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New York Times critics’ pick

"The American Horror Film of the Year"
—Todd Brown, TWITCH FILM

"The Mayhem is beautifully composed. The Performances are terrific"
Bruce Diones, THE NEW YORKER

"Harrowing! Puts vampires back where they belong — in your nightmares, and at your throat!"

"an ambitious hybrid, grafting the ethereal, landscape-driven, light-infused beauty and naïf narration associated with Terrence Malick
onto a tale in which struggle against supernatural forces is just one challenge of coming of age—a trope that ...
hasn’t had such a sense of balance between the fantastic and the organic since the heyday of Joss Whedon ...
thick with a distinct mood—the sadness and exhilaration of having nothing left to lose
—and the characters, in their desperation and drive, feel real.

Fessenden may be producing the best brains-before-blood horror in North America today.

Karina Longworth, THE VILLAGE VOICE

"so well done, and has such respect for the genre, its fans and its traditions,
that it far outstrips the recent competition, whether big budget or small. Decent scares and genuinely gruesome special effects,
a gritty and ominous drive-in aesthetic (provided by cinematographer Ryan Samul and production designer Daniel Kersting)
and a deceptively casual portrait of an almost-believable America in terminal decline -- what more do you want?
Horror fans will celebrate "Stake Land," and future horror-film directors should go to school on it. "
Andrew O'Hair, SALON

"Stake Land belongs to a promising subset of contemporary horror films —
including several by its co-producer Larry Fessenden, who directs socially conscious horror,
and its production company Dark Sky Films, which was responsible for
the superb retro-'80s thriller The House Of The Devil
that seem determined to press the genre beyond mere slice-and-dice."

Scott Tobias, NPR

"it's so damn good... finding the right level of bleakness is the single most important job any post-apocalyptic film has.
Stakeland finds it inside the first five minutes of the movie, and never lets it go."

"highly satisfying low-budget horror-thriller from helmer/co-writer Jim Mickle.
Taking on a larger canvas than that of "Mulberry Street," Mickel rises to the challenge, confirming his reputation as an emerging horror auteur."

"blows away lots of the ostensibly more ambitious films also playing at the Toronto Film Festival simply through the purity of its ambitions
and the rough, redneck energy of its filmmaking.."

"Director Jim Mickle and Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix have made their best film so far.
Stake Land is a fantastically scary and heartbreaking film that never betrays its low-budget roots."

"Stake Land is one more addition to the super solid Glass Eye Pix/Scareflix stable,
and everyone involved has every right to be very, very proud of what we saw"




AIN'T IT COOL NEWS - Anton Sirus, Sept 19, 2010
Given the rash of vampire movies and post-apocalyptic movies that have seen the light of day recently, it was probably inevitable that we'd get something like Stakeland. Throw enough Book of Elis and 30 Days of Nights and I Am Legends into the collective unconscious and eventually a post-apocalyptic vampire road movie was going to spring forth from somebody's brow.
Which is why it's incredible, not that Stakeland exists at all, but that it's so damn good.

The plot is beautifully stripped down. Vampirism has swept the globe and destroyed civilization; wherever humans gather in numbers the vamps will follow, forcing survivors to stay isolated. In the States, a battle-scarred hunter known only as Mister rescues a young boy, Martin, after the rest of his family gets eated, and together they start a journey north to the rumored safe haven of New Eden.

It's impossible to over-emphasize how perfectly that rescue scene sets the tone for what will follow. Nothing says that the usual rules of decorum have been tossed out the window better than watching a vampire squat up in the rafters, suck Martin's infant sister dry and toss her aside like she was a piece of fruit. It's not the most gruesome thing you'll see in a horror movie this year, but it might just be the bleakest, and finding the right level of bleakness is the single most important job any post-apocalyptic film has. Stakeland finds it inside the first five minutes of the movie, and never lets it go.

As Martin and Mister head north, they find that the bloodsuckers aren't the only predators they need to worry about. A Christian cult owns the highways, preaching that the vamps are God's curse upon unbelievers, and the Brotherhood and their deranged leader Jebediah prove to be far more dangerous than anything with fangs.

One of the big things that sets Stakeland apart is the care that's taken with the world around Mister and Martin. The cause of the vampiric outbreak is never explained, but its effects on civilization are spelled out in meticulous detail. A Marine they travel with for a while, when asked who won the war in the Middle East, snaps back "No one. There was nobody left to fight it." Basic pharmaceuticals become valuable currency. And while the vampires themselves are fairly standard-issue mindless, blood-crazed, tough as hell killing machines, the implications of that form of vampirism get fully explored, both by Mister in his efforts to trap them, and by the Brotherhood's use of them as weapons. I won't spoil the movie's brilliant, jaw-dropping set piece, but it's a thing of pure genius in its execution and its understanding of how evil and inventive humans can be.

Stakeland is inevitably going to get compared to two films in particular: Zombieland, due only to the similar titles and the fact that humans are an endangered species in each, and Hillcoat's The Road. The first is just unfortunate, as Stakeland is deadly serious in ways Zombieland couldn't be -- there's no Bill Murray cameo here (oops, spoiler!), no silly graphics displaying the rules to the audience. The two are different genres entirely, really. But when it comes to the latter, I'd say that not only does Stakeland hold its own against The Road, it's actually the superior film.

It all comes back to that right mix of bleakness and hope. Stakeland doesn't have what you could call a happy ending, but it does give you that real possibility that there may be a future after all. And in a world as dark as this one, just that little glimmer of light through the black is all you need to get you through.


VARIETY - Alissa Simon, Sept 18, 2010
Set in a post-apocalyptic world midway between "Zombieland" and "The Road," the genre-enlivening "Stake Land" is a highly satisfying low-budget horror-thriller from helmer/co-writer Jim Mickle. Making strong use of Western iconography and conventions, this road movie follows a man and a boy seeking the perhaps apocryphal safety of New Eden, fending off ravenous vampires as well as crazed fundamentalists along the way. Highly cinematic, pitch-perfect yarn should take a sizable bite out of the genre box office during its 2011 release from boutique horror label Dark Sky Films, with toothsome ancillary to follow.

Opening as an epidemic of vampirism has brought down the U.S. government and thrust society into chaos, the film gets off to a bloody start with the murder of a suburban family by flesh-chomping creatures who resemble the zombies from George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead." Teen protagonist Martin ("Gossip Girl's" Connor Paolo) is rescued from the carnage by grizzled vampire hunter Mister (co-writer Nick Damici) and trained in the life-or-death art of staking a bloodsucker.

As the two head north in a vintage convertible, they pass through striking deserted landscapes and rural "lockdowns" (vamp-free zones), depicted as Western frontier towns complete with archetypal doctors, barbers, brothels and saloons. Along the way, they acquire assorted traveling companions -- nun Sister Anna (an almost unrecognizable Kelly McGillis), pregnant Belle (Danielle Harris) and Marine Willie (Sean Nelson) -- and tangle with the Brethren, a Christian militia led by the deranged Jebedia (Michael Cerveris).
While Romero's work is among the pic's discernible influences, it also contains echoes of cult films from "The Last Man on Earth" to "The Road Warrior." Yet more than anything, it plays like a latter-day Western, with vampires in the place of Native Americans.

Genre-savvy co-scripters Mickle and Damici are clearly conscious of the similarities between apocalyptic stories and oaters, and find inspired ways to reinforce the connection. Moreover, as in their well-received first feature, "Mulberry Street," they incorporate social commentary without being too insistent; it's not difficult to think of the militant evangelical groups of our times evolving into the Brethren.

Taking on a larger canvas than that of "Mulberry Street," Mickle rises to the challenge, confirming his reputation as an emerging horror auteur. Creating character with very little dialogue, he moves away from splatter and gross-out humor to create something more mythic. Apart from the evilly eloquent Cerveris, the main thesps adopt a less-is-more style that comes across as quietly heroic. Landing relatively little screen time, the decomposing, undead creatures seem more akin to the movie zombies of the past than the sleek, sexy vampires in vogue today.
With the 27-day shoot spread over three seasons and varied natural landscapes, the atmospheric lensing by Ryan Samul on the Red One camera achieves impressive texture. Also standing out among the strong craft credits is Jeff Grace's evocative score, which incorporates spirituals and traditional folk tunes.Slightly cheesy visual effects were rendered on commercial software Adobe After FX.

Film won the People's Choice Award in the Midnight Madness section.


TWITCH - Grady Hendrix, Sept 17, 2010
"And then all that goodness was ruined by Christian crazies dropping vampires out of the sky."

Any movie that has a line like that in it, and that means it literally, is my kind of movie. Fundamentally nuts, Jim Mickle's STAKE LAND is essentially a movie about people running away from vampires. And that's it. But it explores the idea of people running away from vampires so thoroughly that it blows away lots of the ostensibly more ambitious films also playing at the Toronto Film Festival simply through the purity of its ambitions and the rough, redneck energy of its filmmaking. This is a film that is totally comfortable with being a b-list, genre flick, a straight-up shot of exploitation moonshine with no chaser and as such it is the best movie it could possibly be. Just think of Jim Mickle as an American Neil Marshall (The Descent, Dog Soldiers) and you'll have an idea of what you're in for.

Mickle's previous film, MULBERRY STREET, was a stripped-down end-of-the-world-because-we're-all-getting-eaten-by-giant-honking-rats flick shot on a shoestring in one location. A lot of people thought it was so clench-jawed and fuel efficient because Mickle made if for $3.45 plus a Quiznos half off coupon. But actually, STAKE LAND goes to show that Mickle doesn't know how to make a movie any other way. He directs the way a three year old drives: he jams the pedal to the metal and plows through anything in his way.

The story follows Martin (Gossip Girl's Connor Paolo) who teams up with Mister (Nick Damici) to try to get away from a vampire plague sweeping the nation. Mister is the Punisher of the vampire world: he likes killing vampires because it gives his life purpose. And because it's cool. The two of them take off through a post-apocalyptic America that feels like a Lynyrd Skynyrd song: all Harley hogs and country bars and cowboy boots and Bowie knives. Because of all the lousy, stinking vampires the survivors of the plague have either become giant assholes, turned to religion or started having yard sales. This is very depressing. Mister and Martin on the other hand have responded to the plague by packing a bunch of weapons into a muscle car and wiping out vamps with stake-fu. Now ask yourself: which are the real Americans.

STAKE LAND is basically the story of Martin and Mister's Amazing Vampire Killing Road Show with stops for Kelly McGillis (playing a nun) and some other interludes, most motivated by the fact that Martin's peach fuzz charms are like catnip to the ladies, vampire and nonvampire alike, who haven't seen a non-bearded and non-stinky man in some time. The gore flows fast, free and wet, but the movie's greatest special effect is Nick Damici, who was also the star of Mickle's MULBERRY STREET. Damici has all the craggy authority and tight-lipped intensity that it takes some actors a lifetime of being left out in the rain overnight to achieve, and he doles it out in heaping portions. There hasn't been a man this macho in a horror movie in a long time, and sneaking into screenings of STAKE LAND is going to jump start puberty in 12-year-old boys everywhere.

You can project a lot onto STAKE LAND, the same way that people go back and read context and meaning into Howard Hawks's films or Walter Hill's. But, like them, Mickle is just happy and unashamed to be making a genre picture with no pretensions to Deep Meaning. One could say that the fall of George Romero happened because he started telling people what his movies were about rather than just making them. Mickle hasn't fallen into that trap. As of now, he's just making movies and if you want to read theory onto them, that's your business not his. But in the meantime, if you want to see people run away from vampires, and occasionally skewer, slice, chop and mutilate them, then you're in good hands with STAKE LAND.


MISTER HORROR - Mister Horror, Sept 18, 2010
Last night’s Midnight Madness line for Stake Land was the shortest I’ve been in all week, but the Ryerson was still full enough to be rowdy. The crowd was treated to the best Midnight Madness film of the year, and the first that could be considered truly great. Director Jim Mickle and Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix have made their best film so far.

The film opens with young Martin (Connor Paolo) and his family preparing their car for what they expect to be a long journey. Their radio warns people not to travel at night and to stay indoors if possible. Martin’s dog runs out of the barn and into the night, and Martin chases after him. Martin trips and falls as the door to the barn slams shut and his parents scream. A man known only as Mister (Nick Damici) silences Martin and keeps him from rushing into the barn. The two sneak in to find mother dead, father seriously wounded, and a vampire snacking on Martin’s baby sibling. Mister dispatches the vampire with Martin’s help and then puts the father out of his misery.

From here we follow Mister and Martin’s journey as they travel north and away from the cities. Mister trains Martin in survival skills and stake-oriented tai chi. As a post-apocalyptic road movie, the film invites comparisons to Zombieland or The Road, but the tone here is completely different. Stake Land is more western than anything else, as the protagonists move between increasingly remote outposts, picking up traveling companions and fighting off savage vampires and an outlaw religious cult as they attempt to reach New Eden, which may or may not be the safe haven they are hoping for.

The Brotherhood, as the cult is known, is nearly as terrifying as the vampires themselves. The group believes that God has sent the vampires to cleanse the land, and they happily leave Mister to be consumed. We later hear stories of Brotherhood members crashing trucks full of vampires into outposts and flying planes full of them into cities. This plays out in a terrifying long take of vampires being dropped from helicopters on a peaceful outpost’s dance party.

The Brotherhood’s leader Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris) is particularly frightening in his calm portrayal of a man who has filled the vacuum of power with horrifying results. Much of the second half of the film involves Mister and his gang trying to evade Jebidia, and the film keeps things fresh and surprising through to the end.

Especially delightful are supporting performances from Kelly McGillis as a nun saved from would-be rapists by Mister and Danielle Harris as a pregnant girl who joins in on the trip.
Stake Land is a fantastically scary and heartbreaking film that never betrays its low-budget roots. Hopefully, this film will get the exposure it deserves


THE FILM BUFF BLOG - the coelacanth, Sept 18, 2010
So, this year's version of Midnight Madness is winding down, but one of the films that I'd been most looking forward to was screened last night, and lo and behold, did it ever deliver. Jim Mickle's Stake Land shows us an America perhaps in the not-too-distant future wherein vampires have begun to dominate, and society has essentially been splintered into small bands of survivors, with two clear cut camps: religious fundamentalists and the sane. In these days of Tea Party hysteria, this is all too uncomfortably familiar. More a road movie than a vamp flick, Stake Land reveals that, in an age of fanaticism and intolerance, vampires are the least of our worries.

The story has a man ("Mister") and a boy ("Martin")joining forces in order to get to a safe haven in the north known as New Eden. However, it is unclear if this refuge will even provide solace, as the boy is warned by a store clerk that they'll need to watch out for the cannibals one they arrive there. Along the way, Mister and Martin pick up a ragtag band of survivors, whose only link is that they share a respect for human life regardless of race or creed.

All of the actors, to a person, do a fantastic job of creating realistic characterizations out of what could very easily have been caricatures. Kelly McGillis' nun, "Sister", is particularly affecting, for even though she wears the cloth, she is not so lost in fundamentalist beliefs or irrationality to realize survival trumps all when belief and urgent pragmatism clash. Nick Damici, who wrote the script for Stake Land (as well as Mickle's previous film, the wonderfully grimy and similarly humane Mulberry Street), plays Mister, a brooding antihero who softens over the course of the film, and becomes more and more compassionate, learning that looking out for number one may keep you alive, but it will ultimately have the more damaging effect of total alienation. Martin doesn't have much to say, but provides the voice-over narration that nudges the story along at an easy pace. Sean Nelson, Bonnie Dennison, Danielle Harris, and especially Michael Cerveris as Jebedia Loven, the personification of the idea of Christian Fundamentalism taken to a terrifying extreme, all contribute solid work in slightly smaller roles.

The pacing of the film needs mention, as it is neither fast nor slow, but sort of flows like a languid river, free and easy, never slowing or hastening, and always staying the course. The whole thing felt very natural, very real, and even tangents in the plot acted more like swirling eddies rather than highway off-ramps, deviating for a brief moment of pause before once more giving in to the pull of the water. In fact the whole film has a very naturalistic feel. Kris mentioned before the film that he had been speaking with one of the MM programmers and was told that Stake Land was like if Terrence Malick had shot a vampire film. That idea stuck in my mind as I watched the film, and it is not a poor description at all. Shades of Malick, David Gordon Green's earlier work, Lance Hammer's Ballast, and, to come full-circle, fellow Glass Eye Pix alum Kelly Reichardt's disarmingly real films. In particular, I saw similarities between Stake Land's characters and the small, touching and very human interactions in Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy. Pretty deep stuff for just another "vampire" movie.

But that's just the thing - much like Glass Eye Pix founder, Stake Land producer, and renaissance man extraordinaire Larry Fessenden's own Habit, Stake Land is really a vampire film in name only, using the vampires as a vehicle to deliver a more important message, a message that perhaps would be criticized as being ham-fisted if it had been wedged into a traditional drama. However, that is an area where horror excels - because of the suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoying the films, an urgent message can be the driving force of a film and not come across forced.

The camera work is stunning in Stake Land, and for every gory money shot, Ryan Samul's camera lingers over wintry landscapes, reeds, rushes, trees, streams. There is a very familiar sense to these landscapes, the purple and blue hills of the Catskills and beyond, not only because I've traveled through them, but because the frosty woods and icy brooks mirror our very own landscape. This familiarization of the setting helps to drive the message home, but I don't think it would isolate viewers from a different geographical region, though it might make the film a slightly less personal experience.

Jeff Grace contributes a compelling score that draws as much from symphonic work as it does from early Americana and Smithsonian Folkways recordings. Mickle spoke of how the score moved backward in time, almost as if the characters were heading back into pioneer days, evoking old ghosts and decaying dreams. In fact, the film felt very much like we were witnessing a societal de-evolution, a return to primal needs and fears, where survival is not a right, but a privilege, and the score at times reinforces this idea, and at times juxtaposes it, all to great effect. The score acts almost like another narrative device, in the same way that the camera, the narration, and the plot all have us floating down the river at the same pace. The way that all these elements seamlessly mesh and play off each other is nothing short of cinematic excellence, and really showcases the power and importance of the "director".
Back to Malick - Mickle mentioned in the Q&A that he was heavily influenced by Days of Heaven while shooting Stake Land, and it shows. From the child-like voice-over narration, the score and the naturalistic cinematography - even the small group on the run - Days of Heaven is prevalent here. Which, I suppose, is why Stake Land comes off less like its similarly themed but completely different feeling contemporaneous celluloid peers Zombieland and The Road, and more like, well, a good film, a piece of cinema rather than just a movie. Stake Land, while having the potential to be overly sensationalistic, is expertly helmed by Mickle and the fine production touches by the Glass Eye Pix crew bring it all home.

So I must say bravo, to all involved, and to Colin Geddes for getting this film for the Midnight Madness faithful. Stake Land is certainly an 11th hour contender for my MM top spot. Stake Land is one more addition to the super solid Glass Eye Pix/Scareflix stable, and everyone involved has every right to be very, very proud of what we saw last night.

Also, I want to give a big thanks to Larry, ever the gentleman and awesome guy, for posing for a photo with a huge fan. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know my respect and admiration for the man, and I'm still a bit star-struck for having been in the presence of one of my cinematic heroes and long-time champion of powerful independent film. And, really, that's one of the coolest things about MM - unlike the big galas at TIFF, you might find a director or actor in line next to you, waiting with the same anticipation to see something new and exciting. And often you can simply walk up to a legendary director, put your arm around him and smile like a big, dumb kid..