If there’s one genre that’s been done to (un)death recently, it’s the vampire movie. They’re everywhere these days, from angsty, sparkly teen models (The Twilight Saga) to barely humanoid savage beasts (um, Priest). It’s like some kind of highly infectious vampire plague is spreading through Hollywood.
The latest in the genre is Stake Land, a brutal and uncompromising film about as far removed from the notion of twinkling vampires as it’s possible to get. It takes place in a bleak post-apocalyptic future (is there any other kind?) in which, yup, a genuine vampire plague has ravaged the land. This disease turns ordinary people into bloody sucking vampire fiends and society as we know it has crumbled into a mouldering husk. It’s like Croydon in other words.
Connor Paolo plays Martin, a young boy who’s taken under the wing of seasoned vampire hunter called Mister (Nick Damici who looks like a cross between Harvey Keitel and Danny Trejo) after his family are brutally slaughtered in a vampire attack. Mister teaches Martin the ropes of vampire hunting and the two of them travel together across America in search of New Eden, a rumoured safe zone far to the north.
Along the way they pick up other survivors including a nun (80s pin up Kelly McGillis), a pregnant girl (Danielle Harris) and an ex-marine (Sean Nelson) but they’ll have more than just vampires to deal with as pockets of a fundamentalist cult led by the sinister Jebediah (Michael Ceveris) have sprung up all over the country and openly welcome the apocalypse as God’s judgment.
We’re offered no rhyme or reason why the plague happened and that actually works in its favour, conveying an immediacy that any exposition would destroy. It plays out like The Road with zombies (the so-called vamps in this movie have more in common with zombies than any garlic-fearing fangsters), the pair trudging through a wasteland of burnt-out cars and rubble. The dialogue is sparse but seems stilted and forced; Mister seems less like a taciturn badass and more like someone who just watched too many Clint Eastwood movies.
But while the approach is different, the plot is tiresomely predictable and wheedles out all the old tropes of the post-apocalyptic road movie. So there’s the usual dreary spiel about coming of age and the loss of innocence (predictably Martin has to kill a girl of a similar age to himself) and some half-baked satire about the devolution of society and the dangers of religious fundamentalism which are so crashingly obvious that’s it hard to care.
That’s a shame because the aesthetics are suitably bleak, the fight scenes effectively brutal and there are some sprinkles of great ideas (an inventive helicopter attack; a dribbling vampire in a Santa costume). But in the end, it feels like a patchwork of scenes taken from other movies and cobbled together and none of those elements are original.
At one point Martin says “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe, things you should never see” Unfortunately for Stake Land, they’re things we would believe and that we’ve seen a dozen times before.