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rochefort [Film Festival 09.29.10] post apocalyptic movie review horror

Year: 2010
Directors: Jim Mickle
Writers: Jim Mickle / Nick Damici
IMDB: link
Promo trailer (no actual footage): link
Review by: rochefort
Rating: 8 out of 10

Martin (Connor Paolo) and his family are enjoying a night like any other when a vicious, split-second attack leaves him orphaned in a world suddenly populated by feral bloodsuckers. Stone-faced hardass Mister (Nick Damici) saves the boy and takes him under his wing, and the two of them embark on a quest to reach the supposedly safe havens further north, but they'll have to trek through miles of hostile territory filled with vampires, bandits, and paramilitary religious nuts. "Stake Land", director Jim Mickle's low-budget, post-apocalyptic road epic, has been building up increasingly favorable word of mouth as it does the festival circuit, and I finally got the chance to see it for myself at this year's Fantastic Fest.

I'm doing this one a little differently, so bear with me. In my opinion, the first things to know about "Stake Land", if you don't mind some minor spoilers, are its flaws. There are some villain problems in this one, and the central heavy never really registers on the level most of us would probably prefer. The story also promises to take us on a sort of guided tour through a vampire-ravaged America, and by the end it feels like we're still missing a few stops on the journey. Character development becomes an occasional issue since we're dealing with a sort of revolving-door ensemble for most of the last two acts, and key characters are sometimes introduced and then summarily dispatched too quickly for us to spend as much time with them as we'd like. And the pacing sometimes suffers, occasionally exposing some of the more budget-minded decisions.

I wanted to front-load those critiques for a reason, mainly to get my typical academic dissection out of the way and get on to the rave/wank part. Because despite its missteps, "Stake Land" is an absolute standout of the post-apocalyptic genre, and time may very well prove that it sits alongside the best of its kind. Fans of PA are in for a serious treat, because while by no means perfect, there's plenty in this movie that proves that, along with "The Road", the upcoming "The Walking Dead", etc., filmmakers are paying attention and giving PA the respect it deserves. While "Zombieland" proved that the zombie film may be on the verge of a new renaissance, "Stake Land"'s smart scripting and execution is a shining example of how the post-apocalyptic genre's best days may in fact be ahead of it. And if you're a low-budget filmmaker who's planning a foray into PA waters, do not take another step until you've seen this film.

Much in the same way that "28 Days Later" was not only an excellent zombie flick, but also a decidedly British one, "Stake Land" is steeped in Americana, and uses the rural American heartland to excellent effect. The many walled neighborhoods and backwoods shantytowns give the lasting effect of frontier life in reverse, like the industrial wild west on a rapid, de-constructive decline. But unlike the way many lesser films have handled their depictions of social deterioration in the face of impending doom, the lion's share of "Stake Land"'s survivor environments come off as extremely plausible. No leather-clad, katana-wielding teenage babes in sight, here (not that comic book swordswomen are a bad thing, but you know what I mean). Every camp or stronghold is depicted with subtle panache; in one scene, a cargo train serves as a makeshift entry gate for an otherwise totally familiar-looking Main Street U.S.A., and it's this level of underplayed disharmony that informs the production design throughout. Likewise, the score is a blend of folk fusion and ambient guitar, and it doesn't always hit the bullseye, but the music, the locales, the touches of regional accent and peculiarity here and there, all come together into a whole that is often genuinely hypnotic. It all leaves the lasting impression that, if "Stake Land" is a PA road movie western, perhaps its clearest inspiration is "The Searchers".

The cast, if anything, will probably make you wish the runtime was a bit longer. Like I mentioned above, several characters enter and subsequently exit before we get to know them as much as we'd like. This isn't a result of overly broad or boilerplate writing, either, except perhaps in the case of one or two of the bad guys; rather, the characters feel lived-in and real, and it's easy to imagine how bland and unspectacular their lives might have been before current events turned them into something much more desperately interesting. Another reason why we're left wanting with the players is that the script pulls no punches with the down and dirty reality of life in a world full of unending threat. Everybody's fair game, here, and you'll probably root for most of the characters to survive, even while you know most of them probably won't make it to the final moments. And the central, no-nonsense badass of the pic, "Mister" (played by co-writer Nick Damici), is a horror hero icon in the making, and Damici's performance is a full-blown revelation. Mister is clearly the John Wayne of the story, and Damici plays him like a man who has horrible things in his past he doesn't have the time or desire to dwell on. Neither a terminator nor a warrior with a heart o' gold, his sure-footed characterization is the body around which the film's tone (and most of its performances) satellites.

"Stake Land" will probably spark some debate among the PA and geek ranks because of its unevenness, its occasional signs of budget constraints, and the above-mentioned issues with its villains. Thankfully, much of the criticisms will derive from the fact that a film this good can't help but inspire musings about how it could have touched greatness if only this or that had been tweaked, or a little more money had been available in this or that department. I came away thinking director Jim Mickle has channelled the hungry, lean, and intensely ambitious feel of George Romero in his heyday. Regardless of its shortcomings, this is must-see stuff.

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soma (11 years ago) Reply

Good review. I wasn't expecting this out so early. lets hope it hits the UK shores soon

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