Saturday, 18 September 2010
TIFF 2010 - Stake Land
Stake Land (2010) dir. Jim Mickle
Starring: Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Kelly McGillis, Danielle Harris and Michael Cerveris
By Greg Klymkiw
Imagine, if you will, Cormac McCarthy's The Road madly copulating with Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. shooting the seed of post-apocalyptic despair that penetrates the foul egg of vampirism. And the result? The unholy vaginal opening eventually spits forth a cinematic love child that is Stake Land - an intelligent, super-cool, super-scary and super-knock-you-on-your-ass dystopic sci-fi horror picture.
It's the end of the world as we know it. A horrendous virus that's turned most of the world's population into vampires forces what's left of the non-blood-sucking-freaks into crazed survivalists.
Set in the heartland of America, the picture presents a portrait of humanity that's not so different from what already exists - ignorant, Bible Belt Christians bearing arms hole up in fortress (gated) communities - killing non-believers and only killing vampires in self-defence. They believe, wholeheartedly, that this pestilence has been wrought by God to rid the world of sinful degenerates.
Into this mess, we're introduced to the young boy Martin (Connor Paulo) whose parents have just been torn to shreds by vampires. He's rescued by the legendary Mister (Nick Damici), a no-nonsense vampire hunter who, like the character of Neville in Matheson's great novel I Am Legend, is known to all - especially the Bible-thumping survivalists - as the meanest, nastiest vampire killer of them all. And, not unlike The Road, man and boy engage in an odyssey across America in search of the "New Eden" (which is, apparently, Canada - and as a Canadian, I only take exception if the destination is Toronto, the smugly fuckling capital of the world.).
The central antagonist, the skin-headed, bible-spouting madman (with one of the best movie names since "McLovin') Jebediah Loven (played with all the relish one would want from a great screen villain by Michael Cerveris) is always on the prowl for Mister and especially, women for rapin' and a breedin'. Even the vampires seem benign compared to this nutcase.
In addition to Jim Mickle's tremendously directed suspense and action scenes, what separates Stake Land from all the rest is the fact that within the genre conventions of horror and the road movie, the writing is extremely first-rate and while I might have preferred it to be a bit less humourless, I'm thankful it didn't descend into the silly tongue-in-cheek laugh-fest-grabbing cesspool that Zombie Land annoyingly dove into.
The screenplay delivers a nasty, solid, straight-up 70s style dystopia - replete with the kind of natural social commentary that never feels like a sledgehammer. In fact, by setting much of the conflict against the backdrop of Christian fundamentalism, the screenplay does what great dystopian tales should do and provide a solid reflection of our contemporary world situation.
Written by star Damici and director Mickle, it's especially gratifying that the script distinguishes between fundamentalism and genuine faith - avoiding the kind of knee-jerk pot-shots levelled against Christianity. Into the mix, they've written a terrific role for Kelly (Top Gun, Witness) McGillis as a middleaged nun who is saved by Mister from a gang-rape led by Jebediah Loven.
I love that name.
Let's all say it together, shall we?
Now don't that make you feel good?
But, I digress.
The nun uses her faith to impart the kind of level-headed wisdom missing on both sides of the fence and the character is drawn by the writers so that she's not a total hook-line-and-sinker swallower of dogma, but a genuine human being who is also faced with a crisis of faith. Finally, though, her character embraces the sacrificial notion of Christianity and provides a tremendously powerful and movie story beat within the film. It's also nice seeing a mature McGillis who delivers a complex and heart-felt performance. And yeah, I still think she's a babe!
Intelligence and artistry aside, though, this movie delivers what all true genre fans would want. The carnage is superb, the makeup effects on the vampires is first rate (l love how they look like zombies/demons) and we also get a MAJOR babe in the form of the delectable Danielle Harris who is the token female eye-candy all genre films must have.
Most importantly, and especially given the title, I for one, was utterly delighted that Stake Land features several magnificent sequences involving the driving of wooden stakes into the hearts, throats and bellies of vampires.
These days, a good stake is rare indeed.