Back when I was doing the October Zombie-Thon for 411mania, one of my best finds was the awesome indie flick, Mulberry Street, about a group of New Yorkers battling a horde of “rat-people” in their run-down tenement building. The film, directed by Jim Mickle and starring and co-written by Nick Damici, was a perfect example of taking a cheesy B-movie concept and delivering it with gravitas and conviction, mixing in a little well-done social commentary on the side. I still point to it as one of the best independent zombie films of the modern era. I couldn’t wait to see their follow-up. Now here it is, and I’m certainly not disappointed.

This time Mickle and Damici have decided to tackle the other hot monster of the modern horror era, the vampire. Stake Land tells the tale of a mysterious drifter (Damici) and the young boy he takes under his wing as they cross a ravaged, post-apocalyptic wasteland where a large percentage of the human population has been turned into savage bloodsuckers. Think The Road, only with vampires (I tried to think of a wittier way to say that, but sometimes the obvious statement is the best way to go). Along the way they meet up with an old nun (Top Gun‘s Kelly McGillis) and a beautiful young pregnant woman (current horror It Girl Danielle Harris), and the group tries to make it to a promised “New Eden” in Canada. Unfortunately, in their travels, they not only run afoul of vampires, but also a deranged religious cult who believe the vamps are just doing the lord’s work and are more than happy to supply them with fresh food.

Again, like with their previous effort, there’s really not too much that’s super original here (except for one great sequence where the cult actually “vampire bombs” a town), but it’s how Mickle and Damici tell the tale that gives it its strength. One of the best things about Mulberry Street was how the film actually took the time to let you get to know the characters, thus ensuring you were actually invested in their fate. Here, too, the filmmakers are willing to allow the film to at times move a little slower than is often the norm in the genre, so as to allow for more quiet character moments. Some people might call this “boring,” but I strongly disagree, as it actually works in pulling you into the world and helps you care about these people. And when the action does hit, it’s more memorable and means more than in faster-paced movies that constantly batter you over the head with action and never allow themselves to slow down. This movie is telling a story, not just saying “hey, here’s a bunch of vampires tearing people apart, isn’t that awesome?”

In truth, a lot of the same things that I loved about Mulberry Street apply here as well. Whereas that film had a lot of smart but subtle points to make about issues like urban gentrification and the treatment of veterans and the elderly, so too does Stake Land weave in some pointed commentary on religion and fanaticism (this is yet another horror movie where other humans are arguably more monstrous than the actual supernatural creatures). And once again, Nick Damici is bad-ass hero. In Mulberry Street, he played an ex-boxer who preferred simply punching zombies into oblivion rather than dealing with a gun. Here, he’s a grizzled old vampire-hunter whose rough exterior hides a caring heart. With these two roles, Damici is hopefully emerging as the next big horror icon. And at the same time, his collaborator Jim Mickle has certainly become one of the names to watch in the genre. I don’t watch as many vampire movies as I do zombie movies, but I think I know enough to say that Stake Land is the same sort of breath of fresh air into the genre that Mulberry Street was for the zombie film. And it’s easily one of the best indie horror films in recent memory. Highly recommended.

 

 

This review was originally posted at Trevor Likes Movies on August 10th, 2011.

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