Thursday, October 28, 2010

Stake Land or we interrupt this week of bad films to talk about a classic

As I start to write this it's almost 1 AM. I'm just in from Lincoln Center and the opening night of their Scary Movies series. I had to leave as the end credits rolled because it is a school night and I have to get up and be at the day job at 9AM.

However because I just saw something that rocked my world I'm pushing my bed time back even farther to write up a film that really blew me, and my friend Stan, away. I do ask for your indulgence since this is going to be one of those ragged posts written in the mad passionate style that has a few mistakes that my editor will freak out over.

The film tonight was Stake Land the latest film from the director of the wonderful Mulberry Street. This time out the rules have changed and we have a film that could very well be a classic.

The plot is a simple road movie. As the film opens there world has been over run with vampires (think zombies). Martin, a teenager, is rescued by Mister when his family is attacked by a vampire as they are getting ready to travel to safety. Martin's family is killed and Mister takes Martin on the road and teaches him how to survive. They are heading north to New Eden, where they are hoping they will be safe (though they are warned in a town they pass through that there is no food there only cannibals). Along the way the pair meet various people and pick up a few including a nun. They also run afoul of The Brotherhood, a Christian cult that thinks the vampires are messengers of god.

This is not a film of jump scares (there are only two), this is instead a film of slowly building dread and fear. Its a feeling that comes from the situations and from the feeling that what is going on isn't going to really end well for anyone. Its a film of characters and situations, not of bogeymen, though there are plenty of those.

Honestly this is a deceptively simple "cliched" story, that is firing on several other levels. Yes it's The Road meets Zombieland, but not funny, as some have said. Actually it's like many other films as well the closet being Phantasm in the relationship between Reggie and Mike. If you watch how Mister and Martin interact it's very much like the heroes of the earlier film.

The other films that this film echoes is the original Night of The Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. In my mind this is actually the third film in the sequence. Forget the Romero films that followed this is the next film in order. It bangs everything that Romero was trying to do in the later films and he does it in such away that it fits into the world created seamlessly. It is easily the equal of those two films.

Actually what we should all do is forget that the film is borrowing and just take it on face value and on that level it kicks serious ass. If you can't forget the film is recycling remember that the Indiana Jones movies are whole cloth steals from the Republic Serials.

Let me not put too fine a point on it this film is a masterpiece and hopefully will become a classic.

A couple of words of warning, though not about the gore or the violence which are perfectly in the R rated realm.

First if you are looking for a neat beginning, ending or answers to everything, forget it. We come in mid story and we go to the perfect ending point. Its not the end of the story for the characters but its the end of the chapter. I would love to see a sequel, but at the same time it would have to go elsewhere. Also any sequel would have to reveal some of the things this film didn't go into, like where do the vampires come from. Things aren't explained, but then there wasn't time, more importantly its not something the characters need to express, they know their world and don't need to rehash it just for us. AsmMartin says in his voice over"Her story is like everyone else's", meaning they all know what is going on. (One of the films strengths is that the character development is in the silences and in the actions and interactions, we don't have words when a look will do.)

Secondly if the film is flawed its that the brotherhood, the nominal "villains" of the piece, are drawn unevenly. In some places they are supposed to be really powerful, but what we see often undercuts that. Its a minor point and only kicks up if you think about it.

As my friend Stan and I bolted when the end credits rolled, I stopped in the darkness to tell Gavin Smith, programmer for the series and the editor of Film Comment, that he made a fantastic choice. Actually I should have asked him was why this wasn't in the New York Film Festival, since this film is proof at how good the programming for the Walter Reade theater is and how disappointing the NYFF was. (but that is another issue all together)

You need to see this film. You need to see it and take it on its own terms and not compare it to anything else. Trust me this film will haunt you. As Stan texted me while we were on our trains going home "This is a film that gets better the more you think about it"

I am remiss in not mentioning names, and I should mention everyone but the two you need to know is director Jim Mickle who has put himself on the map. The other is Nick Damici who wrote the script and stars as Mister. Not only has he written a great film, but he's turned in one hell of a performance. Give him more leads please.

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