It seems the only sort of horror more popular than the zombie-apocalypse flick these days is the vampire flick, and on its face, Stake Land (Dark Sky DVD and Blu-ray) looks a bit like a craven cash-grab combo platter of the two, with a side of The Road thrown in. Once writer/director Dan Mickle’s film gets going in earnest, however, it stakes out (ba-dum-tsst) its own patch of turf in the contempo gore-spattered landscape.
So, yes, there are vampires, but not the garden-variety sexy teens or swellegant Euros. These bloodsuckers are gnarly-looking, bestial, driven only by instinct and impulse, and they’re everywhere—like, picture your typical zombie movie and then imagine all the zombies with fangs. The United States has been plunged into a new dark age with only a handful of well-armed souls hanging on, and through this nightmare world travel Mister (Nick Damici, who also co-wrote) and Martin (Gossip Girl’s Connor Paolo)—the former a taciturn road warrior/vampire slayer who carries a stake in a shoulder holster, the latter the young teenager he saves from slaughter and adopts as his vamp-killing squire. They’re on their way to New Eden, the rumored vampire-free haven in Canada, but they find themselves with more to worry about than abundant bloodsucking freaks and the occasional hapless tag-alongs (including Kelly McGillis and Danielle Harris) when they cross a cult/gang of violent millennial-Christian yahoos led by the B-movie-hall-of-fame-named Jebedia Loven (a scenery-chewing Michael Cervaris).
It sounds like light-night cable dreck, to be sure. But Stake Land emerges in part under the auspices of Glass Eye Pix, the production shingle of neo-horror maven Larry Fessenden, who has built a rep for advancing smart, well-crafted genre fare that nonetheless delivers the goods (see also: The House of the Devil, The Last Winter). The brand is in good hands here. There’s a certain blue-collar grit and air of workaday end-of-the-world reality (cf. The Road) to Mister and Martin’s picaresque journey that grounds the proceedings. Indeed, like so much good horror, Stake Land gains extra power because of its resonance with larger societal fears—in this case, fanatics and religious wackos destroying what’s left of the civilized world for spite. And even though the characters don’t get much in the way of backstory or dialogue, Mickle uses subtleties—e.g., wordlessly contrasting Mister’s top-predator sexual success to his charge’s budding pubescent desires—to animate the cursory relationships and fill out the contours of the story. He even comes up with a satisfying ending that neither makes you roll your eyes nor closes the door on a sequel. In a phrase, he nails it.
Speaking of often maligned schools of cinema, you don’t hear much about “mumblecore” these days, and maybe that’s for the best. There seemed to be little embrace of the term/concept by anyone but film critics, most especially not the incestuous collection of filmmakers whose no-frills, low-drama accounts of the lives of young, white, middle-class urban twentysomethings inspired the term. They have simply continued to make films, either going Hollywood (as the Duplass brothers did with 2010’s Cyrus) or continuing to pump out indie projects (Joe Swanberg has completed four features since 2009’s Alexander the Last). Aaron Katz, meanwhile, did something unexpected with his third feature, Cold Weather. He made a mumblecore genre film. Sort of.
As Cold Weather begins, Doug (Cris Lankenau) has moved back home to Portland, Ore., and in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). Despite their sibling status, they relate to each other a bit like a honeymoon’s-over couple whose trajectories have started to diverge. Gail has landed a cush office job while Doug loafs, reads, and works an undemanding gig in an ice factory. He is utterly unengaged and she is unenthralled by it. So far, so typical. But Doug used to study forensic science back when he bothered with school, and when old girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) shows up for a visit and then disappears, Doug’s stifled detective instincts resurface. With his ice-factory buddy Carlos (scene-stealing Raul Castillo) serving as the Watson to his Holmes, Doug delves into the increasingly shady world Rachel sank into, and Portland’s perma-drizzle emerges as ideal contemporary noir backdrop.
Which is not to say that Katz has crafted a mumblecore The Big Sleep or anything. In his previous films, most especially 2007’s Quiet City, Katz proved adroit at teasing interest and modest impact out of awkward conversations, things left unsaid, long pauses and silent glances, and how those convey information about relationships as much as any big speech or clinch. This is, of course, one of the main reasons so-called mumblecore turns off many viewers. There’s a good bit more plot to Cold Weather, by necessity, as well as something like an action sequence and even disguises at one point, though there’s still plenty of seemingly aimless meandering. But when the final scene rolls around, the big reveal is that the mystery itself is a red herring, and that Cold Weather was about something else all along. You won’t see it coming.