Stake Land (2010)

This doesn’t happen too often, thankfully…but I always feel a little guilty when a friend recommends a movie that he / she swears I’m going to dig…and I walk away, when the credits roll, wondering just what they’d been smoking to lead to such a recommendation. Such is the case here. One my coworkers, a cool dude who I frequently bullshit with about movies and geek culture, mentioned this title out of the blue, about a week ago. Vaguely remembering seeing something shown on Netflix about it (but having simply dismissed it as cheap-looking schlock…gotta trust THOSE instincts!), I then opted to sneak a look at the trailer (while on shift!!!…pure rebel, I am) and had to admit that the gritty-looking visuals did catch my eye. The other thing that caught my eye was the inclusion of the beautiful Danielle Harris (‘The Last Boy Scout’) in the cast of ‘no names’. THAT got my attention, as I’ve had a ‘thing’ for that woman since I saw her (as a mouthy 14 year old) in the aforementioned Tony Scott classic (in my opinion) ‘The Last Boy Scout’ (1991). It was an adolescent crush…she’s almost exactly my age today (and still looks great…massive back tatty aside). Anyway, when I saw her turn up in the short trailer, I made the decision to give this flick a shot in the very near-future.
That very near future turned out to be last night, as my girlfriend and I were hard-pressed to come up with something visual to close out our lazy Sunday night with. This one popped up during a Browse of Netflix and before there was a word of protest, I hit ‘Play’.
‘Stake Land’ follows a teenage kid named ‘Martin’ (Connor Paolo) as he makes his way through the devastated remnants of a Humanity stricken by an ill-defined epidemic of vampiric zombieism. While he watched his farmer family get butchered by a handful of the creatures (the mutilated baby corpse dropped from the barn roof was a nice, grotesque touch), ‘Martin’ is abruptly saved, out of the friggin blue, by a weird ‘Hunter-type (think ‘Supernatural’) named ‘Mister’ (Nick Damici). Acknowledging that his family has been wiped out, ‘Martin’ then opts to follow ‘Mister’ in his wanderings (while learning The Art of the Kill) through the scatterings of broken civilization, on a path for ‘New Eden’, which turns out to be a nickname for Canada (yay!). Along the way, these two encounter a pregnant bar singer / hitchhiker named ‘Belle’ (Danielle Harris) and a random black dude named ‘Willie’ (Sean Nelson). These 4, over the course of a cross-fade, become a team of monster slayers bent on reaching the sanctuary of The Great White supposedly Vampireless North, despite an ominous warning that “There’s nothing in ‘New Eden.” So, with this perilous journey laid out before them, they set off…and we get ripped off.
This is not a good movie. I always like it when I take a chance on lesser-known, lower-budget genre fare and it turns out surprisingly cool. It’s happened a number of times, with titles like ‘Deathwatch’ (2002) and ‘Outpost’ (2007) leaping to mind as examples. I hoped this would be more of THAT, based on my coworkers recommendation, the moody trailer and the presence of Danielle Harris. But…nope. This was pretty much pure ‘Amateur Hour’. It was like some filmmaker wannabe, with an iota of cash and knowledge of desolate, probably free-to-film-at locations, binge-watched a shitload of ‘Supernatural’ (2005- ), followed by a double bill screening of ‘Zombieland’ (2009) and ‘The Road’ (2009), and then dreamed up this lazy excuse of a ‘story’ as the backbone for the project. Holy shit!…it’s painfully evident that VERY little original thought went into this tale, and even less into the so-called characters. This isn’t to say that the flick was ALL bad.
The make-up effects of the Vampire Zombies (that’s pretty much what they were) was decent and the monster performances had some effort put into them. The locations felt appropriately desolate and the little pieces of what was left of Humanity kinda worked (more effort on the ‘world building’ would’ve gone a long way, however). There was a stripped down feel to the cinematography that, at a couple moments, had me thinking of the films of Terence Malick (‘The Thin Red Line’), but then I realized that this was probably accidental. There are some cool kills (the murdered baby scene at the beginning had some unexpected ‘teeth’ to it and it set a tone that the flick never lived up to) and…that’s about it.
The rest pretty much sucked.
So much of what went wrong with this effort is there in the script, or at least, what of the script made in onto the screen. The characters are all flatter than the paper the story was probably written on. There is NO character development for anyone. No backstory is given to help flesh out ANY of the people we meet. ‘Martin’ is like a mute Jesse Eisenberg (‘Zombieland’) with atrocious narration abilities, ‘Mister’ is some grizzled dude of questionable mental presence who REALLY wanted to be ‘John Winchester’ (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) from ‘Supernatural’, ‘Belle’ is just some cute chick who gets to react to being pregnant and not much else while ‘Willie’ screams ‘Token Black Guy / Vampire Fodder’. They stumble their way from cliche’d scenario to cliche’d scenario…and I didn’t give a shit about any of it. These characters were SO one dimensional it was crazy.
*SPOILER*
When the Big Moment arrives when ‘Martin’ needs to confront horror and Destiny to try and rescue ‘Belle’, who was kidnapped by a ‘Thinker’ vampire (who out-smarts our ‘heroes’ in the most obvious way EVER), it was a moment when we, the viewers, were clearly supposed to be rooting for the kid to storm the ruined barn to rescue their friend (and his possible future love interest), to kick all kinds of vampire ass and then stride off into the sunset. Instead we find ‘Belle’ chicken-wired to a wall, her insides on the outside (these vamps like the baby meat apparently)…and I felt nothing. In fact, I felt somewhat robbed. I knew the dynamic of the scene they were going for, but they fucked it right up. Added to which, since we never got to know anything about ‘Belle’, her gruesome death rings completely hollow. There was no connection…more of just a ‘Well, I guess she’s not heading to ‘New Eden’ after all’ness to it. This is followed by a sequence where ‘Martin’ and ‘Mister’ encounter a suspiciously clean blond cutie working in a store, who, in zero time flat, becomes the ‘Belle’ replacement. For some inexplicable reason, ‘Mister’, who’s been leading this little jaunt the whole time, then opts to literally disappear, after creepily watching ‘Martin’ and Blondie sleeping together (no sex, just sleep) one night. They just wake up…and he’s gone. As in ‘gone for the rest of the movie’ (which, by this point, was only about 10 minutes more, thankfully). They then reach the Canadian…ahem, pardon me…’New Eden’ border…and credits roll. Seriously, the flick just…stops. It felt like there should’ve been another Act to finish the story off. Many things were just left hanging. No logical explanations given. My girlfriend and I shared a “Seriously?!” moment and the reasons for why I, an avid Horror genre fan, had never heard of it suddenly fell into place. Because it’s mostly pretty damn bad, that’s why!! Whoever wrote this tepid copy-cat tripe had obviously never seen the inside of a script-writing class. The pacing was clunky, the dialogue carried no heft or effective exposition, the narration was painful and the 3 Act structure was butchered. Apparently this ‘movie’ (that feels like a really long student film) cost something like $650 000, and recouped something sad, like a mere $15 000. Even for a micro-budget genre piece…that’s embarrassing. But it’s also very ‘telling’. ‘Stake Land’ has nothing to offer it’s audience, at least nothing we haven’t seen before done better and it’s amateurish flaws stand out like a sore thumb. I admire the ambition of the people behind this, as it does seem to be there, but it’s just too bad that the skill level didn’t match said ambition.
All in all, I took a low-stakes chance on ‘Stake Land’ based on my work buddies ‘say so’ (I’ll be having words with him at The Shop tomorrow) and the presence of Danielle Harris (who’s FAR better than this material), and it was a let-down, even with ground-level expectations firmly in place when I first hit ‘PLAY’. If you give it a shot, odds are you’ll get nothing from it…because it doesn’t have anything to offer. There’s a scattering of inspired-but-half-cooked ideas, but the execution is so cheap and devoid of ‘life’ that it’s nearly painful. There’s MUCH better genre fare out there, so if you opt to skip this one (even for free), you’re probably doing yourself a favor. Don’t waste your time.

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