If you grew up on classic horror movies, you must be as baffled and appalled as I am by the recent avalanche of movies, TV shows and airplane terminal beach books about lovesick vampires turning into goony-eyed romance-novel sweethearts who buy their daily blood supply at Walgreens. To Hillary Clinton, it may take a village, but to what remains of the American countryside gone to hell in Stake Land, all it takes still is a stake through the heart. Despite the violence and mayhem, I actually liked this one. It’s harrowing, even the clichés are bloodcurdling, and it takes vampires out of the dime-store paperback genre and puts them back where they belong—in your nightmares and at your throat.
In this grim, cynical view of a post-apocalyptic world, a boy named Martin (Connor Paolo, from the TV series Gossip Girl) teams up with a grizzly vampire hunter called, simply, “Mister” (Nick Damici, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Jim Mickle). Together, they form a surrogate father-son relationship, traveling across the American heartland only in the sunlight daytime hours, heading north toward Canada, where monsters fear to go. Passing signs that preach “And God tore the world asunder,” avoiding dangerous cities and sticking to the back roads where corpses hang from burned trees in nooses, their goal is to kill as many “vamps” as possible and stay alive in a landscape of horror. Sometimes they find live humans, trying to survive. But when news arrives that the president is dead and Washington, D.C., has been destroyed, everything looks hopeless. “We were all orphans, looking for something to hold onto,” says the boy, who doubles as narrator. Things get bleaker.
If the vampires don’t get them, the cannibals do. So the monsters in Stake Land are a cross between blood-sucking Draculas and the flesh-eating zombies from The Night of the Living Dead, and from the picture, they’re all pissed off, big time.
Like the man and boy in The Road, Martin and Mister wander upon roadside campgrounds turned into charnel houses and villages that have been torched. (Call it Cormac McCarthy with fangs.) Miraculously, they also bond with a small band of followers who form a new kind of family unit—a black Marine, a pregnant girl and a nun they rescue from a gang rape (Kelly McGillis making her first screen appearance in a decade). They are all pursued by a venomous fundamentalist militia called The Brethern who blame the vampire plague on the Lord. Directed with an intensity that reaches fever pitch, the film also takes a moment or two for some gallows humor (Mister fights off a howling gang of the undead with his hands tied. Later, Martin stakes a vampire wearing a Santa Claus suit).
There isn’t much dialogue, and most of the 98-minute running time is devoted to locking in one terrifying Gothic encounter after another, but the characters are well-defined, and director Mickle (who made the zombie-rat thriller Mulberry Street) makes every dime of his micro-budget count. Stake Land is original and entertaining enough to keep the audience focused, even though a lot of things go unexplained. What caused the vampire explosion in the first place? How did they get that way? Where on earth do the protagonists keep finding gasoline, and what did they do for money? I don’t blame the frenzied vampires when they refuse to cross the border and move to Canada. Wouldn’t you?