Friday, April 08, 2022

Fessenden/Glass Eye Pix at MoMA: Stake Land

Instead of a zombie apocalypse, we got a vampire apocalypse. Most of the rules remain the same. You can stake a vampire through the heart, but for the really tough ones, you have to sever the spinal column. “Mister” is good at killing them, so maybe he might just keep young Martin alive in Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, which screens as part of MoMA’s “Oh, the Humanity” retrospective film survey of Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix.

Martin is now an orphan, thanks to the vampire Mister was good enough to kill shortly thereafter. He is tough, but he willingly takes Martin under his wing. They are generally headed North, hoping reports of a sanctuary city are true (yes, this follows a lot of familiar zombie movie tropes). However, they will have to cross some dangerous territory controlled by White Nationalist Christian militias. The worst of the lot is led by messianic Jebedia Loven, who welcomes the vampires as a cleansing agent sent by God.

Frankly, it tis already beyond tiresome to see another post-apocalyptic horror film that only shows the Armageddon-like situation bringing out the worst in people. The truth is, national crises usually bring out the best in us. Late 2000/early 2001 was a very divisive time in American history, yet 9/11 unified us a country, at least for a while. Arguably, it might take a vampire or zombie apocalypse to unify us again, considering how polarized the nation has become. However, by so blatantly demonizing the Christian Right,
Stake Land contributed to that polarization. You could just as easily posit Antifa extremist celebrating vampires who preyed on white property and business owners (having a little of both would have increased the dangers and raised the stakes even further).

Mickle also gives it all a dark, relentless downbeat tone, not at all dissimilar to
The Road. Still, it is important to remember Stake Land hit the festival circuit before The Walking Dead premiered, so its various crossbow kills were not lifted from the breakout zombie hit. Co-screenwriter Nick Damici is suitable intense and grizzled as Mister, but his gloomy script doesn’t give him the chance for the sort of hardnosed, hard-edged sarcasm that elevated films like Cold in July and Night of the Wolf (a.k.a. Late Phases). On the other hand, Kelly McGillis adds some humanity portraying “Sister,” a nun, who is presented with surprising sensitivity. Plus, producer Fessenden has a small part as the bartender in a relatively sane enclave.

The smartest aspect of
Stake Land is the way it shows survivors coming together to make their own ad-hoc families. However, the particulars of its post-apocalyptic vision are not especially distinctive or rewarding. Not recommended, Stake Land screens today (4/8) and Monday (4/11), as part of MoMA’s Oh, the Humanity.