MARCH 23, 2011
While it’s always nice to see a movie early (and free!), sometimes I’d rather just wait for the theatrical release, because I find most of the screening rooms in LA are uncomfortable (not to mention always in a high traffic area, which today was exacerbated by the rain). Call me crazy, but I like to be comfortable when I watch a movie. But I don’t care if the chairs were made out of broken glass, I wouldn’t have passed up the chance to see Stake Land, which I’ve been reading about for a while now and is from the team behind Mulberry Street, which was at the time and remains one of my favorite After Dark releases, not to mention simply one of the more impressive indie films of recent years.
Oh and Danielle Harris was in it. That doesn’t hurt.
Oddly enough, the movie was kind of similar to The Road, which I saw in the exact same screening room. I knew it was a sort of post-apocalyptic movie (with vampires instead of cannibals), but I didn’t know they both featured a man and a younger kid sort of making their way to a place they believe to be safe, facing harsh survival conditions, and encountering others along the way while trying to avoid some evil humans, in this case a devout religious group whose members are prone to releasing vampires into the safe havens of folks who opposed their order.
But this is the superior film, in my opinion. For starters, it’s got the balls that film lacked. In The Road, the threat of cannibals never felt real to me, because they never friggin’ ate anyone! But here, the religious nutjobs do some damage, and no one is “safe”. In the film’s centerpiece scene, we follow our heroes into a new town, fenced off from the vampire threat, and it’s all quite cheerful and optimistic, all in one tracking shot that finds them dancing, reuniting with a friend thought dead, etc – and then the cult drops in some vamps from a helicopter, turning everything to hell. Not only is it a technical marvel (the shot continues throughout the chaos – think Children Of Men but without the benefit of tens of millions of dollars), but not everyone makes it out alive. In literally one shot, we know to fear both enemies in equal measures, something The Road never managed to accomplish.
It’s also not trying to be an awards darling. Throughout The Road, I kept thinking how everyone seemed to be trying for an Oscar or something, but there is no such pretension to be found here. Not that their work shouldn’t be recognized (Jeff Grace’s score is easily more impressive than anything that got nominated last year save maybe Inception), but it’s not showy or stuffy work – it’s simply GOOD work, pretty much across the board. Co-writer Nick Damici may not have the gravitas of the sort of anti-hero man with no name type characters that may come to mind, but in some ways this is actually to the movie’s benefit – he doesn’t have the baggage that might inflict upon the movie’s story. Throw Kurt Russell in there and you’re thinking Snake Plissken; but Damici doesn’t have that sort of “signature badass role” to distract you. It allowed me to buy into the world in a fare more successful way than usual. Only Harris momentarily distracted, but that was due more to her introduction – she’s pregnant and singing. After this she blended in just as well, appearing without makeup (and brandishing a shotgun at one point – hell yeah).
The two younger actors also worked well. I guess the main kid, Connor Paolo, is on Gossip Girl, but I don’t watch that nonsense so to me he was just Martin, only surviving member of a family attacked by vampires early on in the outbreak (curious if that particular name was an homage to a certain vampire classic). And Sean Nelson from Fresh, I hadn’t seen him in a while so it took me a while to even recognize him. With ANY post-apoc movie, I think it’s best to either cast with relative unknowns or introduce the characters are quickly as possible – it’s hard enough to depict a world gone to hell in a believable way, but even harder when all of a sudden you’re seeing the star of a hit TV show or a beloved Oscar winner popping up halfway through the movie.
I also liked how low on dialogue it could be. I think Harris has her first line (not counting her song) like 15 minutes after we’ve met her, and other long stretches go by with minimal or no talking at all. And that’s fine by me, because then I could focus on the impressive “wasteland” look and buy into the isolation that they were feeling. Plus it’s a nice looking film (a bit too dark during some action scenes however), and it seems our characters are constantly on the move – there’s more change of scenery in this movie than a James Bond film. Sure, it’s mostly just forests and decaying makeshift cities or back country roads, but it’s not like most post-apoc movies where they settle in one particular area for a long period of time. A minor feast for the eyes, especially for someone like me who has seen enough ugly consumer-grade DV movies to last a lifetime (for the record, this was shot on the Red and transferred to film – looked great).
There is quite a bit of voiceover from Paolo, however, which irked me at times. Top and bottom of a movie – fine. But when there’s VO throughout, I start to get a little tired of hearing a disembodied voice speaking, especially when it’s basically all variations on “The world sure is different now, but we try to make the best of it”. Coupled with the melancholy score and wordless scenes of folks doing mundane things, you start to get the idea of what a Terrence Malick horror movie would be like. The middle of the film could benefit from some tightening; dropping one or two of these VOs would probably help.
The climax also could have had a little oomph. Without spoiling much, you know it’s going to come down to a final confrontation with both the religious group and the vampires, but it felt a bit too convenient and simplistic. I don’t need a big True Romance style multi-stage blowout, but it felt no different than the other action scenes (actually less of one if you count the long shot attack). Luckily there’s another surprising (ballsy!) death built into it, re-enforcing the movie’s emphasis on character and mood over story and action, but still – another beat or two in the action wouldn’t have hurt.
Dark Sky is releasing the film next week, but I believe only in NY and LA. Hopefully an On-Demand or DVD option won’t be far behind. If you enjoyed Mulberry Street, in some ways this is even better, and thus you should seek it out. And needless to say, I eagerly await Mickle and Damici’s next collaboration.
What say you?