Stake Land


Some sizzle for this stake.

Some sizzle for this stake.

(2010) Horror (IFC) Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Danielle Harris, Kelly McGillis, Marianne Hagan, Stuart Radin, Adam Scarimbolo, Michael Cerveris, Sean Nelson, Larry Fessenden, Chance Kelly, Jean Brassard, Phyllis Bash, Bonnie Dennison, Ellis Cahill, James Godwin, Heather Robb, Vonia Arslanian, Gregory Jones, Traci Hovel. Directed by Jim Mickle

One of the things about a good movie is that it will often take things that work in one genre and transfer it into another and create if not necessarily a hybrid, then at least a new take on an old form. Movies like that can occasional inspire entire new genres but more often than not end up as being inspired entries in an old one.

Stake Land takes elements of post-apocalyptic Westerns and zombie apocalypse films and fuses them into the vampire film, adding a big dollop of Cormac McCarthy to the mix. Here young and somewhat naive teen Martin (Paolo) whose name is a tip o’ the hat to George A. Romero’s sole vampire film to date is taken under the wing a vampire killer known only as Mister (Damici, who co-wrote the film with Mickle). You see, a plague that turns people into mindless ravening vampires who are as much zombie as vampire has ravaged the United States. There are a few safety zones but mostly those who can move around are headed for Canada for a community called New Eden which is, as rumor has it, vampire-free. Stories like that can lend hope to the hopeless as the Resident Evil films have shown.

The humans that remain aren’t always any better than the hordes of vampires. Hardcore cults that seem to be somewhat like conservative Christian metaphors seem eager to help the apocalypse along in hopes of scoring brownie points with God, dropping planeloads of the undead into towns in maybe the ultimate terrorism dick move.

 

As Mister teaches Martin how to survive in this world which is often harsh and cruel, they pick up a few strays including a pregnant teen (Harris) that Martin takes a shine to, an ex-Marine (Nelson) and a nun (McGillis). In a movie with an attitude like this one, don’t expect a happy ending although you can be sure it won’t be so bleak that you want to take the disc and smash it against the wall.

Mickle is an adept filmmaker who takes his visual cues from Terrance Malick. This is as good-looking a horror film cinematically speaking as you’re likely to ever see. Filmed in real life industrial wastelands that are essentially abandoned and empty, the look of the film is authentic, of a society that is dying slowly but inevitably and those who remain are desperate to escape, so much so that they’re willing to take rumor to heart.

The cast is largely unknown although some might remember McGillis from some pretty decent films in the 80s including Top Gun, Witness and The Accused, Nelson from Fresh and Harris from Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboots. The acting is essentially solid and the effects mainly practical. In some ways you’ll be reminded of The Walking Dead although that TV series isn’t as dark if you can believe that.

While the movie is for the most part familiar, with elements taken from things as disparate as the Mad Max movies and Near Dark to the aforementioned Walking Dead and McCarthy’s The Road, there is enough here that works to make it worth seeking out, particularly if you’re into post-apocalyptic horror. Hidden gems like this are why guys like me start blogs like this.

WHY RENT THIS: Atmospheric with an appealing post-Apocalyptic aesthetic that trades zombies for vampires.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing particularly innovative here; feels like a bunch of things were cobbled from a bunch of films albeit a bunch of good films.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violent bloodsucking gore and goodness as well as a cornucopia of foul language and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming a fire scene on a studio set, the flames got out of control and burned not only the set down but the studio stage as well. While nobody was hurt and production resumed the next day, equipment was flown in from all over the world to replace that which was lost in the fire.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are production video diaries which also include a Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival screening of the film, as well as a feature called Prequels in which seven actors from the film give some brief insights into their lives just before shooting on the production started.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33,245 on a $625,000 production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD rental/Blu-Ray Rental), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daybreakers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Penguins of Madagascar

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Cold in July


Texas mean. Texas hard.

Texas mean. Texas hard.

(2014) Thriller (IFC) Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw, Nick Damici, Wyatt Russell, Lanny Flaherty, Ken Holmes, Rachel Zeigler-Haag, Tim Lajcik, Brianda Agramonte, Kristin Griffith, Joe Lanza, Laurent Rejto, Brogan Hall, Joseph Anthony Jerez, Joseph Harrell, Happy Anderson, Kris Elvers, Gregory Russell Cook, Soraya Butler, Rosemary Howard. Directed by Jim Mickle

In Texas, things come extra value sized. Go big or go home isn’t just a pithy phrase in Texas; it’s a way of life. Big hair, big horns, big cattle, big oil, big football, big brisket, big portions, everything is larger than life. That’s just the way it’s done in the Lone Star State.

Richard Dane (M.C. Hall) wakes up one hot summer night in 1989 to the words any husband most dreads to hear from his wife (Shaw); “Honey, I think I heard a noise downstairs.” As he comes to wakefulness, he hears the noises too and realizes there’s an intruder in the house. As any good Texas husband and father does, he has a gun for protection. He loads it, shaking like a leaf – Richard is not a violent man by nature. He goes downstairs and surprises a man robbing him. The man shines a flashlight in Richard’s face. He can’t see what’s happening; it could be the guy is pulling a gun of his own. Richard shoots and hits the intruder right between the eyes.

Richard is devastated. To the police, it’s a cut and dried case. The guy was robbing him and Richard had no way of knowing if the man was armed – although he was not. However, he had a rap sheet a mile long and Richard is a good citizen. The detective in charge, Ray Price (Damici), tells him gently not to worry about it; “Sometimes the good guy wins.”

Not everyone feels the same way, particularly the victim’s father Ben Russell (Shepard). Ben, an ex-con, is an eye for an eye kind of guy and when he sees Richard at his son’s sparsely-attended funeral, he makes sure that Richard knows that he isn’t going to get away scot-free, giving him an eerie “That son of yours. He looks just like you.” Cape Fear, here we come.

But that’s not how it plays out. This new thriller from director Jim Mickle (Stake Land) takes a couple of about faces during the course of the movie as we find out that things aren’t necessarily what they seem to be and not everyone who wears a badge can be trusted – nor can every ex-con be feared. This is Texas noir and if it smacks of Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson, well you can thank author Joe Lansdale who wrote the novel that this is based on.

The three leads also have a lot to do with it. Hall as Richard Dane is distinctly un-Dexter  like; lacking the confidence and conviction of that character, all the two have in common is that they have taken life. Dane makes up for his somewhat mousy demeanor with dogged determination and a sense of justice that gets offended more than once during the course of the film. Shepard takes a page out of Robert Mitchum’s book, making Russell menacing and evil until about midway through the movie when we begin to find out more about him and what drives him. The two sides of the role are a tough nut to crack for any actor but Shepard happens to be one of the stronger character actors in Hollywood and he is more than equal to the task.

The one role we haven’t mentioned is that of Don Johnson. Jim Bob Luke, a detective that is brought in during the second half of the film, is everything Texas – a larger than life personality, 10 gallon hat, bright red convertible with steer horns on the grille, a belt buckle the size of a basketball, and an eye for the ladies. He absolutely steals the picture and is worth the price of admission alone.

Mickle keeps the tension high from the opening scene of Hall being awakened by his wife to the final denouement. He is aided by Jeff Grace who supplies an electronic score that recalls that of John Carpenter’s horror films of the late ’80s and creates an expectation of real bad things to come. For those of a certain age, it will be a bit of a nostalgia-fest  as when Jim Bob, with his huge cell phone steps out of his car yelling into the receiver “I can’t hear you. I’m getting about one word in three. Is this any better?” as he walks around looking for a sweet spot.

Some of the moral terrain negotiated by the movie can get a little bit rough; this is rated “R” for a reason. Some sensitive sorts may find this ultra-disturbing. Still, this is the kind of thriller that crawls under your skin and burrows there, refusing to budge until you’ve seen it all. Mickle is clearly someone to look out for and even if you don’t live in Texas, you’ll appreciate this slice o’ juicy Lone Star cinematic heaven.

REASONS TO GO: Texas noir. Fine performances by Hall, Shepard and Johnson. Love the score.

REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a twist too many for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a fair amount of violence, some of it bloody and disturbing. There’s also some nudity and sexual situations as well as a plentitude of blue language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Joe Lansdale, the author of the book the movie is based on, makes a cameo as a priest at the grave of the robber that Richard Dane shot and killed.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Texas Killing Fields

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Swinging With the Finkels