Sunday, 13 November 2011

Vampocalypse: Stake Land, dir. by Jim Mickie: review

I'd seen the poster of Stake Land, as I got off the tube at Piccadilly, maybe a hundred times; although I am a fan of vampire movies, the poster made it out to be some kind of shlock horror, with a field of crucifixes and a grizzled looking vampire hunter. That couldn't be further from the truth. It's a thoughtful, beautifully filmed, apocalyptic movie, having more in common with Cormac McCarthy's The Road and the mythical qualities of Near Dark.
Stake Land: mythical

The premise is simple - and one that was played with in the excellent Zombieland, although of course (as you can probably guess from the title) that had zombies as the agent of apocalypse of choice. (They really ought to think up something else, don't you think? Zombies, vampires, werewolves... what next? Killer banshees? Kelpies? Pixies? Just how many mythological creatures can act as metaphors for our diseased culture? I'm rooting for evil mermaids, myself.)

In Stake Land, as in Zombieland, a young teenager called Martin's (a brilliantly vulnerable Connor Paolo) family is wiped out; he hitches up with a tough-talking killer who takes out as many of the undead as possible. I think that in Zombieland Woody Harrellson (who plays the killer to Jesse Eisenberg's geeky ingenue) says "I hate zombies" - although for comic effect. Nick Damici, the enigmatic vampire killer Mister in Stake Land, grizzles "I hate vampires!" You can't avoid it.

But Stake Land doesn't go for the funnies. It's a very moving quest narrative, in which the pair - who quickly develop a surrogate father / son relationship, with Martin visibly toughening up as Mister trains him in the arts of vamp-execution - head towards a new Eden in the north, supposedly untouched by the plague of vampires (although think about the problems of calling something Eden if it's meant to be a symbol of hope). Along the way they rescue a nun from rape (killing the potential rapists) and pick up a pregnant singer; moments of tenderness, however, are fleeting, since the countryside they move through is controlled by The Brotherhood, a sinister organisation that believes vampires are God's answer to rooting out evil from the world. The Brotherhood wears sacking and actually hurls vamps down onto gatherings from helicopters - vampire bombs, which must be a new thing. It means everything is on a knife edge, though - any gathering might be uprooted at any moment. A little girl's shoe poking out from under a blanket is a particularly poignant reminder of the mindless nature of the killings.

There are consolations: religion, as little statuettes of Mary and Jesus become particularly significant, and a cross that the nun gives Martin becomes a totem. That totemic power can shift though, as it does (in a nice twist that I won't reveal) at the end, with a skull on a necklace. In a striking scene, as the nun flees for her life she sees a body nailed up in a crucifixion pose: though in life it was an execution, it gives her the courage to make a final decision. There is also friendship. As an allegory, the film works on many levels, but one that it particularly insists upon is that: life is fleeting. Live and love whilst we can: you never know when somebody might throw a berserking vampire into your midst. (For vampires, of course, we can read variously bombs, financial crises, contagious diseases - any of the particular modern real bogeymen.)

Unfortunately, the leader of the Brotherhood is the father of one of the would-be-nun-rapists; he wants revenge on Mister. Which he does so, in spectacularly horrific fashion, of course. But don't worry - there is hope, or at least the promise of hope. What all these apocalyptic films - and particularly the two under discussion - seem to offer us is that despite everything collapsing around us, you can always trust in human relationships. (Unless that human is a crazed religico-psychopath-vampire lover, of course.) Stake Land is an excellent addition to the genre, and whilst it obviously plays within the rules, it shows a distinct style and passion which set it out from the rest. I hope to see more from its director, Jim Mickie. Now how about those world-dominating mermaids?

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