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Stake Land

Dark Sky Films // R // August 2, 2011
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted August 11, 2011 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Stake Land needs a better title; specifically, Stake Land needs a more tonally-fitting title that doesn't recall Ruben Fleischer's horror-comedy hybrid, Zombieland, from a few years prior. Sure, the concepts are similar: a global plague -- or, at least, one territorial to the United States -- has crippled society into an ungoverned network of fearful part-empty towns and dangerous roads, while bloodthirsty creatures mindlessly linger for the opportune moment to attack passersby. Only there's nothing humorous about Jim Mickle's budget-defying jaunt, which trades zombies for vampires, head-shots for stabs through the heart, and jovial yuck-worthy kills for a stringent mood with the sensibility of a Cormac McCarthy novel. It scrapes the genre aspects into a melting pot, from the desperation and grit in The Road to the kinetic fear from 28 Days Later, and invokes gritty, artful grace into a voyage across fang-laden America.

The similarities don't stop there, though. An inexperienced, twitchy teenager, named Martin (an effective Connor Paolo) in a nonchalant nod to George A. Romero's sole vampire film, folds in with a rugged vampire killer -- colloquially named "Mister", played with classic Western bravado by co-writer Nick Damici -- after losing his family and home to the country's epidemic. When not trekking north towards "New Eden", a Canadian locale rumored to be free of vampires, Mister teaches Martin how to wield a stake and dodge the monsters' advances. Stake Land is an environment where people live off what they can scavenge, and they usually travel, if at all, in small packs during daylight; Mister and Martin gain and lose companions along the way, giving the narrative a location-to-location tempo as they trade fangs and medical supplies for food, drink, and shelter while interacting with a medley of destitute souls.

Stake Land thrives on Martin's melancholy outlook as he narrates through a grim string of episodic trials as Mister's copilot, captured in Ryan Samul's dour but compelling cinematography which nourishes both the blood-caked grunge and rays of faint beauty in their trek. Gothic, unnerving atmosphere lingers in Mickle's horror tale, while the companions that the duo encounter along the way insert weight with their presence, even if not explicitly stressed; a nun (Kelly McGillis) saved from a cluster of cannibals eventually offers a glimpse at a jaded holy person's perspective on the plague, while a down-home, appealing pregnant girl (Danielle Harris) spotlights the importance of continuing the human bloodline -- alongside Martin's affection for the opposite sex. No-one is disposable here, only a medley of well-fleshed, consequential survivors that invoke empathy enough to keep the dread looming over the impending danger.

Innovation might not be Stake Land's strong suit, but Jim Mickle gives it a pulse by enriching his influences with a distinct, desolate attitude. The trek towards a secure asylum arises often in post-apocalyptic narratives, as a symbol of hope and as a straightforward way to heighten the stakes, and alongside that, a rugged and reticent guide often takes an abandoned youth under his wing to show him the ropes of blade-wielding survival, illustrating the tactics needed in society-crippled direness. You'll see these elements clearly here, but in an solemn, valid fashion that reaches for earnestness; there's a point where Mister and Martin sling their wrist-latched stakes in a small field of fluttering flowers while taking a pit-stop, tiptoeing on training-montage ground, but the earthy, convivial perspective we're granted lends it gravity through the intimate knowledge-passing between humanity's "orphans".

They're not preparing to kill incarnations of Edward or Bill Compton or Lestat, though, as this breed of vampires aren't the society-mingling deviants that fiend on lustful blood-tinged debauchery. In fact, if it weren't for the need to ram a wooden stick through their chest-plate or the way they combust under sunlight, it'd be easy to mistake them for zombies or the "infected": mindlessly thirsty and inelegant, more of the I Am Legend variety. Relegating them to voracious machines opens up deeper reflections within Mickle and Damici's script, where some of the survivors -- namely "The Brethren", insignia-bearing, radio-using religious militants led by fanatic Jebedia Loven (Michael Ceveris, The Observor from Fringe) -- believe the vampire transformation to be a plight delivered from the divine. Humanity's ugly cynicism is heightened against the vampires' uncontrollable sensory hunger, giving the film a visceral edge with blatant Romero-like critical overtones.

Stake Land isn't concerned with constant brutality, rarely (only occasionally) reveling in blood-spurting violence for the sheer gory delight that accompanies entries in the genre. Instead, it becomes rousing due to its prudent shifts between Mister and Martin's scoffs with the bloodsuckers and the shrewd current of dread that rustles around their avoidance of the nasty corners of post-disaster America, either when they duck into dusty human hideouts and abandoned homes or weave through chilly, perilous backwoods. Gore hounds receive a few doses of grotesquery to sate their palate, from deftly-telegraphed impalements on convincing vampire effects to the disheartening human wounds that occur, but it's the dire imagery -- textured and dimly hopeful against the decaying fractured foundation of civilization -- that effectively crafts Stake Land's looming anticipation, not expecting crimson (or other-hued) spurts. We want the band to thrive instead of risk their lives for brash kills, a sign of solid, tense horror-laced plotting.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Stake Land's mix of filthy heavy-textured grit and warmly idyllic-shot locations were captured on Red One high-definition cameras, which often render exquisite results when rendered on Blu-ray (check out District 9 and The Secret in Their Eyes for two stellar examples). Dark Sky's 2.35:1 1080p AVC treatment takes a stab at continuing that perception, and it does so with an expected amount of staggering clarity and color gradient eloquence. From the stained tears and grime in clothing to the natural textures of rock and tree bark, the focus Ryan Samul places on earthen elements etches out a crisp, detailed image, capturing flecks of hardened blood and rough-and-tumble nastiness within the apt makeup work. The visual tempo run through a full gamut in Stake Land, taking our line-of-sight into the dim flickers of a bar to the cold stretches of dead trees and graying roads, stretches across several seasons to convey the passing of time. Dark Sky's treatment nails the mood within the color timing (and the flesh tones peering from it), with only a few moments of overly-dark black levels and some smoother-than-expected textural replication.

Matching the visual acuity blow for blow, the fierce DTS HD Master Audio telegraphs a bevy of atmospheric and dynamic surround jabs, a satisfying rumble of lower-frequency depth, and a careful concentration on everything in between. The tense score from Jeff Grace reaches wide and long across the surround stage, with stylish pulsing and violin flutters exchanging tension and serenity at opportune moments, while more vigorous scoring hunkers itself down with attuned balance. Subtle sound elements offer a few nuanced delights to the ears -- like the rumble of Mister's convertible, the rattle of a shotgun, and the clanking of warning cans in the distance -- while more aggressive mechanized elements maintain a boisterous but fluent presence. Some of the activity centers itself to the front channel with a slightly hollow twang (the ruffling of footsteps in the mountain scenes, for one), but most of the clarity and balance here is top-shelf stuff. A 2-channel PCM track makes itself available as well, while only optional English subs can be selected.

Special Features:

Two Audio Commentaries have been recorded alongside Stake Land, both with the participation of writer/ director Jim Mickle: one which centers mostly on the actors, and the other serving as a filmmaker-geared track. Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, producer/actor Larry Fassenden, and producer Brent Knuckle discuss budget, the demands of acting in a horror film, shooting schedules, and visual effects, alongside many components of shooting with the Red One camera. They also talk about the genesis of some of the actors coming aboard the project, such as "wooing" Danielle Harris with promises of getting dirty and singing. Producer Peter Phok and Adam Folk, DP Ryan Samul, sound designer Graham Reznick, and composer Jeff Grace cram into a small room and dissect the film's components on a (somewhat) deeper level, from the original conceptualization of the script and the usage of the Red One camera data in post-production to what's digitally rendered and the influences that the scoring melds together. Both end up sharing a similar tempo, revealing interesting bits and pieces intermittently in a highly casual atmosphere.

Going For the Throat: The Making of Stake Land (1:01:55, HD AVC):
Here, a behind-the-scenes camera captures just about every single set location and keeps a watchful eye over the production elements, with no fluffy interviews to be found anywhere -- only the off-the-cuff conversational interjections that the cast and crew offer, whether on purpose or not. You get to see Jim Mickle and his full crew dress up and photograph the scenes, watching a wheelchair-navigated camera photograph a scene to an outtake with Nick Damici getting sprayed with some vile black fluid. You'll see subtle points like lighting adjustments and makeup application to the placement of weeds growing out from the crack in a semi-urban location, as well as plenty of fog and smoke during coold nighttime shooting spots. It grows a little long and tedious, better suited for a few viewings instead of a lengthy sit-down, but the glimpses at Mickle and his crew conducting movie magic

Production Video Diaries (48:58, HD AVC):
Segmented into five categories -- Pre-Production, Storyboards, Visual FX, Post-Production, and Toronto Film Festival Q&A -- you'll catch an eye-full of the workings inside Jim Mickle and producer Larry Fassenden's minds, from early conception all the way to their thoughts on the film at the conclusion. Snippets of early visual effects and screen tests fill the space of the first segment, while commentary-adorned discussion accompanies split-screen comparisons between the storyboards and footage from the film. Before and after footage showcases the sly visual effects work employed in the film, from small stuff like graffiti on walls and rain lighting effects to the full rendering of bodies crashing into tables, while post-production mostly covers the scoring. The bulk of the runtime covers the Toronto Q&A, which Mickle and his cast/crew field inquiries about the budget and production elements while jumping into the shooting schedules and a few interesting inquiries (one narrative question about the climate is pretty fun). Questions from the crowd that weren't audible are, thankfully, subtitled for added clarity.

Also available are a series of seven Prequels (34:25, HD AVC) that feature the original actors in a few short glimpses at their lives just before they entered into the film. Each one takes on a slightly different temperament than the film's aesthetic, yet they all feel very cohesive. To round things out, Dark Sky have also included a fitting Trailer (1:49, HD AVC) that's aware of the film's tone and gracefully dodges spoilers.

Final Thoughts:

It's as if writers Jim Mickle and Nick Damici sat down, sketched out a checklist comprised of all the intriguing elements within the post-apocalyptic and vampire genres, and set out to do them all straight-faced, practical and cohesive within their own inventive landscape. They succeed with Stake Land, and refreshingly so; the gritty environment pulls together plenty of influence, at times unavoidably so, but the artful perspective brought to the grim, gritty landscape makes it fresh in the confines of their realization of a ramshackle post-event America. Low on direct jolts but heavy on mood and effectual human drama within the tense scripting, this low-key indie horror hybrid concocts a bracing atmosphere that only wields stakes and spurts blood when it's woven into the gradually-escalating escapades of Mister and Martin, crafting scope and solemn focus instead of a vigorous kill-count. Dark Sky's Blu-ray presents the Red One-photographed film with precise audiovisual rendering and a smattering of really solid supplemental material, including a pair of strong commentaries, plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, and quite a few intriguing points under the production wing. Highly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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