In Stakeland, the USA has actually, blessedly, collapsed. There’s no government and the country is overrun with, sigh, vampires. Vampires are the most boring of cinematic nemeses. They sit around in velvet suits making catty comments and sipping vitae from wine glasses, before using their various super powers to hunt the puny human, flying like a bat, Herculean strength and speed, an affected insouciance as they drain your neck of blood. They’re aspirational, and you can’t base an apocalypse around that. Everyone wants to be a vampire. Like werewolves, how dull are they? They get to fulfil all their, and our, basest, bloodiest urges. Imagine been given the freedom to strip naked and run around the park for a weekend, to attack some sweater and bobby sock wearing co-ed students as they saunter home, to lick your own balls and eat nothing by steak tartar? How is that an affliction? Oh no, it appears I’m a werewolf, you may think, until your slam dunk improves beyond compare and your hearing is so attuned you can hear when they put the reduced stickers on the meat in Tesco and get there before everyone else. Frankly, that would be some life, with the added boon of being able to go out in the sunshine. No wonder vampires hate them so much. But as a driver for the apocalypse, they’re both shit.
The be all and end all of the apocalypse, is the zombie. No body wants to be a zombie, they are dullards, they shuffle (they must always shuffle, a running zombie is a chimera, a device, a lie), they groan. You think you can escape them easily enough, but there are so many. They encompass the grinding inevitability of life, they are the inexorable encroachment of death. They shamble around the streets, stumbling in and out of shops, needing to feed for reasons they can never fathom, forever lost and confused, not knowing why they are there. They feed on both our pity and revulsion simultaneously, because the zombie is us. Human and brittle, changing, deteriorating with every passing day doing the same old shit. So Stakeland, and the title is a give away here, fails on this count. However, the vampires aren’t the debonair types we’re used to, ancient, politicked, callous wankers, but a kind of zombie/vamp hybrid. After all, a proper vampire wouldn’t make just anyone into a vampire, would they? So it appears to have been more of a virus, but we won’t split hairs.
Our protagonists meet as the young lad, Martin, and his family are trying to make a break for it as society collapses around them. In another improbable twist, knowing that the land is filthy with vamps, he legs it out of the garage to chase after the dog (the fucking dog!) and when he comes back, everyone is mangled. Mister, the vampire killer, happens upon the scene, and saves the day, but not after the sickening thump of Martin’s infant sibling’s exsanguinated corpse being dropped from a rafter by some prick of a vampire.
Killing a child in such away is shocking, of course, but it mirrors, if not wholly riffs upon, a scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. A scene which was left out of the final film, thank god, where the Man and the Boy come across a baby roasting on a spit. This is relevant because Stakeland seems to have borrowed, or in legalese, “ripped off”, much of the atmosphere of The Road, and our two heroes, a man and a boy, set off on trip, via the road, in search of a haven, a place called New Eden, located up north in Canada (vampires don’t like the cold, see, they’re “cold blooded”. They’re fucking dead! They’re cold everything-ed!) and encounter various evilness along the way. In The Road our heroes are heading south, rather than north, so PHEW.
With music that sounds like early Godspeed being all moody in the background, and a vast empty wilderness on either side of the road they travel, interrupted by structures and establishments that have been left abandoned, emptiness and desolation are created quite naturally, and are occasionally punctuated by explosions of violence. That’s how to do it, create the tension via the medium of boredom, the stultifying dullness of a post-society world. Along the way they encounter some settlements, some crazy bastards, some rapists, Kelly McGillis from Top Gun as a nun and along the way manage to assemble a rag tag crew of wary travellers who all want to get to New Eden too. It seems predictable up to this point, and it almost is, but for the redemption of the end, which, for me, took a tiny turn away from the norm of the boss fight at the end of a level. It’s bleak and harsh, but there’s hope, even if that hope is tempered by the rumours of vamps having overrun this New Eden gaff. Which is pretty much how we like our hope in post apocalypse world.
This is how to make a small budget horror. Firstly use the environment, and secondly, do less. Long sweeping shots and less gibbering politics (I’m looking at you, Outcast), idleness and silence interjected by violence, not the other way around. For a vampire flick, which I’m generally against, this isn’t bad, but at times it can feel as if the whole vampire schtick was added to appeal to zeitgeist. As a post apocalypse flick, it works too. It loses points for Martin’s superfluous voiceover, not least because his voice can’t really convey the gravely gravitas that you know this kind of narration needs, or because there was some other film about going along a road in a shit world that had a voiceover too. What was that again?