By PATRICK McCRAY
You what what’s wrong with vampires as monsters? Everyone wants to be one. You know I’m telling the truth. They never age. They dress well. They look great. The opposite sex loves them. Once you sidestep certain moral issues, their dietary needs are astoundingly modest. They can fly. They usually have good taste in music. Great hair. Good lighting. Now, they even glitter. Get back to me on that day when Paul Giamatti is playing a vampire, okay?
So much has been written on the sexuality of vampires that it’s hard to remember that they were scary. Or if they ever were. Let’s see a show of hands. Is anyone here actually scared by vampires You in the back? But only you, right? Okay, I rest my case.
In fact, to make a vampire scary, you pretty much have to remove everything that makes them vampiric. And STAKE LAND does that. Even the vampires of NEAR DARK, gnarly as they are, have a sense of family. These? Crazy monsters. Had these shown up at Collinwood, there would have been a loud banging on the door as Barnabas asked Roger to borrow that rifle of his. As we’ve seen creeping into more and more movies, these are just crazed feral beasts, so savage that I’m astounded they leave anything behind to rise as a second generation.
The only sort of backdrop that can justify such a mass of monsters is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and this is a helluva one. The vampire pandemic has savaged the world. Washington is abandoned. The cities are lethal. People are reduced to living in shanty towns and listening to bluegrass and other forms of roots music. (And by the way, why is this the kind of music that survives? What about a barbershop quartet or a nice a cappella rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You” like we hear in BLAZING SADDLES?) It’s like THE ROAD WARRIOR meets Burning Man.
Carving their way to the fabled safe zone of “New Eden” (a name existing purely by coincidence), we find Mister (Nick Damici) and his apprentice, Martin (Connor Paolo). While not father and son, the two have formed a deep bond of both friendship and mentorship. Both are grizzly, two-fisted survivors, with the elder Mister, played by one of the film’s writers, able to kick ass with an honest and wily grit unseen in many modern films. Rather than flying around on wires and performing acts of ridiculous surreality in the melee department, Mister relies on plain old guile, planning, intelligence, and a mean streak as wide as Texas. This is a man who gets the job done. Old vampire? Dead. Young vampire? Dead. Female vampire? Dead. Child, female vampire? Well, maybe this one will be up to Martin to dispatch. The kid has to learn sometime.
STAKE LAND feels refreshingly episodic, because that’s how it was planned. Still, it’s never hampered by it. The tone makes the movie into a strange road trip tall-tale. Along the way, they befriend Belle (Danielle Harris) a pregnant girl in need, a two-fisted nun (Kelly McGillis) who shows just as much bravery as toughest Marine, and, come to think of it, they also find a damned brave Marine (Sean Nelson), rescued from a port-a-potty.
Does this sound like a formidable fighting force? Well, they are. My description makes it sound a little wackier than it is. These characters are taken seriously, and just as importantly, they take each other seriously, too. Amidst the bleakest of backdrops, they share moments of genuine support and kinship that never ring as forced nor untrue. We see these connections throughout the survivors in STAKE LAND.
Unfortunately, there are other aspects of human society that survive and mutate their way into this future: warped, religious fundamentalism (And the inclusion of a nun as one one of the heroes becomes necessary for political balance.) It’s a strange offshoot called The Brotherhood, worshipping the vampires as God’s resurrected chosen. Now, the group never mentions Jesus or actual Bible, but it’s an unforgiving clutch of (im)moralists that uses a variation of the cross as its sigil, and that’s close enough for me.
When people talk about religion as a comfort in the worst of times, I always get kind of uneasy. Sure, it might be a comfort. It may also be a threat. As an institution, religion certainly is tempting to those shell-shocked survivors who wish to have their thinking done by others. Worse, it attracts those who crave a sense of cosmic righteousness to justify their most violent and loathsome impulses. I’m sure this has been covered another post-apocalyptic settings, but in this movie, they really make a point of its danger and (almost) never apologize. This “religion” is the major threat of the film. The vampires are just MacGuffins. For instance, if a walled village won’t convert? They may just get vampires dropped on them from helicopters, “like rocks from a highway overpass,” as LBJ said in THE RIGHT STUFF. Read that sentence again. (I wanted Gordon Jump to enter and say, “With God as my witness, I thought vampires could fly.”)
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This is all in counterpoint to Ron Moore’s 180 on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, a clear allegory for the special blend of lethal herbs and spices in 9/11 that no one — on either side — wanted to talk about. When the series started, it was clear that religious fundamentalism both incited the interplanetary genocide and inspired the reactionary and divisive demagoguery within the survivors. By the end, the show had wimped out. It as as if MASH had ended with Hawkeye eagerly reenlisting for the Vietnam War.
Nevertheless, STAKE LAND is not a Hitchensesque screed. No great story is about suffering in hard times. It is about survival in hard times. As such, STAKE LAND is a refreshing, if stark, how-to. Is there a heaven? Is there a hell? I have no idea. But I know that life can be relentless. I know we have each other.
That’s enough. It has to be.
PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.