Let’s be honest, we’ve all got ways we hope the world will end. Whether it be through a freak Michael-Bay-esque volcano-vomit, a plague of rabid horses or (my personal fantasy) an international dance off that ends in utter global annihilation, we’re a species that often gets carried away with hysterical visions of our own demise. What’s so damn cool about the unassuming Stake Land is that it takes humanity’s untimely destruction as the human race will have to: depressingly, inevitably in its stride.
So, for reasons that remain unknown and entirely unnecessary, the world has been torn apart by creatures known as “vamps” – hideous, Night of The Living Dead type creatures that – predictably but still truly horribly – prey on the piping hot blood of the innocent. After his parents fall victim to the relentless plague, a young lad named Martin finds himself on the road with a grizzled old vamp-hunter named only ‘Mister’, a tight-lipped bad-ass who is determined to get them both to New Eden – someplace the vamps can’t gettem. They pick up the odd burned-out traveller from the odd burned-out house from time to time, but their task is to avoid and or kill the vampires that stalk their every move. However, it soon becomes clear that the vampires aren’t the main problem: a rather over-zealous Christian band known as The Brethren are determined to feed the few remaining human sinners to the mutant creatures, seeing them as ‘God’s creations’. And that doesn’t sound like much fun to our group…
As apocalyptic theories go, Stake Land‘s is pretty sparse. We’re never given much explanation as to how the Vamp outbreak began, how it spread or even what our heroes should expect from their seemingly mythical New Eden if and when they reach it. But, in actual fact, it’s all rather refreshing. No scientists muttering mumbo-jumbo to a incomprehensible printout, no hysterical exposition or unlikely lines of questioning just to get the neccessary info out – it’s as if director Jim Mickle shrugged his shoulders at it all and muttered “well, none of it bloody matters, does it?” Instead of ham-fisted dialogue and bloated conceptual description, the focus of Stake Land is always on constructing original set-pieces that actually deliver on scares – and what set pieces they are. Considering the film’s micro-budget, the almost relentless barrage of well-constructed gothic horror scenes is massively impressive, with a gore-gauge that will satisfy even the hungriest of blood-lovers.
It’s rather interesting that Mickle decided to add an antagonistic religious element with the inclusion of truly horrifying Brethren cult, but this too seems to inform the visual choices rather more than the story – you’re left wondering whether there’s something more to take from it than simply a love of gothic hoods.
With concept and political conceit painted in broader-than-broad brush strokes, you’d be forgiven for thinking that without a lot of dialogue it may be rather difficult to empathise with our vampire-hunting troupe of doom-survivors. Actually though, stripping back the talking works. Trapped in a world seemingly without hope, where survival is the only goal, it would seem strange for the characters who join our two protagonists to witter on about the lives they once had purely for the benefit of an audience. So they don’t. Instead, without power or knowledge, as an audience all we can do is watch the group slowly harden themselves against the horrors they come to witness. What other choice do they have? In distancing us from these characters, Mickle forces us to confront the chilling reality of a truly un-savable world. And, as it turns out, no-one wants spend a lot of time talking about it.
A moody, downbeat antidote to a Hollywood where vampires do their blood shopping at M&S, Stake Land is a glowering, steely-eyed nugget of a film that glories in the monsters of yore. Horror makers, take note – it’s sometimes helpful to remember that scares are your number one priority.