'Stake Land'

Set in a post-apocalyptic world midway between "Zombieland" and "The Road," the genre-enlivening "Stake Land" is a highly satisfying low-budget horror-thriller from helmer/co-writer Jim Mickle.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world midway between “Zombieland” and “The Road,” the genre-enlivening “Stake Land” is a highly satisfying low-budget horror-thriller from helmer/co-writer Jim Mickle. Making strong use of Western iconography and conventions, this road movie follows a man and a boy seeking the perhaps apocryphal safety of New Eden, fending off ravenous vampires as well as crazed fundamentalists along the way. Highly cinematic, pitch-perfect yarn should take a sizable bite out of the genre box office during its 2011 release from boutique horror label Dark Sky Films, with toothsome ancillary to follow.

Opening as an epidemic of vampirism has brought down the U.S. government and thrust society into chaos, the film gets off to a bloody start with the murder of a suburban family by flesh-chomping creatures who resemble the zombies from George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” Teen protagonist Martin (“Gossip Girl’s” Connor Paolo) is rescued from the carnage by grizzled vampire hunter Mister (co-writer Nick Damici) and trained in the life-or-death art of staking a bloodsucker.

As the two head north in a vintage convertible, they pass through striking deserted landscapes and rural “lockdowns” (vamp-free zones), depicted as Western frontier towns complete with archetypal doctors, barbers, brothels and saloons. Along the way, they acquire assorted traveling companions — nun Sister Anna (an almost unrecognizable Kelly McGillis), pregnant Belle (Danielle Harris) and Marine Willie (Sean Nelson) — and tangle with the Brethren, a Christian militia led by the deranged Jebedia (Michael Cerveris).

While Romero’s work is among the pic’s discernible influences, it also contains echoes of cult films from “The Last Man on Earth” to “The Road Warrior.” Yet more than anything, it plays like a latter-day Western, with vampires in the place of Native Americans.

Genre-savvy co-scripters Mickle and Damici are clearly conscious of the similarities between apocalyptic stories and oaters, and find inspired ways to reinforce the connection. Moreover, as in their well-received first feature, “Mulberry Street,” they incorporate social commentary without being too insistent; it’s not difficult to think of the militant evangelical groups of our times evolving into the Brethren.

Taking on a larger canvas than that of “Mulberry Street,” Mickle rises to the challenge, confirming his reputation as an emerging horror auteur. Creating character with very little dialogue, he moves away from splatter and gross-out humor to create something more mythic. Apart from the evilly eloquent Cerveris, the main thesps adopt a less-is-more style that comes across as quietly heroic. Landing relatively little screen time, the decomposing, undead creatures seem more akin to the movie zombies of the past than the sleek, sexy vampires in vogue today.

With the 27-day shoot spread over three seasons and varied natural landscapes, the atmospheric lensing by Ryan Samul on the Red One camera achieves impressive texture. Also standing out among the strong craft credits is Jeff Grace’s evocative score, which incorporates spirituals and traditional folk tunes.Slightly cheesy visual effects were rendered on commercial software Adobe After FX.

Film won the People’s Choice Award in the Midnight Madness section.

Stake Land

Production

A Dark Sky Films release of a MPI Media Group, Glass Eye Pix production. (International sales: MPI Media Group, Orland Park, Ill.) Produced by Derek Curl, Adam Folk, Larry Fessenden, Peter Phok, Brent Kunkle. Executive producers, Malik B. Ali, Badie Ali, Hazma Ali, Greg Newman. Directed, edited by Jim Mickle. Screenplay, Nick Damici, Mickle.

Crew

Camera (color, HD, widescreen), Ruan Samul; music, Jeff Grace; production designer, Daniel R. Kersting; art director, Beck Underwood; costume designer, Liz Vastola; sound (Dolby Digital), Graham Reznick. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness), Sept. 13, 2010. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Danielle Harris, Kelly McGillis, Sean Nelson, Michael Cerveris.

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