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The Blood of the Nocturnal Covenant

MOVIE REVIEW
Stake Land (2011)

Stake-land-connor-paolo-stakeland
IFC Midnight

Wrapped up somewhere within vampire apocalypse road movie "Stake Land" are two or three inspired touches. It's incredibly frustrating, then, that these are buried underneath an amalgam of earnestness and unoriginality. So derivative is Jim Mickle's third feature that at times it feels as if he and co-writer Nick Damici watched "The Road" and "28 Days Later" and simply decided to replace the cannibals and zombies with vampires.

A flashback to a bloodthirsty prologue introduces our protagonists, the mysteriously monikered Mister (a gruff and hardened Mr. Damici) and Martin (Connor Paolo), as Mister saves Martin from the terrible fate that befalls the rest of his family. Taking to the road together, they soon settle into a master-and-apprentice relationship and venture North toward the sanctuary that is New Eden, a hypothetical safe haven. Mr. Mickle ramps up the bleak tone by utilizing Martin's prophetic voice-over to accompany the two as they encounter the last vestiges of civilisation, desperate yet stubborn souls who are determined to live life as normally as possible.

In the face of such an uncertain fate, Mister seems driven by an inherent sense of the preservation of humanity, dispatching corrupt and evil humans in the same ruthless manner that he does vampires; and this is perhaps the film's most interesting concept. Desperation essentially corrupts and strips away society's conventions, as deceitful individuals take advantage of the vulnerable. Mister encounters such a group — the shadowy religious cult, the Brotherhood — that preys on humans and vampires alike. In effect, these false prophets represent a more significant threat to the idea of humanity than the vampires themselves do.

As they continue north, the duo encounter other lost souls seeking salvation, rescuing Sister (Kelly McGillis, making a welcome return to the big screen after almost a decade away), pregnant Belle (horror movie scream queen Danielle Harris) and former Marine Willie (Sean Nelson) along the way. In time, the journey starts to labor and their travails become repetitive. The oppressively morose tone doesn't help matters; and Mr. Mickle refrains from lightening the mood. The clunky screenplay and at times ridiculous plot developments — vampires falling from the sky and ill-advised toilet breaks to name but two — also hamper proceedings.

That said, at times it's beautifully shot, as desolate vistas and the unforgiving outback heighten the sense of solitude and vulnerability of the troupe; but it is Jeff Grace's wistful score that is the real revelation, conveying a sense of dreamy unreality, particularly as they draw nearer to the fabled New Eden. Together they combine to lend "Stake Land" a more "expensive" feel, and that is a real accomplishment in itself. It's a film that seems crafted and considered, something often lacking in the genre.

The cast, too, manage to steer its characters clear of cliché and caricature, despite being constantly let down by a weak screenplay. Mr. Damici nails Mister, combining grizzled ruthlessness with a paternal humanity. Mr. Paolo, too, does enough to suggest that he is capable of graduating to more complex and accomplished roles. Ms. Harris, a genre pro, lends Belle a brave vulnerability; but it is the return of Ms. McGillis that proves a real treat, as she reminds us why she used to be such a megastar.

It's doubly frustrating therefore that, having mustered a solid cast and a decent score, "Stake Land" is let down badly by its ripped-off, throwaway plot. There is enough here to suggest that Messrs. Mickle and Damici are capable of producing the goods, but they need to find some original material; because as accomplished as "Stake Land" might be, there's absolutely nothing new on offer here.

STAKE LAND

Opens on April 22 in Manhattan and on June 17 in Britain.

Directed by Jim Mickle; written by Nick Damici and Mr. Mickle; director of photography, Ryan Samul; music by Jeff Grace; production design by Daniel Kersting; costumes by Elizabeth Fastola; produced by Adam Folk, Brent Kunkle, Peter Phok and Larry Fessenden; released by IFC Midnight (United States) and Metrodome (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Nick Damici (Mister), Connor Paolo (Martin), Kelly McGillis (Sister), Danielle Harris (Belle), Sean Nelson (Willie) and Michael Cerveris (Jebedia).

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