Dark Sky Films is “the little engine that could” of the horror scene. Over the last decade, this team has been involved in distributing indie horror gems, continuing the grand tradition of exhibiting the work of promising new talents. They’re the A24 of horror, minus the social media campaign (sadly that’s pretty bare bones). But if you see their logo, you know you’re in for some good old genre twisting: haunted houses, werewolves, axe maniacs, and vampires of course.
Enter the actor/writer Nick Damici, a New York character actor taken to writing his own scripts after getting tired of typecasting. After teaming up with his friend, director Jim Mickle, to co-write Mickle’s urban rage virus film, Mulberry Street, they brainstormed ideas for a web series, Stake Land, about a lone outlaw in a vampire-invested wasteland. With encouragement from another indie horror icon, Larry Fessenden, they agreed to turn it into a feature if Fessenden produced it. With Mickle directing and Damici the only choice for the lead, Stake Land was off.
The film follows a teenager, Martin, played by Gossip Girl’s Connor Paolo, who’s family is killed off by feral vampires. Almost killed himself in the attack, he’s rescued by Damici’s character, simply known as Mister, your John Wayne-esque lone wolf. We’re never really given insight into the pandemic that caused the vampirism, but it’s been long enough that society has collapsed. Martin joins Mister on his quest up north to a mysterious settlement known only as “New Eden,” this being humanity’s only salvation. Along the way, the two meet and lose allies, run afoul from vamps, encounter a dangerous cult, and journey through the remaining towns of the American Northeast.
That’s the basic plot of the film in a nutshell; it combines the better elements of a road indie with a survival film. It’s amazing what the crew was able to accomplish on a $625,000 budget. Mickle channels his inner Robert Rodriguez: directing, writing, editing, and adding his own visual effects. This all culminates in a stand out long take: an unseen helicopter of lens-flare and sound effects, and moves over three locations. Damici, aside from his High Plains Drifter style performance, also acted as his own costumer and weapons designer. Finally, Jeff Grace, a frequent composer for Larry Fessenden and Ti West, creates a haunting, melancholic score that carries the film through its 98-minute runtime.
Due to the road movie style, we don’t really focus on more characters than our two leads. Connor Paolo uses his youthful appearance to his advantage (this role was probably written for a younger actor). We see him go from a wide-eyed kid in need of rescue to a capable survivor and eventually the torch bearer of the narrative. Top Gun’s Kelly McGillis was actually brought out of a decade’s long hiatus to play a traveling nun whom the duo rescues and she becomes an emotional center for the film. Scream Queen, Danielle Harris, right out of Rob Zombie’s Halloween films and starting her recurring lead role in Adam Green’s Hatchet sequels, gives one of the best performances in her career. Finally, Fringe’s Michael Cerveris rounds out the major cast as the villainous Jebedia Loven, the sadistic cult leader who poses a bigger threat than the film lets on. Producer, Larry Fessenden, has a cameo as a bartender, as is tradition in his projects.
Finally, we have the design of the vampires, which clearly take inspiration from Gary Oldman’s final form in Dracula. They are very bat-like, with pronounced foreheads and sunk in noses. Make no mistake about it, they’re not zombies, as we see them behave with wolf pack instincts. Their involvement even leads to some good world building when we see them begin to evolve.
Stake Land is a film that I highly recommend as both a watch and one to own. This is a film worth investing in for the bonus features to see how it was made on such a small budget, along with seven short films that were released for promotion (They’re also available on Dark Sky’s YouTube channel). The initial release was bad timing, coming out a year after Zombieland, and a mere month before the series premiere of The Walking Dead. However, the film was the winner of the 2010 Toronto Film Festival’s Midnight Madness award, and has proved successful enough to warrant a sequel in 2016, The Stakelander, with Mickle and Damici returning to write. Mickle has gone on to have a rising career, adapting the works of Joe R. Lansdale for film and television, and directing last year’s In the Shadow of the Moon for Netflix. Damici has also continued writing and acting in genre fare, including taking on werewolves in the 2014 film, Late Phases, and co-writing the Dave Bautista action vehicle, Bushwick.
Stake Land marked the beginning of a great decade for Dark Sky Films. Even if the world is ending around us, Dark Sky is still giving us quality horror when we need it the most. Stay sharp.
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