Here’s the pitch: After his family is destroyed by feral vampires (legitimately scary ones, more at the speed of 28 Days Later than, say, Twilight), a teenage boy named Martin (Connor Paolo) is rescued by a mysterious stranger known only as Mister (Nick Damici), and together they travel across a dangerous landscape while encountering hordes of rabid undead on their way to New Eden, a place they believe to be a sanctuary from the epidemic. Terror ensues!
If this scenario doesn’t sound familiar to you, then you might be completely riveted by Stake Land, Jim Mickle’s contribution to the supernatural apocalypse genre. Mickle has an eye for detail and at least some semblance of style, so his latest offering has a leg up on the tide of similar material that it’s swimming against. But if you’re like me and you’ve already seen and enjoyed other recent post-apocalyptic films like The Road, you might be left cold at the end of Stake Land when the question of what this particular variant is going to do differently is answered with a half-hearted shrug.
But the film does make a valiant effort at rendering well-mapped territory at least newly habitable. The usual evils—cannibals, cults, etc.—make their appearance throughout as detours for Martin and Mister. But for all its redundancy in the horror canon, the film trods these familiar roads with an almost naïve freshness, sort of like a child exploring the woods behind his backyard and believing that no one else has ever walked there before. And indeed, Stake Land is a child’s story—or at least the story of a child taking his first tentative steps into adulthood. Martin’s primary turning point from wide-eyed youth to full-fledged warrior of the apocalypse occurs when a young vampire girl reaches out to him in a gesture of recognition, heartbroken in the face of everything she has lost—her youth, her beauty, but also the chance to someday become something other than what she is now. Martin empathizes with her (sad eyes!), but then of course he kills her, following through on one of his first adult responsibilities: to survive by whatever means necessary.
The coming-of-age character arc is relatively transparent in Stake Land (especially when the mercy-killing-as-personal-growth symbolism recurs later on), and I wonder why so many young adult narratives need these traumatically jarring catalysts, such as vampire outbreaks or the end of the world, to represent the giving up of childish things. Surely not all of us had to kill an undead peer before going off to college; rather, we simply tried to do our proverbial thing, hopefully not making quite as many mistakes along the way as those who came before us. And at that, Stake Land succeeds with aplomb: The film is slick, scary, and occasionally poignant, deftly rising above the swarm of imitators. But by treading in the genre’s old bathwater and not really showing much interest in swimming over to the less crowded area of the pool, it isn’t likely to generate many imitators of its own.