A little over a year ago, a film titled DAYBREAKERS came out. I’m sure you’ve all heard of it, or even read about it here on this very site. It promised a post-apocalyptic vampire film with a seemingly intriguing premise, a B-to-A-list-cast and a directing/writing duo that previously gave us a little-zombie-film-that-could in the form of UNDEAD. Needless to say, I was rather excited. Unfortunately, upon exiting the theater I found myself feeling entirely underwhelmed, having seen something that more closely mirrored how I felt about BLADE: TRINITY than had wanted to about a post-apocalyptic vampire opus. As luck has it, someone went into territory previously charted by DAYBREAKERS and has laid utter fucking waste to it. The result of this is STAKE LAND.
STAKE LAND, in my perception, is what could result if DAYBREAKERS were a contemporary man and happened upon the middle aged though still sexy, female, NEAR DARK and the two had a spontaneous love child. Director/writer/editor Jim Mickle has taken the concept of DAYBREAKERS and merged it with the gritty, volatile nature of Kathryn Bigelow‘s 1980s bloodsucker-cum-western masterpiece. In fact, it has much more in common with ’80s and ’90s vamp films – the aforementioned NEAR DARK and John Carpenter’s VAMPIRES especially – than any vampire film released in the past decade, good or bad. In other words, this is both the anti-TWILIGHT at the same time as being the anti-LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (or LET ME IN, for that matter). The primary reason for this being: lack of romance.
Let’s face it, vampires have always (arguably) been dealt with in a romantic manner. From Murnau’s NOSFERATU to Tony Scott’s THE HUNGER all the way up to the Alan Ball produced soft-core-porn/melodrama HBO opus TRUE BLOOD. There is hardly a shred of this in STAKE LAND (unless you count what the two male leads have as a “bromance”) and without any sort of sexual tension factoring into the equation, you’re left with something that feels a lot more savage than the sub-genre usually offers. Now, I compared this to NEAR DARK and VAMPIRES, both of which do have a romantic element, however, that romance never becomes the basis of the narrative in question unlike TWILIGHT and/or LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (which is a great film, don’t get me wrong). The result is a vampire film that deals with just that: vampires. There is no beating around the proverbial bush here, there is no mere mention or allusions to “fang-bangers”, such things do not exist in the world of STAKE LAND.
Another thing that really sets STAKE LAND apart from the others is that this feels like a post-apocalyptic film first. Yes, it is most certainly about vampires but unlike DAYBREAKERS the setting is as integral as what populates it. STAKE LAND establishes early on why the world is what it is and what these characters are up against. This is as much of a post-apocalyptic film as something like THE ROAD or CHILDREN OF MEN happens to be. It is a drastically different film in its own regard, but it has much more in common with those films than it does with other similar horror fare and it greatly benefits from this.
STAKE LAND is also an action film, however, this is when it is at its weakest. Much has been made about how brutal the film can be at times, and while this is true, it is not the gore-fest that it is being made out to be. Much of the blood-letting is more action oriented than horrific and potentially sets the film back as it seems to be over-compensating, especially towards the climax. This in no way ruins the film but it does give it a sense of identity crisis where it has been so well established as to what it is and what it is trying to do that it all feels rushed in the last twenty-some-odd minutes.
What really matters here, aside from the content, is how well made of a film STAKE LAND is. Jim Mickle definitely has an idea of what he is doing and knows how to achieve it. The film is extremely dark, not just in content but aesthetically as well. Much of the action, as well as what precedes and follows it, is shrouded in darkness. Despite that, it is never difficult to figure out what is happening at a given time. The action, though I didn’t necessarily agree with its inclusion, is well choreographed and genuinely exciting to witness if not always appropriate. As much as I can praise Mickle technically, I can’t do so in regards to the writing. STAKE LAND has a lot going for it conceptually and it achieves that admirably but there is a lot of stilted, borderline laughable dialogue to sit through along the way. It ends up making the film appear more amateurish than it really is and does not bode well for repeat viewings and/or acceptance outside of the horror fanbase. Having a well-shot, well-directed film is a difficult thing to accomplish but that does not overcome a weak script.
STAKE LAND is everything that you’ve heard that it is, and possibly more, though it does have its shortcomings which I don’t feel have been properly addressed elsewhere. It is violent, dark and well realized though it lacks a coherent script and doesn’t always adhere to the conventions it initially ascribes to. However, a solid vampire film is hard to come by and the bad can be taken with the good. There have been a couple great films in the genre lately – most notably LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and THIRST – which are arguably better than this film, but it stands its ground and is perhaps defiant in doing so. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.