Keeping America Safe From Americans: Stake Land

If Roger Corman got the rights to film THE ROAD, the result might be STAKE LAND.  A  post-apocalypse movie about the world overwhelmed by vampires, STAKE LAND doesn’t do anything radically new, but it has a humanity about it that things like UNDERWORLD never even aspire to, showing the human cost of living in a world overwhelmed by monsters.  It doesn’t re-invent the wheel, and when the going gets tough it falls back on the cliches of the genre–we’re never afraid our heroes will die, the vampires defy logic, and new breeds of them pop up when the plot gets too slack.  But I enjoyed the craft on display, and even though it isn’t terribly original and falls short of its potential, it’s enjoyable.  But it’s too bad it’s too hamstrung by the moviemakers’ need to be About Something to really take off into horror.

We follow a boy and a man as they head for New Eden, a safe place in Canada (even though we learn partway through that our military was pulled out of the Middle East to help EVACUATE Canada, but whatever), finding survivors and encampments of survivors as they travel.

It’s a pretty fine flick if you don’t think too much.  Unfortunately, I guess, I was thinking while watching it.  How long has this all been going on?  It shouldn’t take THAT long to drive up to Canada, but this is an epic quest for the way to New Eden.  Why do all the vampires sound like roaring lions and move like they wandered off the set of the “Thriller” video?  Why do these resource-strapped evil human Bible-and-gun-clutchers waste precious resources trying to help the vampires wipe out enclaves of humans?  (Because they’re mad religionists, except they have that wild-eyed belief you see in movies and bake sales.)  The man rescues the kid and off they go, in a good and gruesome opening scene.  Along the way they pick up three other passengers, and have frequent fights with the baddies.

This is very well-made for what I guess is a low-budget movie.  The photography is very good at creating an impression of an abandoned America.  We see little details, such as a burned vampire skeleton hanging from a bridge in a brief shot that shows care.  Jeff Grace’s musical score gets beyond the usual droning of horror scores, setting a melancholy tone early on with tinkling keyboards, and gradually adding more body to the musical menu until we have a very forward string-based cue for the ending.  The acting is uniformly good, including Kelly McGillis as a nun.

But the moviemakers didn’t just want to make a cool vampire movie with humanistic values, where killing isn’t seen as cool but painful and hurtful.  No, they had to Send A Message, and their message is that if we don’t keep ourselves together, then white Christians will take over.  Yes, that’s what the movie’s about.  (For some reason, the white Christians didn’t do all this slaughtering at will when they had the majority, for, oh, the last two hundred-some years.)  The first time we see the American flag used to say “Get it, GET IT?!” it’s annoying, but about the fifth time I was saying “All RIGHT already.”  Then the narrator has to SAY that these “Christians” are the bad guys.

I’d be as tired of this if they went on and on about radical Muslims, or Canadians.  Well, the word about the evil Canadians really DOES need spreadin’… (spits)

The movie does so much right that the flaws really stand out.  In particular, I was bugged by a choice made by one character at the very end.  SPOILERY: The character has been wanting to get to The Good Place just like any person who takes such a journey would, but when the end of the journey is at hand, the character decides…not to finish the journey.  We’ve seen no indication this character would rather live out there, killing and running and sleeping in barns.  But the moviemakers seem to have wanted some kind of bittersweet thing.  Instead, they look silly for forcing a mystique that isn’t earned by the character.

There are so many poor horror flicks that I do recommend this good one.  But its flaws are truly annoying.  If the vampires weren’t so actor-y and the Message not so blatantly done and inane this could be a small masterpiece.  As it is, it’s very good, and if you fear Christians as much as vampires, you’ll probably love it.