Why is it that so many filmmakers have switched to low-fi hi-def cameras? The cynical answer is also the easy one: it’s much cheaper. But, when asked to justify the stylistic choice, most will opt for “verisimilitude,” which frequently makes little sense. “Stake Land” is a superb argument against this mentality, taking place in a genre — post-apocalyptic horror road movie — where “verisimilitude” has been accepted as a default from unimaginative filmmakers. In essence, why would we want verisimilitude to capture the umpteenth variation on this post-apocalyptic wasteland?
“Stake Land” takes place in the deep south, in a not-too-distant future where innocents have been infected by a vampiric virus. Not infected are Martin and the unnamed Mister, a young-and-old combo relying on each other to navigate a barren wasteland, that now depleted of people, might as well be upstate New York or the rural Midwest — the non-specific dialect spoken further cements the narrative as a Hollywood conceit more than an actual vampire world. Martin has grown up in an existence of no hope, leaning on Mister to lean about past customs, manners and belief systems. Okay, he really just takes the opportunity to teach the boy how to deliver iconic poses and brood over the soft, bisected remains of a bitter bloodsucker.
The two eventually pick up a disillusioned nun (Sister, played by a near-apologetic Kelly McGillis) and a pregnant-but-virginal small-town princess (Belle, a paper-thin dream girl construct played by Danielle Harris), but the focus remains on the boy and his father figure. Martin, a youthful, handsome kid, looks a bit too healthy and upbeat to have grown up during the apocalypse. It’s less about him appreciating his life than it is earnest, handsome Connor Paolo lacking a story frame-of-reference to bring us into his character’s head space. We see a harrowing flashback where he is forced to take down his vamped-up parents, but how he copes with the loss of a parent, or what Mister has to do with filling this void, is expressed inelegantly as an afterthought to the dismal scares.
As the stoic Mister, co-writer Nick Damici gets to embrace a monosyllabic cowboy caricature. Where a more versatile personality would bring humane insight into why this disillusioned, apolitical loner would adopt a younger charge who could possibly get him killed, Damici seems intent on providing a blanket-purpose veteran influence to the material, a world-weary vamp slayer with the desire for “salvation” in Canada, a belief that seems to counter to his pessimism about the vague actions that led to this torn-apart world (bureaucratic tomfoolery in the Capitol is granted a perfunctory mention).
And about these vampires. Far be it for us to suggest there be mandates as to what cinematic guidelines for which bloodsuckers should abide. But once they are revealed as torn-apart cannibals with no fear of sunlight, you’ve robbed the creature of its poetry. In a lunk-headed bit of doubling, Christian extremists pose a threat to Mister and Martin, though how the apparently godless vampire lord/Moby Dick Jebedia (Michael Ceveris) relates to this apoliticism remains a mystery. Ceveris, a long-time stage performer, brings an animal threat and noted physicality to Mister’s longtime fanged foe, but the back story feels like something we’d skip in an off-brand indie comic spin off somewhere.
Director Jim Mickle shows interest in the day-to-day grind of life on the fringe, and moments of “Stake Land” make you forget that the plot is strictly a movie construct. Instead, we’re briefly taken to a scavenger’s paradise, where brief moments of peace — including a mid-film sojourn to a supposed vamp-free town — are begging to be punctuated by the teeth of our faceless hordes. It’s this threat that brings a superficial thrill to this breed of film. A pity that the film isn’t nearly as smart enough to understand it’s a lesser take on a genre we’ll keep repeating long after the end actually comes. [C]