Stake Land Review
Jim Mickle's low/no budget full feature debut, Mulberry Street, received a mixed bag of critical responses. Many horror critics were endeared to its lo-fi charm, admiring the product which was hewn from such modest materials; indeed, it won a few awards from the horror community, including a 'Best Independent Feature Film' award for Mickle from the After Dark Film Festival. Others weren't so keen, and many horror fans felt that it took too long to deliver the goods, and when the goods arrived, they were way below par. This is perhaps unfair criticism for a low budget independent feature which showed restraint and resourcefulness in its construction of a New York zombie outbreak. I'm not sure it helped greatly that the zombies were actually mutant human rats, though.
The debut was certainly tarnished by some incredibly cynical marketing tactics on its UK release. Delivered with a poor cover illustration, and inexplicably renamed to Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street - a disrespectful change of title for a UK audience, surely - the film didn't make any serious impact despite its raft of positives. With a healthier (but still relatively light) budget, some impressive casting (including Kelly McGillis, Danielle Harris, Connor Paolo, and Michael Cerveris) and a clear demonstration of development since the last outing (though we shouldn't forget that Mickle works in a variety of technical positions on other movies), Mickle showcases just what he's capable of, and though it's far from perfect, Stake Land will certainly convince some of the original detractors.
To his credit, Mickle clearly thrives on bringing new ideas to genre movies, and in Stake Land he convincingly crafts the grim landscape of a post-apocalyptic zombie flick; although the creatures here are technically vampires, somewhat zombie-esque vampires. The film's realisation of much of its ambition, and the stretching of its scale under the budgetary constraints of this band of horror is indeed impressive, and when thrown into battle with its competitors it can certainly punch above its weight. Yet it also regularly falls short of fulfilling its full potential. Nick Damici (who also co-wrote this grimy yarn with director Mickle), in the lead role as Mister, for instance, suffers some notable limitations. His deep, monotone delivery proves uninspiring and sometimes incomprehensible, and his frequent recourse to dull profanity in lieu of articulation sells the depth of the visuals some way short. Additionally, his character is one which we can never relate to nor engage with, and whilst he's meant to be the moody anti-hero of the piece, his seeming complete lack of empathy - for the main part of the film, at least - leaves us cold. Other characters would have benefited from a warmer demonstration of humanity too. Even the vulnerable yet determined young Martin seems to have been sketched without the full scope of emotions; he suffers great trauma at the opening of the film, and yet his deadpan narration would lead you to believe he has resigned himself to the futility of the situation from the earliest stage.
The limitations in characterisation are compounded by the slim plot, which is largely designed to move the characters from one action and gore scene to the next. Whilst the plot suffers from a dearth of depth, however, the themes Mickle incorporates inbetween the bloodshed are warmly welcomed. The scathing attack on the exploitative, hypocritical, and often indiscriminate cruelty of religion, for instance, inhabits a crucial part of the movie. The ghostly, deserted shops and factories are especially poignant in our gloomy economic environment. And the reprehensible behaviour of humans when unshackled from the guiding moral framework of society makes for decidedly chilling viewing.
Mickle does redeem himself in most areas by the close of the film, and as the climax approaches, we have begun to engage with some of the characters and their desperate journey towards the land of promise known as New Eden. Stake Land is both tangible evidence of his developing skill and maturity as a filmmaker, and a statement of intent for his scale of ambition; if you're in any doubt of this, you need to see the single shot sequence featuring raining vampires. Despite the technical quality of the piece and the pleasingly assured cinematography it's a far from perfect product, with its inconsistent and slimline plot, and characterisation difficulties. Overall, though, it's a tidy post-apocalyptic survival horror, and if you've survived the shock of the opening ten minutes, you'll find plenty to keep you amused amongst the occasional stumbles.
Metrodome's region free release is very high quality indeed. Presented in the native aspect ratio, the picture quality is superb in terms of definition and clarity. There are no issues with grain, and the colours are invariably rich; the frequent shots of the American countryside, for example, are reproduced with lush, convincing greens. Crucially, the blacks are absolutely solid, ensuring that the darker scenes - of which there are plenty - strike the right balance; the early scene in the shed where a scan for vampires takes place under torchlight is a fantastic example. It's very difficult to fault a visual presentation of this quality.
The disc contains trailers for Age of Heroes, Mars, The House of the Devil, and Cherry Tree Lane.
Audio is delivered in 5.1 DTS-HD MA and rather like the visuals, the reproduction is excellent. Any lack of clarity with Damici is not due to the transfer, but more because of his low-key delivery! What's perhaps most impressive is the impact of the explosions and thumps; thanks to a tight but substantial bass delivery, your sub will receive a good work out at various points during the running time.
Metrodome have supplied a respectable volume of extras with their Blu-ray release of Mickle's film, and there's not even a hint of tokenism here.
The Making of Stake Land is an hour long piece lending an insight into behind-the-scenes action and some of the tricks used to construct Mickle and Damici's dystopian nightmare. The touch is minimal in terms of presentation, which works rather well as we gain our own glimpse of the construction of the film. The dedication of the crew is obvious, and they use every trick available to ensure the film is the best it can possibly be.
A Director Pre-production Diary runs for a quarter of an hour, and shows some of the challenges and thought processes from a producer's perspective.
The VFX Breakdowns segment, whilst only running for just over two minutes, is fascinating, and shows just how much post-production effort was made to construct the nightmare vision of Mickle and Damici.
A set of Webisodes also make for intriguing viewing, showcasing the shorts that Damici created as his mind developed the Stake Land story.
There are two high quality commentaries here. The first involves Mickle, some of the cast (including Connor Paolo) and crew/producer discussing the film. The discussion is fairly lively and sometimes raucous, barely pausing for breath, and you get a real feel for the dedication and commitment of everyone involved. There are some interesting tales, including the number of dogs they had to use, the frame of mind of Nick Damici during the rain sequence, and the solid funding of the people backing the film, which is heartening to hear. It's also interesting to learn about the casting of Kelly McGillis, and Mickle's letter which never actually reached her. The second commentary, featuring the wider production team, is much more low key, but equally enjoyable. Note that there is some overlap in terms of the content, and Mickle is also present to oversee this commentary section too.
Mickle showcases what he can do with an elevated budget, a more established cast, and the experience he gathered during the filming of Mulberry Street. It lacks a little depth in some respects, and the scaled back narrative lends a slightly disjointed sensation, but with an otherwise solid delivery and an attractive Blu-ray with a commendable stock of extras, this is a worthwhile investment for the target audience.