Movie Review: Stake Land

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Stake Land (2010)
Directed by Jim Mickle
Starring Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Kelly McGillis, Danielle Harris, Michael Cerveris

Several years ago, when we had the 8 Films to Die For mini-film fests, there were usually only a couple of films in the lot that really stood out to us.  In the 2007 series, there was one film that REALLY stood out. The film was Mulberry Street and it was directed by Jim Mickle, as well as co-written by him and Nick Damici (who also starred in the film). The movie is about a virus that turns the population of New York into some sort o mutant rat-people. As crazy as that sounds, it was incredibly well done. From that point on, I was paying attention to these two guys, since they seemed to not only know how to make a great film, but also to make it with very little money. Folks, this means they were smart filmmakers. Something Hollywood has forgotten years ago. Plus, they had their connections with Larry Fessenden, and we know that the people he is involved with are some very talented people.

So a few years later, we hear about the latest movie from the team of Mickle and Damici, called Stake Land. Once again, the script was written by the two of them, with Mickle directing and Damici playing the main lead. And just like they did with Mulberry, they take an idea, in this case a sub-genre that has been done to death, and make it into something great. With these two guys in charge, I had enough faith in them to believe that they would be able to show this tired sub-genre some new life. And they did just that. I mean, when a baby is killed in the first few minutes of film, you can tell right away that no one is safe here with these two filmmakers.

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Stake Land takes place in a world where vampires have taken over most of the country. But these are not the smooth talking, fashionable looking gothic types, but have regressed down to an animalistic blood thirsty monster. And they actually make vampires scary again. The date could be today, last year or a year from now, but looks pretty close to where we are now. The story follows a young boy named Martin, on the verge of becoming a man. In the beginning of the film, we see a man simply called Mister save him from the same fate that befell his family. This Mister character is also a hunter, just like the vampires. Except they are what he is hunting. He takes Martin under his wing, teaching him and training him how to stay alive in this new brutal world.

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As they make their way through the country, they quickly discover that these nocturnal things are not the only thing to be watchful of. A group of ‘religious’ people, calling themselves the Brotherhood, are starting to gather in numbers, making their own rules of how this new world should be controlled. So in between fighting off the vampires and these religious zealots, Martin and Mister have more than their hands full. Even more so when they invite an older nun and a young pregnant woman into their group.  All on their way north to a land where they hope to find peace.

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Mickle and his crew do an incredible job of making this film look just plain epic. Looking like they filmed all over the states, it just gives this film a lot bigger budget then it really had. From tons of extras filling out the little enclosed towns, to the constant attack from both the vampires and the Brotherhood, it really brings this low budget film into a higher caliper.

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Damici really shines here as Mister, this hardened, no-bullshit kind of guy, but that is still a decent human inside this tough exterior. He knows what is right and wrong, but has no problem serving his own method of justice, whether it is to one of the vampires, or a religious idiot trying to rape an old woman. If the movie world ever needed a new Snake Plisken, we have found him. But not only does Damici show his acting skills, but as co-writer of the script, he is a very talented part of this dynamic duo of filmmakers.

The rest of the cast is filled out with a couple of familiar faces, along with one that I didn’t recognize at first. Kelly McGillis, a long way from her Top Gun days, gives a strong performance as Sister, the old nun who Mister and Martin save from being raped by a couple of the Brotherhood. Connor Paolo plays the young Martin, trying to keep up with Mister. He still has the innocence in his face and eyes, that shows that while he tries to play the tough assistant to Mister, he is still a young boy. Genre fave Danielle Harris plays the young singer Belle who happens to be pregnant and joins the motley crew on their journey north. And fans of the cult TV show Fringe might recognize Michael Cerveris as the Observer. Here he plays Jebedia, the leader of the Brotherhood. He gives us a character and performance is that is scarier than any of the vampires running around here, especially in the first half of the film. He’s scary here because he’s not too far off from so many other religious leaders over the centuries that have caused the death of so many people because they didn’t follow their “divine” rules.

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Another star of this film though you never actually see him, is Jeff Grace, the composer of the score. While we had seen other movies that Grace had scored, this was the first one that I really took a notice of. He does a perfect job in creating a music tone that fits the movie’s desolate landscape, but then also gets us those little hints of hope. With a very somber and almost southern-blue feel to it, Grace has composed a score that is one of my favorites of this year. We loved it so much that we immediately started to check out some of this other film works.

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Released on both a standard DVD as well as a blu-ray version from Dark Sky Films, this is one release that you really need to pick up the blu-ray. While we generally hate when companies force you to buy the blu-ray if you want to get the extras, this time….you WANT the extras. Dark Sky goes all out on this one. One of the best things about this release is that there are prequel short films that gives us a little background for all the main characters in the movie. This gives us a little more insight into these people and what they are carrying on their shoulders. There are also two different audio commentaries, an hour long making of documentary, production video diaries. If you are a fan of this movie, then you really need to pick up this release.

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