The most successful horror movies pale in box office to marginally successful films of other genres. Horror video games will never break sales records set by first-person shooters. And horror novels will generally be relegated to lower places on the bestsellers lists. This column is not going to say that horror doesn’t have it’s hits. It’s just that, in the grand scheme of things, in comparison to other genres, horror fans are generally left Scared Hitless.
To be honest, having access to things like Netflix and any OnDemand service is both a blessing and a curse. True, there is easy access to just about anything you can imagine right at your fingertips, and plenty of it doesn’t cost anything extra on top of what you’re already paying for the service. The other side of that argument, however, is that sometimes, you have no idea what you’re going to end up with. If you play it safe, you’ll be able to explore movies that you’ve either already watched and loved, or movies that you have at least heard good things about, and have been meaning to check out for some time. If you like to dance with danger, you’ll end up taking a risk on something just because it looks like it might be interesting, or tragic. If you’re anything like me, you probably bounce back and forth between the two extremes.
It is that second extreme that landed me with the movie I watched for this week. I honestly don’t know quite what I was expecting. Okay, that isn’t completely true. Based off of the title, and the brief Netflix synopsis, I was kind of expecting a Zombieland style film, except replacing zombies with vampires. What I got was something far more serious. In fact, aside from the concept of both stories involving a grizzled older man taking a younger one under his wing in a post-apocalyptic world, the two films don’t really have a lot in common. So let’s take some time and delve into Stake Land.
For the unaware, Stake Land is the story of Martin, who narrowly escapes a vampire attack that destroys his family. He is saved by Mister, an experienced vampire hunter, who proceeds to train Martin in the ways of killing the undead. The two then head north, looking for sanctuary in New Eden, the new name for Canada. Along the way, they meet others they can enlist to their side, and find themselves dealing not only with vampires, but a fanatic group called the Brotherhood, who believe that the plague is simply God’s plan, with the vampires being the gift for humanity. The story was originally conceived as a series of web episodes, and some of the episodic feel lingers even in the full production. While it is dealing with the aftermath of a vampiric plague that wiped out most of society, it’s also talking about how people grow and adapt in the face of adversity.
The main characters are Martin and Mister. Martin, as mentioned above, is saved from certain death by the serendipitous arrival of Mister, who is able to kill the vampires, albeit too late to save his family. What follows is a bit of a coming-of-age tale, as Martin is trained to leave the trappings of his past behind him, under Mister’s tutelage. They are joined by Sister, a nun who they save from a gang of rapists, Belle, a pregnant girl who wants the hope New Eden represents, and Willie, a former Marine who has survived his own run-in with the Brotherhood. The group ends up forming something of a surrogate family for Martin, helping him navigate his new life.
On the flip side, there are the vampires, and the Brotherhood, lead by Jebedia Loven. The Brotherhood is a religious cult, who believes that the vampires were sent by God to help usher in the next phase. They also believe that raping, pillaging, and literally doing anything to survive is well within their rights. The Brotherhood doesn’t exist as much more than faceless boogeymen, with the notable exception of Jebedia, which is perfectly fine, because, in all honesty, none of the characters have a ton of depth to them. This could be seen as a slight on the film, but instead, leaving the characters as fairly blank slates somewhat helped the story. We don’t need to know about the past for these people. We don’t need to know what drove them to the point that they’re at. What we need to know is how do they deal with the reality that is presented to them now, and that’s what Stake Land sets out to show us.
The story in Stake Land is, at its core, the story of a man trying to find his personal salvation and meaning. Martin is trained by Mister how to fight, taught by Sister that there can still be kindness and faith, taught by Belle that love still exists, and taught by the Brotherhood about evil. Martin navigates all of these moments with the unease of a boy becoming a man, and trying to see where exactly he fits. Of course, along the way, everything is stripped away, leaving him bare and alone, with the sole exception of Mister, only for him to regain those points of familiarity, and then to have them stripped away again. The story doesn’t pull punches on the emotional toll that living in a post-apocalyptic world would carry, and the way the film punctuates the action with quieter, music-driven scenes really helps make the impact stronger. The vampires are an ever-present threat, but, much like in The Walking Dead, the true enemy is other survivors, and Stake Land makes it clear that, sometimes, even doing the right thing leads to terrible consequences.
Most of the death presented in this film is that of the vampires, but really, that’s just filling. Even Willie’s death doesn’t carry a ton of impact, aside from letting the others know that they aren’t as safe as they had believed. It’s when the movie shows what happens to Sister and Belle that you feel something more than a visceral interest. Both deaths carry strong meanings, and both help to move Martin’s story forward, albeit in different ways. Also, at least for these moments, the movie doesn’t dwell much on CGI or camera tricks. True, with Sister, the scene cuts away, but that doesn’t take away the punch. As for Belle, the audience immediately knows what she’s in for, and can’t help but be emotionally invested. There is a hope that everything is going to be alright, but, deep down, we know the reality of what’s happening.
In many ways, Stake Land is really just about coming-of-age, and leaving the trappings of childhood behind you. Martin loses both his actual and metaphorical families over the course of the film, while becoming stronger and more self-assured. Yes, he needs those traits to survive in a world overrun by vampires, but those are also traits that anyone would need to simply make it in the world. In fact, it isn’t until Martin has clearly shown that he is able to stand on his own two feet before Mister feels his job is done. The vampires and the Brotherhood were catalysts for Martin’s journey into manhood, representing pressures from the outside world trying to keep children from growing while also showing them darkness, but they were no more than representations of things that every person eventually has to go through. Bloodier, more violent versions, yes, but they still were critical in helping Martin complete his journey.
As I said above, I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting when I decided to give Stake Land a try. However, sometimes not knowing what to expect is a good thing. Stake Land isn’t perfect, by any means, but it tells a post-apocalyptic story with more heart and more emotion than a lot of stories even attempt. It got me thinking about how much I’ve grown and changed over my life, and where my own personal “Brotherhoods” were. Good horror makes the audience think and feel, not just react to all of the blood and guts pouring out in front of their eyes. Stake Land didn’t shy away from gore, but it really focused on making sure that the audience connected with the characters, and made you want everything to work out in the end.