If there’s an upside to the relentless deluge of vampirism at the cinema these days, it’s that when an honest-to-God vampire film comes along, it’s like a breath of fresh, garlic-scented air. Such is the case with “Stake Land,” the new micro-budget horror film about the search for New Eden in a vampire-controlled post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Connor Paolo (best known as Eric van der Woodsen on “Gossip Girl”) stars as Martin, a teenager orphaned by a vampire attack he himself only barely survives thanks to the intervention of a mysterious stranger who introduces himself only as Mister (Nick Damici, who also co-wrote the film). "Mister" allows the boy to join him as he drives north, away from the vampire strongholds, teaching him the tricks of the vamp-killing trade along the way.
The pair soon happens upon a nun (Kelly McGillis—no, really) in a torn and bloody habit, who comes running out of the woods chased by two members of The Brethren, a murderous gang of fundamentalist led by Jebedia Loven, (Broadway star Michael Cerveris). Cerveris is perfectly cast as a maniacal leader who, like a certain fundamentalist hatemonger before him, joyfully embraces the horrifying scourge on humantiy as a judgement from God. Damici teeters on the brink as Mister, constantly in danger of turning into a caricature, but ultimately he makes the goatee, sunglasses and seen-it-all growl work.
Like “Monsters,” Gareth Edwards low-budget sci-fi thriller from last year, “Stake Land” is a clinic in what can be accomplished for less than $1 million with today’s technology and and a decent story. Director Jim Mickle’s film is a thing of beauty to look at, with its wide landscapes and rich, staurated colors. And throughout the film, Mickle celverly uses close-ups and low angles to minimize how much he has to make look right. Mickle also makes things easier on himself by having Martin narrate much of the film, filling the moments between the action with explication. Paolo gives the narration the proper amount of world-weariness without descending into affected cool.
“Stake Land” is a pure low-fi genre film with a brain and a heart, one that reminds you just how good a proper vampire movie can be. There but for the grace of God went Mark Borchardt.
"Stake Land" is opening in limited release