I was really looking forward to seeing Stake Land. Fin is notorious for hearing about upcoming films and building expectations to unreachable heights. I usually try to steer clear of his hyping-up habits, because I can be guilty of doing the same thing. So I tried to avoid finding out too much about Stake Land to avoid the inevitable let down. Still, from what little I had heard I couldn’t help anticipating good things.
As always, I like to start with the positives... The film is absolutely gorgeous. The vast landscapes of a deserted America are as haunting as they are spectacular. As the group travel north the landscapes change with them, as do the seasons, and it works very well with the unfolding events. The music is very important to the overall mood of the film, due to the sparse use of dialogue, and it combines very well with the cinematography to give the movie a really beautiful feel.
What struck me most about the film was how (incredibly) similar it is to The Road (only with the addition of vampires). It’s the first thing Clarky said as we left the cinema, and he was bang on. I wasn’t much of a fan of the Road, but this film is much better (an excellent book that should never have been adapted... just my two cents). Perhaps you could argue that it borrowed a little too much from it (and many zombie apocalypse movies). I have to say that it doesn’t feel like a hugely original film, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The characters are very interesting. Mister has jumped right into the mixer as my favourite vampire killer. He’s absolutely tremendous to watch. Blade would still have him in a fight, but he’s one tough son of a gun. He’s actually kind of like Whistler – only younger and without the gammy leg. The main character, the narrator, is well portrayed – the film is really about him becoming a man and I think this is well handled. We see him toughen up over time, but he retains part of his innocence and optimism. It is a very realistic character development, and credit must be given to the fine performance of the central actor. The relationship between the two main characters is understated, but very compelling too. Lots of little things are hinted at in the film, without them being rammed down your throat, and I appreciated the subtlety used by the director.
I was expecting big things from this film, and while there was much to admire I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. Perhaps I can blame Fin for building up this film? Even though I tried to ignore the hype, I definitely went in to this one expecting great things. For that reason I feel more critical of it than other (poorer) films. There is no doubt that it is a good, maybe even very good, film. But can it be considered a great film? I think it falls short of this mark. As I said previously, it lacks a little bit of originality that I think a great film needs, although that isn’t my main criticism…
The film has very little dialogue (most of the story is told through narration) and it doesn’t quite work for me. When the dialogue does come it is a little bit clunky and wooden: full of slightly well-used clichés. It’s a shame because the narration is actually very good in its own right, and the film is well acted. You don’t feel you are missing anything when the actors aren’t speaking – it’s just that when they do something about it feels a little out of sorts.
Aside from the two leads, the other characters come and go without really allowing the audience to build a relationship with them. For that reason, when events do unfold, I felt strangely unmoved by some of the goings-on. Perhaps it was due to the sparse dialogue/interaction on display. For me, this chosen style helped to create an atmospheric and beautiful movie, but the side effect was that I felt a little removed from the emotional side of the film. The glimpses at the characters are just too fleeting to really engage with them. In a film that seems to want to pitch itself as character-driven, this seems like a fundamental flaw.
I also think that the film could have been a lot scarier, quite a few opportunities for jumps are missed, which was a shame. The vampires are pretty scary – although apart from the fangs, and aversion to sunlight, they seem more like zombies (the running ones from 28 days later, not George Romero’s slow movers).
Don’t get me wrong though, this film is certainly worth seeing – it’s entertaining, well acted and beautiful to look at. It’s just not quite up there with the gold standard of horror. Still, it’s certainly one of the better horror movies of 2011.