It’s not very often that mainstream film critics respond warmly to horror films, and in the case of Roger Ebert it’s especially rare. “Stake Land,” from the writing team of actor Nick Damici and director Jim Mickle was able to squeeze a generous three out of four stars from Ebert along with a glowing review.
Even before taking the film to events like the Toronto International Film Festival, where they walked away with the TIFF Midnight Madness Award, Damici and Mickle knew they had something special on their hands. This sort of critical acclaim has made the film’s creators, especially director Jim Mickle, all the more proud of their self proclaimed “labor of love,” he said.
“It’s been awesome, and it kind of comes in waves,” Mickle said. “Plus we get to travel with the festivals, and we just did Brazil and Korea, so you really get to see it culturally in a different way.”
The film, which follows a tattered, older gentleman who takes an orphan under his care amid a vampire apocalypse, satirizes and overturns many American ideals. In particular, there’s an extremist religious group bent on converting secular individuals to their way of life in very violent ways, which closely resembles religious groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church.
“I’ve kind of noticed that there is a universality to a lot of stuff, so even if it feels strictly American, a lot of the sentiments wind up being the same,” Mickle said. “For example, in Brazil there was a guy who asked about how the religious circle reacted to the film in the U.S., because he said (in Brazil) they have a similar situation as we do here. You could tell it really struck him in a way.”
While the film looks as if it should be a vampire horror epic, the story line recalls classic westerns like “The Searchers,” the post-apocalyptic wasteland is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York,” and there’s even cinematography that could fit neatly into a Terrence Malick film. Both Mickle and actor Nick Damici said they drew most of their inspiration from outside of the horror genre.
“So many horror movies, they’re made by people who are on a steady diet of those films, so you can say ‘Oh you were inspired by this, this, and this,'” said Mickle. “That’s why it’s more fun to do a horror film and look at things like, for this we looked at more ’70s naturalistic dramas like ‘Days of Heaven,’ and it makes a much more interesting result.”
For Damici, who plays the mysterious character Mister that protects the orphaned boy, most of his inspiration came from “Duke” himself.
“[The script] was written with John Wayne in ‘The Searchers’ in mind for my character, because I probably watched that movie two or three times while preparing,” said Damici. “Even the plot is very similar to “The Searchers,” it’s a naive kid coming of age under the wing of a bitter and hateful guy, yet he just so happens to be the hero.”
As for the American wasteland the film’s characters trudge through, that was as important for the look of the film as it was for the miniscule budget the crew had to work with. Damici said they weren’t afraid to “get dirty” in order to achieve the post-apocalyptic look of the film, and Mickle elaborates even further.
“We really went out of our way, you know Nick slept in a tent for a few weeks to prepare, and he just really lived it,” said Mickle. “When you start seeing the lead actor rubbing dirt on his face and the make-up girls never coming over with stage make-up, it’s always different kinds of dirt and tar, people start saying ‘Hey, we’re making a movie!'”
The success of “Stake Land” has been as surprising to its creators as it is to critics, many of which have compared the film favorably to works like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and even “The Odyssey.” As for what separated “Stake Land” from the rest of the pack of vampire related films and television shows being released today, Damici attempts to sum it up quite simply.
“I would love to runaround chopping everybody’s head off, but that wasn’t the story,” said Damici. “I could have killed a vampire and had a funny line like Schwarzenegger would, but nobody would believe it. That’s what people have responded to is that we’ve taken this very seriously, and they came in expecting a silly vampire movie.”
“Stake Land” is now available on DVD/Blu-ray from MPI Media Group and Dark Sky Films