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Blu-ray Review: Stake Land
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Stake LandStake Land
Blu-ray
Directed by Jim Mickle
Written by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle
Starring Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Kelly McGillis, Sean Nelson, and Danielle Harris
Dark Sky Films/MPI Media Group
Release Date: August 2, 2011

The Story

The world has been brought to its knees by an ever-growing force of ravenous vampires who leave nothing but death and despair in the wake of their rampages. In the United States, the country has been divided into a series of free zones, some of which are controlled by religious groups and volunteer militias who operate their territories like dictatorships and believe the vampires to be a plague sent from God to purify the human race and punish the wicked. Teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) watched his entire family be slaughtered by the bloodsuckers when America began to descend into chaos. Now he travels the country bringing merciless horror to the undead alongside his mentor and friend Mister (Nick Damici), the battle-hardened vampire hunter who saved him from sharing the fate of his loved ones.

As the duo make for the north in search of the mythical vamp-free paradise New Eden they pick up a nun struggling to maintain her faith in the face of the apocalypse (Kelly McGillis), pregnant singer Belle (Danielle Harris), and ex-Marine Willie (Sean Nelson). They also come into conflict with Jebediah Loven (Michael Cerveris), the evil leader of the fanatical religious group the Brotherhood. Martin and his new unlikely family hold onto the hope that they will find peace in New Eden but in order to get there they will have to endure many unimaginable horrors, and the only way they can survive is to become even more deadly than the monsters both living and undead that hunt them relentlessly. In the words of Mister, welcome to Stake Land.

The Lowdown

Watching Stake Land for the first time I found very little to criticize about it. For almost two years I had heard mixed reactions to the film from fellow horror fans whose opinions I trusted without question. Most of them really seem to enjoy, some thought it was flat-out amazing, and others respected it even though its reach far exceeded its grasp. Stake Land is certainly an ambitious movie, both in terms of narrative and execution, but it is also a gripping post-apocalyptic horror epic that accomplishes more with a limited budget and resources in the span of its 98-minute running time than The Walking Dead could barely manage in its first two seasons.

Director Jim Mickle, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with lead actor Nick Damici, has made a film that owes as much in its design to the Mad Max trilogy (soon to be a quartet) and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend as it does to the films of Terrence Malick, particularly Days of Heaven, and Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road (and the 2009 John Hillcoat film adaptation). Through the eyes of its main characters Stake Land shows us an America struggling to survive in the wake of a horrific event, where certain towns carry on like nothing ever happened with businesses running and the citizens gathering in the evening for communal dances.

Given that recent economic developments in our nation have left many small towns looking very similar to the devastated communities that make up the “New America” of Mickle’s movie Stake Land gains a surprising relevance that few modern horror features could never achieve. The portrayal of religious cults and right-wing militias as even great threats to the main characters than the vampires is not an original idea – every apocalyptic horror movie seems to have them – but they still work and Jebediah Loven and the Brotherhood are fantastic villains with their own terrifying methods of dispatching those they perceive of as their enemies.

Working with director of photography Ryan Samul Mickle gives us an America in the grip of an unending waking nightmare with haunting shots of rust belt towns, oppressive forests, and lonely country roads. However this is a horror movie after all so the filmmakers don’t shy from delivering some genuine scares and thrills, and even a little gore. The prosthetic make-up effects are outstanding and frightening enough to haunt your dreams; these aren’t the teen dream vamps of Twilight we’re dealing with here. Stake Land‘s vampires are vicious, snarling beasts completely devoid of any humanity and left with only the need to feed, much like the zombies of Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later. There’s a nice helping of comic book action that fans of the Blade movies might appreciate and Mickle’s film strikes a good balance between over-the-top excitement and somber, gut-wrenching terror. All we are deprived of is a little levity.

It is the characters of Stake Land who are the film’s true masterstroke, and they are brought brilliantly to life by a stellar cast. The lead actors Damici and Connor Paolo were the most surprising. Before my initial viewing of Stake Land I had never even heard of Damici, whose ruddy and shopworn face reminded me a little of B-movie character actor William Smith (Maniac Cop), but his performance as the haunted vampire killer Mister floored me. His character is the most cinematic of the Stake Land ensemble, the everyman who rises to the challenge of surviving in a world gone mad. Mister is part Man With No Name, Max Rockatansky, and Robert Neville, the ultimate warrior of the apocalypse and the one man you want on your side when the shit goes down. Damici never goes overboard with the theatrics preferring to downplay his character’s emotions and communicate them through action rather than dialogue, although he does have some good lines.

Paolo, one of the stars of the ABC prime-time soap Revenge and a four-season veteran of the CW series Gossip Girl, is equally great as the kid who willingly plunges into the madness that his nation has become and comes of age during his cross-country journey with Mister. Having worked with directors like Clint Eastwood and Oliver Stone has helped Paolo mature into an effective actor. He also serves as the narrator of Stake Land and his words help shape Mickle and Damici’s vision into something that stirs your emotions, a rarity in any horror movie.

Less screen time is given to the performances by Kelly McGillis, Danielle Harris, and Sean Nelson as the survivors who become part of Martin and Mister’s new “family” but each actor is able to do wonders with the limited dialogue and action they are given, adding to Stake Land‘s soulful tapestry. Michael Cerveris makes for a memorable villain; his final showdown with Mister is one of the movie’s finest moments.

Lastly, I can not express enough praise for the film’s original music score composed by Jeff Grace (House of the Devil, Meek’s Cutoff). Grace has crafted a stirring and haunting score that gives voice to even the film’s quieter moments. Lush with the sounds of mournful pianos and sad violins the music of Stake Land recalls the cinematic efforts of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. After I finished watching the movie I immediately went to Amazon and purchased the soundtrack. You can buy Grace’s score here.

Video

MPI Media Group’s Blu-ray presentation of Stake Land comes equipped with a gorgeous 2.39: 1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that exquisitely preserves Samul’s cinematography with its autumnal beauty and cold nighttime horror. The print quality is remarkable and mostly free of noise distortion.

Audio

Accompanying the top-notch transfer are boisterous English 5.1 DTS-HD MA Surround and English 2.0 PCM soundtracks. The 5.1 DTS-HD track is definitely the way to go if you want to experience Stake Land‘s impeccable sound design and Grace’s wonderful score in all its glory. The quieter moments also benefit from the audio upgrade. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are provided.

Special Features

MPI’s Blu-ray is packing an arsenal of worthwhile supplements, starting off with two full cast and crew audio commentaries. The first features Mickle, Paolo, Damici, and producers Larry Fessenden and Brent Kunkle, and the second brings together Mickle, producers Peter Phok and Adam Folk, director of photography Samul, sound designer Graham Reznick, and composer Grace. Each track is positively rich with valuable information about Stake Land‘s inception and production, behind-the-scenes stories, technical details, and reflections about the film’s release and reception by the horror community.

Next up is the comprehensive “making of” documentary “Going for the Throat: The Making of Stake Land”. Running slightly more than a half-hour shy of the film itself this feature was directed by independent horror filmmaker Eric Stanze (Ice from the Sun) and gives a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the film’s production. The documentary has a languid pace and consists mostly of behind-the-scenes footage with no interviews or narration to serve as a connective tissue, but it still remains an essential watch for anyone interested in the nuts-and-bolts aspect of making a low-budget horror film.

Each of the film’s principal protagonists (and one of its antagonists) is given much-needed depth and back story in the form of seven Character Prequels: “Origins” (6 minutes), directed by producer Fessenden (himself an acclaimed horror filmmaker), is a weird short that takes the form of a kid making a video of his butcher father going about his routine before it takes a grim and gory turn at the very end; “Sister” (4 minutes) follows McGillis’ character in the days leading up to her meeting Mister and Martin; “Jebediah” (3 minutes) dissects the origins of Stake Land‘s fanatical villain; “Willie” (5 minutes) introduces us to Nelson’s lone soldier as he is plagued by voices from all around speaking of a “New America”; Belle (4 minutes) is the brief story of how Harris’ sweet-natured songstress came to be pregnant; Martin (5 minutes) shows Paolo at play with his beloved family dog before getting a taste of the cataclysmic terror to come; and Mister (6 minutes) tells the sad tale of Stake Land‘s legendary vampire slayer forced to confront the horror that has taken his parents.

The main documentary is supplemented by four Production Video Diaries – Pre-Production (15 minutes), Storyboards (3 minutes), Visual FX (2 minutes), and Post-Production (4 minutes) – and a Toronto Film Festival Premiere and Q&A video (25 minutes) where Mickle and several members of his cast and crew attend the anticipated premiere of Stake Land and share their stories and perspectives from the film’s production with the festival audience.

The bonus features close out with a two-minute theatrical trailer and upfront previews for Wake Wood, Machete Maidens Unleashed, and Norwegian Ninja.

Last Words

Stake Land is a small miracle of independent cinema, a film with a true vision and grand ambitions but also the fulfilled desire to give its audience excitement and chills. This is one of the finest horror movies I’ve seen in recent years and MPI’s Blu-ray presentation is loaded with an outstanding video and audio transfer and a terrific supplements package.

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