Writer-director Jim Mickle (2007's "Mulberry Street
") has a real artist's eye for detail and texture, and he displays this gift time and again during "Stake Land," a post-apocalyptic drama with the character nuance of 2009's "The Road
" and the encroaching threat of 2003's "28 Days Later
." The villainsbloodthirsty vamps with the instincts of wild animals and the physical appearance of clinically insane hospital patientsensure the film's genre pedigree, but Mickle and co-writer/star Nick Damici fittingly remain focused on a group of survivors struggling to safely make their way up north amidst a desolate, uncertain landscape. They, like the audience, have no way of knowing the degree in which the world has unraveled outside of what they personally see and hear, and this places all involved on the same creepily enigmatic playing field. Above all, "Stake Land" is a thoughtful mood piece more than an action-packed horror movie. Caring about these people, all of them economically written and sympathetic in their authenticity, is easy, so watching their tight unit rapidly splinter as the ravages around them close in becomes all the more tragic.
A quick-spreading viral outbreak has caused the U.S. infrastructure to collapse and the government to be abandoned. It's every man for himself now, as teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) witnesses the deaths of his parents and baby sibling and goes on the run with an armed, self-appointed warrior known only as Mister (Nick Damici). As the two of them make their way up the east coast on their way to New Eden, a rumored safe haven across the Canadian border, they gradually form a makeshift family with the stragglers they pick up. Sister (Kelly McGillis) is a nun whose belief system is being understandably tested, if not dismantled, while Belle (Danielle Harris) is a young pregnant girl who, like Martin, has lost her entire family. With dangers both alive and undead laying in wait, they edge closer to a destination that will either be their savior, or spell their doom.
Filmed primarily in the wilds and isolated small towns of Pennsylvania, "Stake Land" may have been made on a tight budget, but one would never know it based on the striking production values director Jim Mickle manages in order to realize his harrowing vision. There are the occasional necessary suspensions of disbelief in the storytellingwhy, for example, is it taking them what looks to be weeks to drive to New Eden, which is established as being roughly 275 miles away and could be gotten to in half a day?but what perseveres most distinctly and eloquently is the starkly honest snapshot of people who have no choice but to move forward even after the lives they've known are no more. When an exhausted Belle, played with beautiful simplicity by Danielle Harris (2010's "Hatchet II
"), can walk no further, Mister chooses to pick her up. "My daddy used to carry me like this when I was little," she says. Mister, not one for mushy nostalgia, promptly tells her he's not her daddy. His selfless actions, however, cannot be denied; no matter what these people have been through, and are still about to face, they cling to their humanity. It's the one thing they have left that separates them from their pursuers.
Movies that rely on narration usually do so because there is a deficiency on the screenplay level and no way to tell a particular story without it. That isn't the case with "Stake Land," which uses Martin's pensive voice-overs to bring depth to his plight. With dialogue sparse otherwise, the narration acts as a sort of journal or diary to Martin's experiences and the people he meetsstrangers at first who grow to mean much more to himalong the way. A quiet sense of loss casts a grim shadow over the picture, lifting it above typical horror-flick theatrics. When "Stake Land" is creepy, it's very creepy, but it's the ghosts who pass through the frameslost souls who want to carry on and fight to survive, and ultimately do not make itthat hauntingly linger even when they are no more. "One day you'll learn not to dream at all," Mister tells Martin upon meeting him. He's wrong to say such a thing, as Martin eventually learns. Without the ability to dream for the future, what hope does anyone have left?