If you haven’t noticed, vampire movies have been enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately. Recent movies like Underworld, Blade and Twilight portray vampires as suave, sexy action stars, while Let the Right One In and Thirst have given vampire movies the intellectual, introspective treatment.
Stake Land isn’t about a tormented, misunderstood vampire who’s actually very sensitive (and looks great in a billowing coat). And even though Stake Land takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where the United States has been overrun by vampires, it isn’t really a vampire movie. Stake Land’s focus is the vampire hunting duo Mister (Stake Land’s co-screenwriter Nick Damici) and Martin (Connor Paolo, best known as Eric on “Gossip Girl”), a teenager who has to grow up fast in a world filled not only with vampires, but with a religious cult known as the Brotherhood, whose (human) members believe that vampirism is a plague that will leave only the blessed (read: them) alive.
Among the people Mister and Martin encounter along the way are the pregnant teen Belle (Danielle Harris) and a nun known only as “Sister,” played by Kelly McGillis of Top Gun fame (Stake Land marks her return to the big screen after an absence of nearly a decade). Stake Land’s vampires neither seduce humans nor deliver dramatic monologues; in fact, they don’t speak at all. They just kill. Even though the vampires are the stuff of nightmares, it’s Stake Land’s attention to the development of its human characters that sets it apart from all the Twilights out there today.
As Stake Land arrives on Blu-ray and DVD, Damici and Stake Land’s director and co-screenwriter Jim Mickle took the time to answer some of MM’s questions on their influences and the role of religion in the film.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): Stake Land isn’t strictly a horror movie; it’s more like a horror-road trip-western-coming of age movie… with vampires. Which directors and movies, both horror and non-horror, influenced you?
Jim Mickle (JM): John Carpenter’s movies meant a lot to me growing up. The Thing is my favorite movie, and the way that it felt like a sci-fi/horror take on a tough guy western always stuck with me. Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog and In the Mouth of Madness are all fantastic movies.
I fell in love with film through horror. Watching directors like Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson and Dario Argento led me to David Lynch and the Coen brothers. I would find a moviemaker or subgenre and obsess over everything I could find, and that would lead to something new to discover. I came to film school wanting to make Hal Hartley movies. By the time I finished I just wanted to make monster movies in my backyard again, but now with all of these other references.
Nick Damici: King Kong (the 1933 version) is my first and greatest influence due to its originality. I was also influenced by 1930s horror films like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist and The Omen all had an impact on me as well. Non-horror favorites are The Wild Bunch, Deliverance, Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter.
MM: Stake Land has a non-traditional take on vampires, as your vamps are more like feral, bloodthirsty animals than the commonly-seen seductive, smooth-talking vampire. What was your reason for this?
JM: We wanted to make vampires scary again. The vampire genre seemed to be moving toward the contemplative end of the cycle. We wanted to throw all that out and just start from the idea that that these things drink blood. We wanted to make a vampire movie for grown-ups. Let the Right One In is the final, perfect thoughtful vampire movie as far as I’m concerned, so I felt it was time to wipe the slate clean and head in the other direction.
ND: By having the vampires not be the focus, we let the humans stand out. The vampires became a metaphor for the rampant infection inflicted by the powers that be upon our humanity, instead of them being sympathetic characters themselves.
MM: Talk a bit about the Stake Land prequel shorts being posted online. When and where can they be seen, and are you planning on making more?
JM: Stake Land was originally conceived as a Web series. Nick and I love the serial idea, and we feel that it still has a place outside of the feature. We wanted the serials to be set in the world of the film, but also to deliver something very different. We sought out really talented directors from the network of moviemakers at [Stake Land’s production company] Glass Eye Pix and asked them to each make a short film using their own tone and style. So Larry Fessenden, J.T. Petty, Glenn McQuaid, Graham Reznick and our own Danielle Harris all made these gorgeous shorts. It was kind of a community quilt idea, and it was great to give every actor an opportunity to explore their character outside of the overall film. We’ve started rolling out two films a week (trailers.apple.com/trailers/independent/stakeland/). We have a lot more story and a one-off comic book ideas in the works, so maybe more material will find its way out.
MM: The film’s main antagonist isn’t a vampire, but the human cult leader Jebedia. Were the religious aspects of Stake Land such an integral part of the script from the beginning, or was Stake Land ever a more traditional vampire-killing movie?
JM: The first drafts laid out the story very differently. The main characters were there, but it was set in the present day and the world outside of the story wasn’t touched on much. Lots of action and vamp killing, though. As Stake Land developed, we tried to stick to the model of making a horror film that could stand on its own, even with all of the genre elements removed. We tried to make each action scene matter to the characters and to push the story and themes further. Nick was writing this before the 2008 election, and I think the divides in the country and the fanatical thinking on all sides seeped into Stake Land. I love when real world issues get explored in the horror genre. I want to feel things viscerally when I go to the movies.
ND: Using horror as allegory for social issues was our intention from the beginning. We used the religious fanaticism in Stake Land as an example of what America could become if we allow fanatics of any kind to get their way.
MM: You previously collaborated on the horror film Mulberry Street. Are you working on any upcoming projects together?
JM: We have a couple things we’re bouncing around. I’d love to get to do another one with Nick. We adapted the Joe R. Lansdale novel Cold in July, which we’re hoping to shoot later this year. It’s not a horror film, but it does explore a lot of dark ideas. It’s kind of a country noir. I’m ready to try other kinds of films besides horror.
ND: In addition to waiting on funding for Cold in July, we’re kicking around ideas for a horror movie set in 1930s Appalachia about a young girl who is cursed by a local witch.
For more information, and to check out the trailer, visit stakelandthemovie.com.