Vampires are everywhere so it takes something original and compelling to get noticed. Broken down into the simplest components, True Blood has sex, Twilight has sparkly vampires and repression, Let the Right One In has angst and horror, Stake Land has ferocious blood suckers and convincing end of civilisation feel.
When a vampire epidemic strikes the world, civilisation breaks down. One night Martin (Connor Paolo) and his family decide to leave home but are attacked, Martin only escapes death due to the intervention of a vampire hunter named Mister (Nick Damici) who takes Martin under his wing. The two travel north to Canada, avoiding cities in an attempt to get to New Eden a place too cold for vampires. Their journey is fraught with danger not just from vampires but from humans who have taken to joining religious cults because they believe the plague is an act of God. Mister and Martin pick up a group of people including a nun (Kelly McGillis) a travelling singer named Belle (Danielle Harris) and a former marine but will they survive the journey?
Directed by Jim Mickle who also co-wrote it with Nick Damici, the film has a simple yet brutal narrative that never compromises the bleak world it creates and as a result surprises with some twists.
It is the detail that sells the film. Martin and Mister exist in a believable day/night cycle, travelling on lonely roads surrounded by fields as they head through rust-belt America. Martin narrates the film quickly detailing how the World woke up to a nightmare. The film captures this with details that range from the tiny like newspapers with headlines proclaiming quarantine and America under attack, to the large like towns and factories that lie wrecked where characters scavenge parts for weapons. It is strong stuff, some of it reminiscent of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck.
The details are well-crafted from the stakes used to kill vampires to the booby-traps which are created from items like tin cans and bottles – everyday detritus gaining new meaning now that the world has ended.
Inhabiting this world are characters that rise just far enough beyond type to be interesting.
Mister is a tough vampire killer who comes out with lines like “One day, you’ll not learn to dream at all” and has a strong physical presence. His character is not developed further beyond that but it was compelling enough.
In desperate times false Gods abound and the religious angle creates a faction that feels both threatening and familiar. They are lead by a pastor named Jebediah (Michael Cerveris) who broadcasts his messages on the radio and proves to be a highly loathsome type of bad guy.
The violence on display is tough and characters end up looking beat up. The special effects sell the idea that these are real human/vampire bodies getting stakes put through them. The highlight is the first vampire encounter which sees a vamp get a stake through the neck, blood spurting everywhere.
The vampires themselves are feral, moving around with deadly speed and sudden bursts of violence, they also retain traces of humanity which brings up moral conflicts for characters.
It is not just violence but the humanity of some scenes where characters can flower however slightly. Within the new nightmare people find times that can be beautiful within the Autumnal landscapes which the cinematography captures. The fairytale music helps create atmosphere, although this can be overwhelming at times. These two points bring excels at key points to humanise the characters: Belle singing, Martin gazing at her with desire and the gathering at a town which breaks into joyous dancing, the music acts to lift the mood of the film and assure us that humanity can survive despite the open ending.