatment of its characters, STAKE LAND is a triumph. It’s hard to watch and relentlessly pessimistic, presenting humanity as savage and self-destructive and religion as an excuse to indulge in the worst kinds of violent extremism. The vampires are almost incidental, more tools of the apocalypse than its architects, but at least when they do appear they’re the ugly, voracious forces of the supernatural they were always meant to be.