Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Film Review: Stake Land

Here's a novel idea to, ahem, breathe life into an overused undead boogeyman: Take the current fad of the day, zombies, and infuse them with the dying breed known as vampires. On paper it might sound silly, but Stake Land actually manages to give a refreshing lease of, well, life to the vampire - a character which has been ruined by Hollywood in recent years in everything from I.Am.Legend to Twilight.

The last pockets of humanity live in gated towns while vampires roam everywhere else. A gruff tough guy only known as 'Mister' (Damici) saves teenager Martin (Paolo) from a vampire attack which kills his family. The two embark on a quest to get to the mythical safe zone known as 'New Eden', meandering through the last remnants of human communities. However, the vampires soon become the least of their worries as a crazy group of fanatics lead by a man known as Jebedia (Cerveris) harasses them every step of the way.

Stake Land is pretty much your archetypical post-apocalyptic movie. Think somewhere between The Road and Zombieland and you probably have a pretty good idea where this sits. Indeed it likes to take from each but never deciding to go the whole dismal way of The Road nor the farcical route of Zombieland. From The Road it borrows the idea of nameless characters - well, at least two in 'Mister' and 'Sister' - as well as the same unspecific circumstances of an apocalypse which left a dreary, desolate landscape of leafless trees in its wake. From Zombieland, it borrows the buddy road-trip element while remaining overall less galling in than The Road's depressing tone.

That's not to say that Stake Land is wholly The Road-lite, doing a lot to carve out a niche for itself. One striking facet is it's undaunted attitude to challenging taboos. Nuns (McGillis) are raped, and if that wasn't bad enough there is no aversion to offending even more sensibilities by going after children. Where in other films there's a distinct anathema to killing off kids, Stake Land nonchalantly makes it patently obvious no one is sacred. Even babies. It's a twisted film in other ways as well. What it enjoys doing most is offering a glimmer of hope before snatching it away. For example, incrementally it increases 'Mister' and Martin's group with new members, giving a sense that they might just stand a better chance in numbers and emerge at their quest's end unscathed. But no sooner do you get that feeling than it starts picking the group off one by one. That's not to say Stake Land is completely fucking miserable, but it does make you cherish those brief flashes of hope and humour all the more.

Where the US is already a crazy evangelical basket-case, Stake Land takes note of this, turning them into an even more hysterical hyperbole (if that's even possible) after the apocalypse. Believing the creatures to be instruments of God's justice, crazy pseudo-Christian zealots are sent into overdrive, using vampires to kill anyone not them. In a sick way, you actually have to applaud some of their innovative methods, including dropping vamps from a helicopter on populated areas. Was I wrong to giggle? Probably. But at its core is a damning indictment of religion, told predominantly through 'Sister's' tale. Most of the terrible shit in this film happens to her and yet she keeps her faith throughout. On the one hand, this could be interpreted as admirable in that she never gives up her belief in God in spite of everything. However, the overlying impression is that her belief is futile and even naive, displaying that even the most devout are not exempt from the Almighty's wrath in a world that has already lost its faith.

Stake Land is a bit like Zombieland for grown-ups. There's plenty of food for thought here and it's sombre edginess makes a refreshing change and turn of pace for the genre. While the third act was a bit unexpected and a little tone-cracking, Stake Land nonetheless is well worth a go.