Tuesday 31 January 2012

The short end of the stake

You and I are mostly fed unimaginative, reactionary tripe at the cinema. Hackwork is like a tumour: it really exists to no end than to leave you wanting more of the same - and more, and more - until it consumes all in its path. Hollywood now produces infinite iterations of the same basic concepts, frozen in a capitalist paradigm to which creativity and risk are synonyms.

Okay, so that's not true, or at least an unfair generalisation: while certain narratives and cinematic languages occupy a hegemonic position, alternative ways of doing cinema make it through all the time. They're marginalised, but they're there. That first paragraph, though, is precisely the sort of response Stake Land - a film of whose existence I would never have learnt were it not for idly clicking on cross-references at 2 a.m. - induces in the viewer.

Because you see, Stake Land is pretty great, an indie-horror film with guts and ideas and gorgeous cinematography; but after making the rounds at festivals in 2010 and receiving a limited release in a couple of countries, the film managed to scrape up a grand total of $18,469 domestically ($33,245 internationally). And I should mention Stake Land's director Jim Mickle was in a relatively privileged position: he managed to get a budget of $4 million, which is by no means bad when a lot of talented filmmakers can't get the funding to make feature-length films at all - or, you know, anything.

(Sure, these films often manage to cover their costs because fans seek them out on home video, and that's great. But it limits their audience to those who already know what they're looking for: the horror ghetto, a particularly insular and unfairly maligned community. The point is that you and I never get a chance to go to the cinema and say, 'What shall we watch? Hey, Stake Land sounds kind of cool, let's check it out!')

Anyway, Stake Land takes place in a world in which a mass outbreak of vampirism has turned most people into either blood-drinking night-dwellers or non-walking corpses. As the film begins, the family of Martin (Connor Paolo) are preparing to flee to a less densely populated area. They're slaughtered by a sudden vampire attack, but Martin is saved by Mister (Nick Damici), a gruff, taciturn vampire hunter. (Why yes, it did remind me of Wesley's brief stint as a 'rogue demon hunter' on Angel, but that's all the Buffyverse references we'll make here.) The two strike up an unlikely friendship as they travel north towards Canada, now referred to as 'New Eden', where legend has it no vampires exist.

Along the way they have to navigate the dangerous physical and political landscape of North America. While national governments have to all intents and purposes collapsed, many towns still hold out, armed to the teeth and suspicious of strangers. Global catastrophe has also allowed fiefdoms to be carved out by demagogues like Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris), whose Brotherhood believes that vampires are a punishment sent by God, and also, it seems, that one should be awful to everyone for no reason. (Post-doomsday cults are always called the Brotherhood. Remember that the next time you're in the wasteland stuck for something to do, and decide to start your own new religious movement. Also, child brides. Gotta have those.) For company and protection, Martin and Mister are eventually joined by a Catholic nun (Kelly McGillis), a pregnant singer (Danielle Harris), and an ex-marine (Sean Nelson).

The film's strongest element are the astonishing visuals. It's easy to compare Stake Land to Zombieland, another film about a ragtag bunch of strangers on a roadtrip through a post-apolyptic America swarming with hungry ex-people. But the films couldn't be more different. It's not just that Zombieland is a comedy. While not ugly, Z-Land is ultimately filmed in a fairly straightforward point-and-shoot way. Mickle and cinematographer Ryan Samul, by contrast, deliver one carefully composed image of striking gorgeousness after another:

Stake Land's vampires are magnificently ugly beasts. Largely unintelligent  - they hunt in packs, but are incapable of speech and easy to trap - they most closely resemble the nosferatu of Vampire: The Masquerade, or indeed their silent-film progenitor. Brutal killing machines, they share none of the deceptive simulation of human beings that usually makes vampire fascinating.

Well, there's a reason for that. The script, written by the director and co-star Nick Damici, is a bit undecided on what it wants to be, but either way isn't really interested in vampires. They exist primarily as a backdrop to explore how society would respond to near-total collapse of its structures, and what that tells us about human beings. It's ultimately hopeful: yes, some people do become homicidal fanatics, but most learn to take a pure joy in each other amid the utter horror that is Vampireland. (Proceeding purely from theme rather than what its monster is called, that makes Stake Land a zombie film, but let's not quibble.)

The simple plot - moving north, avoiding trouble - allows the filmmakers to take us through a variety of post-apocalyptic communities, showing new societies arising in the wake of disaster. Hence, I think, the beauty. As a wacky mixture of Zombieland and Badlands with a dash of Into the Wild, Stake Land is fundamentally introspective, even contemplative; and since Martin's voiceover narration is mostly used for exposition, the visuals have to do the heavy lifting. And that they do. The outdoors photography of the wilderness in the later part of the film is especially memorable.

Stake Land is unfortunately let down by a weak villain. I don't think that's Michael Cerveris's fault: with a script so eager to sell us on evil fundamentalists, he can't really do much. I'm always perplexed by the portrayal of fundamentalist Christians in films. See, I disagree with the loony fringe of my faith when I meet them, but it seems like Hollywood screenwriters have never met a Christian, fundamentalist or otherwise, and just sort of assume they must be mad and eat babies. So again, I could be offended by the way Mickle and Damici caricature Christianity, but really the Brotherhood does not resemble anything existing in the real world - and there's no reason it should: a catastrophe of the scale portrayed here would certainly change the contours of mainstream Christianity and spawn a plethora of cults.

Connor Paolo turns in a sensitive performance in a thankless role: as the audience substitute, his job is mostly to observe and react to Damici. Shorter than Taylor Momsen - who's three years his junior- during their Gossip Girl days, he looks too slight and adolescent to break into leading-man roles anytime soon, but he's a talented actor. Damici - a poor man's Josh Brolin by looks - is pretty much pure awesome, while Danielle Harris is left a bit stranded (she was originally to be Damici's love interest, but her youthful appearance scuppered that storyline).

With beautiful cinematography, engaging characters and a streak of humour (says one character of a vampire who regularly forages near her house: 'It's Walter again. I went to high school with him, and I haven't been able to get a clean shot. He's such an asshole.'), Stake Land is definitely worth your while. It's by no means purely original, but as a synthesis of concepts it brilliantly breaks some of the patterns we're used to in vampire films. It's ironic that there should be a real renaissance of creativity in the genre at the same time as Twilight is raking in the cash, but c'est la vie.

1 comment:

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