Stake Land DVD reviewA column article, Shot For Shot by: Justin Carmona, Nick Hanover, & Paul Brian McCoy
America is a lost nation. When an epidemic of vampirism strikes, humans find themselves on the run from vicious, feral beasts. Cities are tombs and survivors cling together in rural pockets, fearful of nightfall. When his family is slaughtered, young Martin ("Gossip Girl's" Connor Paolo) is taken under the wing of a grizzled, wayward hunter (Nick Damici) whose new prey is the Undead.
Simply known as Mister, the vampire stalker takes Martin on a journey through the locked-down towns of America's heartland, searching for a better place while taking down any bloodsuckers that cross their path. Along the way they recruit fellow travellers, including a nun (Kelly McGillis) who is caught in a crisis of faith when her followers turn into ravenous beasts. This ragtag family unit cautiously moves north, avoiding major thoroughfares that have been seized by The Brethren, a fundamentalist militia headed by Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris) that interprets the plague as the Lord's work.
Stake Land is the second feature film written and directed by the creative team of Nick Damici and Jim Mickle. They both write, then Damici stars while Mickle directs.
The film stars Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Danielle Harris, Kelly McGillis, Sean Nelson, and Michael Cerveris.
Nick Hanover: So, did anyone else expect this movie to be more like Zombieland? What with the rip-off title and everything...
Justin Carmona: No, not really. But the title just didn't work for me.
Paul Brian McCoy: I had heard about it before and was expecting more of aThe Road vibe. I wasn't expecting the Shogun Assassin vibe.
Justin: I would have preferred Blood Lands or something to that nature.
Nick: The title is just so ill-fitting. It's not really about a land of vampire hunters; in fact the vampires are kind of secondary to the real point of the film, which is how people turn on themselves during crises.
Justin: Stake Land made me think of a glorious valley with juicy steaks a-plenty.
Nick: That sounds like the kind of movie Ron Swanson would make...
Justin: But despite the off-putting title, I really enjoyed this movie. I enjoyed it a helluva lot.
Paul: I don't know. The title and the DVD packaging were all a little more exploitative than the film turned out to be.
Justin: Exactly. I expected some ridiculous B-movie.
Nick: Yeah, that's what I expected as well, I don't think they did themselves any favor by selling it as such. I wanted to enjoy this movie but there were some things that really irritated me about it.
Paul: I enjoyed it, but found myself kind of bored at times. That could be more my desire for faster pacing than a problem with the film. It took itself so seriously.
Justin: It kinda reminded me of Vincent Price’s Last Man On Earth only with you know... more people.
Nick: Most of my issues had to do with the writing. In terms of style, this movie was excellent, but it was extremely poorly written at times and the overwhelming self-seriousness was an issue for me as well.
Justin: Really, I thought it was well-paced and I like the fact that it wasn't cheesy or hokey.
Nick: There was a disconnect between the cleverness the film thought it had and the inability of its writers to fully think through their ideas, resulting in something that felt half-formed at times.
Justin: I really loved the cinematography. You really don't get great shots like that from such a low budget horror film, but the way everything was filmed really captivated me.
Nick: I would agree with that. The cinematography in this was incredible and other modern horror filmmakers would be wise to learn from this film. Ryan Samul's camera work was just stunning and he made excellent use of HD's capabilities
Paul: I really only thought a few scenes were poorly written. Most of the film really worked for me with, again, a Shogun Assassin kind of style. It felt like it could have been a couple of movies exploring this world, cut together with overdubbed narration moving the narrative along.
Justin: I did have a problem with the name, MISTER. That was just kind of a lame attempt to have a mysterious character with a mysterious name.
Paul: I liked the name Mister. Simple and effective.
Justin: Nah... Simple sometimes = boring.
Paul: And again, echoing Shogun Assassin's "Father". And then the nice shout out to Romero by naming the boy Martin. It didn't add anything, but it was a show of respect.
Nick: The names didn't really bother me. What did bother me was the poor grasp on the characters the writers had. Mister alternated far too often between being a grim and gritty caricature and a loner with a secret heart of gold
Justin: But I agree with Paul, I wanted to see more of this world. But I take that as a positive. It makes me hope for a sequel so we can learn what else is out there. I can see this as a TV series. "The Vampire Movie That Never Ends"... Walking Dead style.
Paul: It was very Walking Dead.
Justin: Why can't Mister be both of those things? I really liked him.
Paul: I didn't really have a problem with Mister's character. He was the grim and gritty loner with a heart of gold.
Nick: He could if he was portrayed as complex, but instead it came off as a conflict in the writing, where they needed him to be soft at times to move the plot forward and hard everywhere else. I mean, think about this aspect of it: for a lone wolf survivor, he sure as fuck likes to pick up obstacles.
Did he do that for the challenge? Did he do it because he believed he was a guide? Why did he do it? He seemingly hated everyone he picked up except Martin, who he would go and back and forth on hating like some kind of extremely bipolar parent.
Paul: Well, nothing really establishes him as the lone wolf survivor beyond the fact that he's alone when he saves Martin.
Nick: And the fact that he is a vampire exterminator.
Justin: He is no different than a Mad Max type or even Wolverine. Deep down these guys have a sense of decency. Nothing wrong with that.
Nick: For sure, I completely agree with that. But if it's a matter of decency, why would he keep these people travelling with him when it's just going to get them killed?
Justin: Maybe the last kid he had with him before encountering Martin got eating up or something. Lol!
Paul: I didn't get any hate for the others he picked up at all. In fact, he was extremely pragmatic. If he could save someone, he did. When he couldn't do anything, he didn't.
Nick: He called the nun a bitch pretty much every time he spoke to her! That's not exactly kind
Paul: The whole goal was to get to New Eden. He told her to stop being romantic and sticking to old ways of thinking. Pragmatism isn't hostility.
Gruff, though he was.
Justin: And that Nun was Kelly McGillis! Wow.
Paul: Ha! Yeah.
Nick: He was pragmatic only when it made sense for the plot. What kind of pragmatic person picks up a pregnant girl to tag along on his mission to a potentially doomed colony in which he plans to make pit stops for vampire killing?
Paul: That was for Martin.
Nick: Martin, who he has had no problems saying no to before.
Paul: It wasn't overt, but I got the feeling that it was a way of keeping Martin from becoming as isolated emotionally as he was.
That's why he left at the end, too.
Nick: There's also the matter of the extremely stupid decisions they make constantly, despite being hardened survivors, like camping out in a junkyard. Or running after vampires and leaving a pregnant girl who may be in labor alone beside the fire.
Justin: Yeah, I have to admit the junkyard scene was a little hard to swallow, but it didn't ruin the movie for me.
Paul: Leaving Belle was a bad decision, but up until that point, they hadn't encountered a Vampire that could plan and reason. They didn’t know it was a trap.
The junkyard, yeah. I don't know what they were thinking. Luckily there was a cornfield nearby.
Nick: I get that the other vampires didn't "plan," per se, but why would you ever leave someone like that alone? I could understand Mister running off into the woods by himself to track the vampires and something bad happening there, but it was just so jarring to see them leave her there by herself, no buddy, no defense, no anything. It was a gigantic warning of the climax.
Nick: Maybe as a screenwriter myself I can't help but see the mechanics of this stuff, but it bothered me that this film squandered its potential in this manner. It was so smart about some things and so dumb about others.
Paul: It was a bad move, yes. But not one that was out of character. Just arrogant.
Justin: I liked the fact that vamps weren't the only thing to be on the look-out for. And I really loved the concept of The Brotherhood. I just wish the writers and director had explored that idea a little more.
Paul: The Brotherhood was my least favorite thing about the film. Although they did provide one of my favorite things: Vampire Air Drops.
Justin: Yeah, Vampire Air Drops were quite awesome! It took me a split second to figure out what was happening in that scene and it really made for an awesome and effective surprise.
Nick: The air drop scene may have been my favorite and is one of the smart things I had in mind when I made that comment. It was an excellent addition and also made tons of sense, considering the doomsday nature of the cults. Plus, historically accurate! That used to be the kind of thing armies would do all the time, except with plague victims instead of vampires. Or maybe they're one in the same
Justin: Now did it bother me to think how did they even accomplish that? Getting Vamps on the helicopters? Yes. But really who cares? It was a killer (no pun intended) scene.
Nick: It looked like they had tied the vampires up, but I'm not sure. Like tied them up and cut the lines just before pushing them out, I mean.
Paul: The main problem I had with that whole scenario was having Jebedia come back as a vamp.
Nick: Jebedia coming back was pretty stupid, especially his explanation of why he still had intelligence
Paul: That was the worst part of the movie.
Vampire Air Drops, maybe the best part.
Nick: When he pushed Martin into the pool of blood, I half expected that to wind up being like Salem's Lot and we'd have a cursed Martin
Justin: I liked that Jebedia came back as a vamp because it make you think... maybe there is something to this cult after all. Maybe they've been right all along. I just wish that had gotten explored in the film.
Right about the reason for the vampire plague, I mean.
Nick: That kind of contradicts the more "scientific" angle they had with the "plague," though
Paul: This would have been much better without any kind of spiritual angle that paid off in any way.
Justin: Not really, if it was God's will through science... but I digress. Don't want to turn this into a theologcal debate. Lol!
Paul: The film was about stripping away the supernatural.
Nick: I meant more that the film was trying to make this a non-supernatural take on vampirism. Up until that point, at least
Paul: No heaven and hell. Just ethics and morality. Jebedia's return was a huge misstep. They didn't need a villain.
Nick: Other than the villainy of humanity on the whole
Justin: Why not? Why didn't they need a villian? That's like saying that The Walking Dead didn't need The Governor.
Paul: That was what worked about the cult, that it wasn't a single bad guy, but a response to the situation with questionable moral standards.
Nick: To me, the whole movie was about the same thing Walking Dead is about, which is that sometimes the monsters aren't the undead. If you make one guy your representative of that instead of a significant portion of people, you kind of knock the legs out from underneath your own point
Paul: The Walking Dead doesn't need the Governor as an ongoing threat that keeps coming back.
Justin: If the world goes to shit we are still gonna have evil men out there and nut jobs who use is to further their own needs.
Paul: The Governor was a threat in the same way that Jebedia was at first. Bringing him back as a super vamp was overkill and unnecessary.
Justin: Jebedia was killed. No ongoing threat.
Paul: Until he came back as super vampire.
Justin: Governor came back, too. After he got bits of himself chopped off. Lol!
Nick: Right, but that's why you shouldn't have a villain symbolize that but a constantly shifting series of villains all with different motivations. Jebedia was just a guy with a vendetta that apparently went beyond life itself.
Paul: With special abilities that normal vamps don't have.
Justin: So now you're saying that the movie needed more villains?
Paul: Shit, the weather was a villain. Hunger was a villain. Shelter was a villain.
Justin: Okay, I was thinking more of actual character villains.
Nick: No, I'm saying the story was stronger without the urge to give it one easy-to-categorize villain.
Paul: Making the villain a super vampire different from everything that had been established undercut the story. He served his purpose as a transitory villain. Everything was transitory.
Justin: Again, that made me question whether the cult was right about their belief and that's why I liked that Jebedia came back as a more advanced vamp.
Paul: I thought it cheapened the whole film, bringing him back.
Nick: If the audience can just focus on one super big bad, it undermines your point that anybody can be a villain in the right situation; all they'll think of is that one scary bad guy who is very clearly evil.
Paul: But I guess that if I'm worried about cheapening your concept, the concept is one that really stands up.
Nick: Paul's exactly right, to me at least. Death was otherwise so permanent in the movie.
Paul: Introducing the supernatural was a mistake.
Justin: I still gotta chalk it up to Jebby's faith.
But let's move on...
Paul: The cult was interesting, but was more a collection of clichés than a real religious element.
Justin: I agree there. I really wish the cult had been fully fleshed out. That was a missed opportunity.
Paul: On another note, I really felt like Nick Damici (Mister) was doing everything he could to channel William Smith.
Who is one of my favorite actors, by the way.
Justin: Will Smith the rapper turned actor Will Smith?
Nick: No, the cult horror actor
Paul: Conan's dad, goddammit!
Justin: Shit, Paul. Calm down, dude. I don't know EVERY actor who's ever lived. Lol!
This man is a king among men.
A poet warrior.
Justin: I was thinking to myself, "Damn, Paul really likes Will Smith so much that he gives him much respect by referring to him as William." Lol!
Nick: I love that he's a poet too. I guess maybe he's more famous for his TV stuff, but I always think of his roles in crazy crap like Evil Altar.
Paul: It was disturbing at times, how much Damici looked and acted like him.
Smith is an awesome man and one of my heroes.
Justin: I'll look him up. Been a while since I've seen Conan, but I did recently see Hancock. : P
Paul: If you have Netflix, stream the "Pros and Cons" episode of The A-Team's first season. William Smith is awesome.
Nick: I was generally impressed with the acting in this. I was a little concerned by the fact that the box proudly mentioned Connor Paolo's Gossip Girl credit. The only bad acting moment came in Vampire Air Drop town, with that police guy's salute as they left.
Paul: I missed the salute.
Justin: Yeah, the salute was outta place.
Nick: Oh, it was badddd. REAL BAD.
Paul: I was most surprised by the fact that Danielle Harris is in her thirties!
Justin: Oh, yeah! I knew I had seen her somewhere. I looked her up after the film ended.
Nick: Holy crap, how is she 34?! She and Elijah Wood must be sharing the fountain of youth.
Justin: She is one hottie, that's for damn sure!
Paul: I remember seeing her as a little kid in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. I am freaking old.
Justin: Yeah, Halloween! She's not that much younger than me. I feel good.
Paul: I thought she was a teenager in this film, and then occasionally caught glimpses of lines in her face and was shocked to realize who she was!
Nick: I thought she was just another twentysomething playing a teenager. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Paul: Good lord, Justin! Halloween 4 was 1988! How old are you? I'd been out of high school for two years in 1988!
Justin: 37. How old are you, Paul?
Nick: You guys are just going to depress yourselves here, haha!
Paul: 43 MUTHAFUCKAS!!!
Justin: Not me, she's just right. ;) LMAO! How did this review turn into a game of "Who's Older/Younger"?
Nick: This is secretly how all of our reviews go.
Okay, so we ready to rate this bitch?
Nick: Yeah, I'm giving it .
Justin: Solid script, acting and direction. Great editing and amazing cinematography. As horror films go (of which, really good ones are few and far between) I give it a solid , yo!
Paul: I would have gone 3, but the damned movie opened with baby killing and nun-raping, so I give it , easy.
Nick: Two more things to add to the PBM approval list! I'm so excited!
Paul: Seriously, man. After the first ten minutes of this film, I was all like, "Let's get real, motherfuckers."
Justin: Paul would have given it a 5 if the baby was a nun who... nevermind. I'm not going there.
Nick: What beer went with this film, Paul? In tribute to ourGame of Thrones discussions
Paul: Whole Hog Imperial Pilsner.
On a closing note, we at the compound were a little disturbed by the fact that Tom Cruise gets to be Sexy Super Spy all these years after Top Gun, but Kelly McGillis has to be Old Rape Nun.
Paul: And did we mention that Jebedia was played by Michael Cerveris, Fringe's Observer?
Well he was.
Justin: It just occurred to me, she looks just like Bloody Mary from that Garth Ennis comics. Wow!
Paul: Also, this film made me want to search out this writing/directing/acting team's first feature, Mulberry Street, about mutant vampire rat people.
Why have I not seen that film?