Though I doubt few outside the world of horror have heard the name “Jim Mickle” this NYU educated writer-director has in ten years already carved out an impressive filmography. Breaking out with the low budget Mulberry Street in 2006, Mickle has since made three films; Stake Land, We Are What We Are and Cold in July, all of which have been well reviewed. I think it’s time some of us take note not only of the quality of Mickle’s films but the content. I can’t remember the last time I watched films from a horror director who spent so much time on character development. Mickie’s characters are never props to the actions or monster bait with targets pinned to their backs. They are living, breathing people with defined motivations and fleshed out personalities. Perhaps one of Mickle’s best examples of this is the 2010 film Stake Land. Although it may sound like a gory vampire romp (and it is occasionally) the film flashes a few moments of brilliance.
Mister (Nick Damici), is a tough-as-nails vampire hunter traveling through the heartland of America (post vampire apocalypse) with his teenage sidekick Martin (Connor Paolo). Mister saved Martin from being killed by his own vampire-turned parents and acts as a sort of vampire-slaying Obi-Wan to Martin’s Luke. Mister teaches him to defend himself and how the world ultimately works now. The film is told through Martin’s POV with heavy narration and is filmed alongside barren roads, dying fields, and near mile after mile of burned wreckage. Think of it like a Terrence Malick film with more decapitation.
Along the way, Mister and Martin befriend Sister (Kelly McGillis) a former nun and rape survivor and Belle (Danielle Harris), a pregnant and thoughtful singer. The group heads towards a fabled place known as “New Eden” while facing off against hordes of the sunlight-impaired and fanatical cultists. The action and makeup effects are all done practically and the landscape is visually stunning. Few horror films look this good with this little money.
I like the dynamic of Mister and Martin. It reminds of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road if it was about vampires. Though this story is different in that Mister is a father figure but never allows himself to get too close, adding a melancholy tone. Mister is all about business, and his business is killing vampires. Kelly McGillis is impressive in this film as well. Which is surprising considering she hadn’t made a movie in 10 years! What a shame. Who would have known the love interest from Top Gun was such a talented actress.
Stake Land is a film that starts strong but waivers the longer it goes on. Ultimately, the film is more or less a generic action movie by its end. The vampires are never as interesting as the wasteland they have created. I would have liked to see less of them and more of Mister and Martin trying to survive in what’s left of America. I cared a great deal about their relationship and where it was heading. I think I should also note I have a love/hate relationship with this film’s narration. It provides nice background info but other times there will be a beautiful shot and I will be completely distracted due to Martins wordy southern drawl. I would rather see a cut without narration. Actions always speak louder than words.
Stake Land feels familiar in premise but excels at least in its execution of its characters. Mister has all the trappings of a classic horror hero and I’m not sure why Nick Damici has not become a bigger star. Maybe if he continues to work with Jim Mickle his star will finally shine. Until then he’s just another vampire hunter punching-in and punching-out. What a pain in the neck… See what I did there, HUH? DID YOU SEE THAT?!?
This guy gets it.