A few years ago Jim Mickle directed and co-wrote a film with actor Nick Damici about a zombie outbreak in a Manhattan neighborhood where the disease originated from plague-carrying rats. That film was Mulberry Street and is still one of the better pictures that were part of the After Dark film series – and by better I mean actually worth your time to watch. It does well to focus primarily on the characters for the better half of the first forty minutes so that when the outbreak spreads and hits the neighborhood full-on we actually give a damn and feel like there’s something to be lost when a character bites the dust.
It was this commitment to character development that had me excited for the second film from Mickle and Damaci about a vampire takeover in a post-apocalyptic landscape of the central United States – titled Stake Land. Damaci (lead actor as he also was in Mulberry Street) is a vampire killer/drifter known by his best friends as Mister and has been traveling North through heavy vampire and Christian occult terrain to a supposed refuge in what we know in the present as Canada – because vampires hate national healthcare. Along the way he passes by a family being mauled by a vampire and is asked to promise the parents of a young man that their surviving son will be looked after and brought to safety. Mister, not being one for sentiment agrees, but with the condition that the boy will carry his own weight and be a helping hand. If he becomes a burden, he’s on his own.
As their time together grows their relationship barely escalates above anything more than mentor and pupil, but their skill at survival and ability to travel relatively undetected on barren roads keeps them alive long enough to meet a few more survivalists on their trek.
Unlike Mulberry the strength of Stake Land lies less with the characters and more with the action. Mister isn’t much of a personality so much as he is a weapon – and like a weapon he’s much more interesting when being fired than sitting on the table. He’s rough and rugged and says very little but doesn’t exactly compel you to want to know anything about him either. There are small inferences one can make given the playing of certain scenes by Damici that can add a little color to the character’s history if you choose to read into them, and they’re presented in a very subtle way that’s agreeable with the quiet nature of the film, but that’s about all the layering we’re privy to aside from seeing that he can kill vampires really well. Most of the weighty character material is given to Connor Paolo as Martin (Mister’s trainee) who’s also the prominent voice as the film’s narrator, and the supporting cast of hope-to-not-be victims the likes of Kelly McGillis and horror veteran Danielle Harris.
Again, though, the strength is less with the human element and more with the bloodsuckers of which they chose to go the exact opposite route of the modern norm of popular vampire stories . Meaning, you don’t want to have sex with these vampires and if you do it’s because you’ve got a thing for rabid ebola victims. There’s nothing romantic, appealing, or dignified about these vampires. They have very sharp teeth and very sharp nails and they would like to use them to separate you from the rest of you and their varying degrees of indestructibility (there are actually a few different species of vampires, all equally ugly though) and talents is the most intriguing aspect of the film, and is played with occasionally to provide some creative action sequences.
While not living up to the promise of Mulberry Street in regards to strength of character to carry a film Mickle and Damici show a desire to explore common horror themes slightly outside the box. With Stake Land they’re showing themselves as wanting to give something familiar differently, which is welcome, but the lack of intimacy and connection with the people on screen becomes an issue and sends the interest in their well-being south as their journey heads further and further north.