Wednesday, August 10, 2011

stake land [2010]

stake land might be the best movie of last year you probably never heard of. this flick is the second feature by writer/director jim mickle and star/co-writer nick damici. their first effort is the fantastic revisionist zombie flick mulberry street [2006]. both of these movies are studies of human character rather than simple blood and guts exploitation. mickle and damici are to horror as say lars von trier is to the arthouse set.

that might be quite a bold comparison but i mean it to underscore how horror films tend to be marginalized no matter how original they might be. mickle and damici work with a minuscule budget but get the most bang from it and make bigger budget flicks look like crap in return. stake land is an arthouse horror film that should have a greater audience.

the world has gone to shit. a vampire plague destroyed the underpinnings of the united states. the government crumbled and our leaders scrambled for whatever safety they can muster. the economy is in shambles. the survivors either travel the land looking for refuge or are holed up in 'lock downs', small towns sequestered against the night. the vamps are not the only ones to be feared. religious fundamentalist organizations such as 'the brotherhood' have sprung up in response to the horrors of the new reality and reign a system of superstition, paranoia and bloody violence to any one who gets caught in their path.

in this midst is mister a hard-ass fighter played by damici who takes under his wing martin played by connor paolo, a young teen, being schooled in survival both against the brotherhood and the vampires. oh yes, kelly mcgillis is also in this flick. she playes a nun called sister who is rescued by our duo from two scumbag brotherhood rapists. along the way they pick up a young pregnant woman belle, played by 21st century scream queen danielle harris [who turns in a marvelous performance] and a stranded soldier willie, played by sean nelson.

together this group travel the blasted u.s. in search of a haven called new eden. unremittingly grim and beautifully photographed, scored and edited, director mickle keeps the pace at a quick clip. the filmmaker learned much about how to frame his shots and choreograph the action since his first feature. not a frame seems wasted. the story is kept taught while letting the characters develop. if the conclusion appears obvious it might be because both mickle and damici wrote a damn fine script where the story grows organically. nothing is forced and there are no standard scary movie jump scares or unnecessary gore. the tone of the movie, grim and prepossessing, is frightening enough.

also, the sets are beautifully decorated. i say beautiful because it is mind-blowing how they create the reality of the story with a few props and junky cars even if the sets are populated with the corpses of the murdered and the suicides left dangling from telephone poles and buildings. mickle's camera doesn't linger on these scenes but composes his scenes with the totality of his vision so that, again, the places the protagonists visit and pass feel terribly real.

it is tempting to call this movie timely because of its theme of religious toxicity. i'll leave that discussion for others to take up. rather i think mickle and damici made a very damn good movie. thier vampires are feral, voracious creatures that weave together strands taken from zombie movies, pandemic fears, and the frailty of civilization while investigating contemporary concern for rising religious fundamentalism. again, this might be the best movie of last year you probably never heard of.


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