Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Stake Land (2010)

Try as I might I can’t get up the same enthusiasm for Cabin in the Woods as most people. It may well be a ‘game changer’, as many critics claim, but I find its approach uninteresting. Despite its qualities as a ‘meta-narrative’, its mode of address seems very much confined to mainstream horror, its criticisms are very much of mainstream horror, and it is forced (by virtue of being a studio film) to be mainstream horror – albeit one trying to do something ‘clever’. Its reflexivity does not, to my mind at least, ultimately offer up any genuine insight (beyond, perhaps, the idea that horror stories serve to keep primal forces at bay) or anything that hasn’t been said before by people like Wes Craven.
Stake Land, on the other hand, which I saw last night, did not have the shackles of mainstream studio production (which probably accounts for its patchy distribution) but succeeds through its mix of cultural references to be very insightful indeed. I can’t recall another horror film which makes such strong connections to the Great Depression through cultural references to that period of American history as represented in film, photography and literature. No surprise that one of the creative forces behind the film was Larry Fessenden, who has probably done more than anyone to promote independent horror production in the last ten years, and has a genuine sense of the subversive potential of the genre.

The story is very similar to that of Zombie-Land (2009). Martin, a teenage boy who has lost his family, teams up with a grizzled vampire-hunter known only as ‘Mister’, and together they embark on a road trip through an apocalyptic landscape, heading towards what they hope will be a better place in Canada. Along the way they experience hardship, loss, human kindness (in some of the encampments they stop at) and its opposite (in their encounters with The Brotherhood, a right-wing fundamentalist group who rule the South). The vampire threat (like the zombie threat in Romero’s films) is largely secondary. The main concern of the film is surviving in a bleak landscape following social collapse, where humanity is at a premium.
Co-writer/director Jim Mickle consciously referenced the Great Depression in choosing to set much of the film in rural Pennsylvania, giving the film “a dustbowl depression look, not some futuristic, apocalyptic look, but more little kids running around in potato sacks”. As the film unfolds, one becomes aware of images that strongly invoke the famous Depression-era photography of Dorothea Lange. We see families stranded at the side of the road in broken down cars; people living in shanty towns; possessions and clothes being bartered in street markets. This, of course invites an allegorical reading of the film, which Mickle has, himself, welcomed. “People have seen the film as a critique of capitalism, greed or extremism, and I’d agree that it’s meant to be a cautionary tale.”
The film is beautifully photographed by Ryan Samul, and another conscious reference is Terrence Malick’s Depression-era drama, Days of Heaven (1978). Samul’s approach strongly echoes the work of Nestor Almendros, especially in the use of 'magic hour' filming; its bleached landscapes owe a great deal to that film. Indeed, the Terrence Malick influence can also be felt in the use of voice-over narration, given by a teenager, which forms the emotional core of the film.
However, the overriding reference in Stake Land is to The Grapes of Wrath (1940), John Ford’s film based on Steinbeck’s classic novel, and the plot echoes that of Steinbeck in several ways. In Ford’s film, unemployed Oklahoma farmworkers travel to California in search of work in the fields. This is similar to the protagonists’ plight to reach the ‘New Eden’ in Stake Land. The hardship along the way threatens, in Steinbeck’s story, to erode the family and with it the very fabric of American society. In Stake Land, the protagonists form a ramshackle family which is constantly undermined by the vampires, the Brotherhood, and the day-to-day hardship of survival. Martin briefly finds a surrogate mother in Kelly McGillis, a nun who they rescue from The Brotherhood, but she is taken from him almost as soon as he finds her, and not once but twice. Other family members come and go, but in the end, it is always only Martin and Mister left, and it seems, like in Steinbeck, that any form of normal family life is going to be an impossibility. Steinbeck, in 1939, was talking about the break-up of thousands of families during the Depression, caused by mass migration. In Stake Land, ‘Mister’ repeatedly voices the impossibility of maintaining family ties in a survival situation: “I’m not your father” he reminds Martin constantly.
And yet, there is a rich seam of humanity that runs through Stake Land. In a scene which closely mirrors a section in Grapes of Wrath, the survivors chance upon an encampment where they briefly experience human hope again for the first time in months. Strangers in the camp revel in each other’s company; social contact is renewed; people dance together in the street. This is the ‘Weedpatch Camp’ of Steinbeck’s novel: housing built for migrant workers by the government’s Farm Security Administration to provide a decent hygienic environment for families – an alternative to the dirty squalid camps established by the farmers and growers. In Ford’s film, a group of deputies attempt to have ‘Weedpatch Camp’ closed down, so that their bosses - the farmers and growers - can once again exploit and harass the farm workers. In Stake Land, no sooner than the human spirit can re-establish itself in the encampment, the reactionary Brotherhood seeks to destroy it. The means by which they do so is one of the film’s most astonishing moments. We, the audience, as well as Martin and Mister, struggle at first to understand what is happening. Then the sheer malice of it is brought home, in the same way as, in Grapes of Wrath, the malice of the bosses is underlined by their desire to wreck the ‘Weedpatch Camp’.  Stake Land’s conclusion is similar to Steinbeck’s in that respect: it is not the vampires or the Depression that cause the greatest threat to humanity, but those who would seek to exploit the disaster to increase their own power and/or financial gain.
Whether this is currently true in the recession-gripped United States with regards to Christian fundamentalism (as Mickle seems to suggest) I cannot say. One of the criticisms of Stake Land is that it perhaps tries to reference too many things at once. Not only are there the references to the Great Depression and Christian fundamentalism, but also to the western genre. This leads to some messiness in the plot development towards the end. To reach a logical conclusion in terms of the apocalyptic/Steinbeck storyline, the family must perish, with only Martin and Mister left to roam the country alone in perpetuity. However, western movie tropes call for the family to be preserved and for the individuality of the ‘pioneer spirit’ to be reaffirmed. In Stake Land, this means that there is a bit of to-ing and fro-ing in the final scenes, as a new character is introduced to take over from Mister as Martin’s ‘family’, so that Mister can do the Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) thing from The Searchers and continue to roam.
Having said that, Stake Land shows that great insight in horror films comes not necessarily from ‘reflexivity’ within the genre, but by a film combining cultural and historical references in a meaningful way.

11 comments:

Maynard Morrissey said...

Wonderful review for a super-awesome movie. Saw it last year at an Austrian Filmfestival and it blew me away. Didn't expecft it to be that great because Mickle's previous flick Mulberry Street didn't impress me at all.

Jon T said...

Thanks, Maynard. Mickle made a previous film? I thought Stake Land was his debut - must check Mulberrry Street out - thanks for the heads up! :-)

Wes M said...

Excellent piece Jon, I must try see this soon, the film got a strong recommendation in a recent Video Watchdog as well. I like the allusions to Malick and Days of Heaven, and the dustbowl dramas of Dorothea Lange (thanks for the link), and Grapes of Wrath. (I wonder if the film makers had Cormac McCarty and The Road in mind too?). What attracts me to the film is that it might deliver on the promise of Carpenter's Vampires, a film that botched a brilliant idea. I just caught one of the trailers on youtube and it looks really good...

Jon T said...

Many thanks, Wes. Yes, it's well worth a watch, much better than Vampires. It has a bit of Near Dark too. And a great soundtrack by Jeff Grace. Enjoy!

James Gracey said...

Great write-up, Jon. I was especially interested in what you said about Stake Land's commentary on the Great Depression, Christian fundamentalism, and its allusions to the western and the work of Steinbeck. I loved this film - and really enjoyed Mulberry Street, too. The attention afforded the characters was quite remarkable, too. Also agree with your comments on Mr Fessenden. He's been responsible for some of the most original and innovative horror films from the last decade.

Jon T said...

Thanks, James! I have to confess that I hadn't even heard of Mulberry Street (is it a horror film?) I must check it out. I was really impressed by Mickle's direction in Stake Land. You can tell right from the first moments that he knows what he is doing - quite rare in a horror movie!

James Gracey said...

Mulberry Street may initially seem like a whole other kettle of fish compared with Stake land - it's a fairly typical zombie movie narrative about the inhabitants of a crumbling apartment block on the verge of being torn down becoming infected by diseased rats and turning into rat-human-zombie killers!! However, the claustrophobic atmosphere, decent performances and careful characterisation make it worth checking out - especially as it came before something as mature and nuanced as Stake Land.

Jon T said...

Wow, James, you've sold it to me! I like the apartment block scenario (loved REC 1 & 2) - that's another one added to the list!

Wes M said...

Thanks to this post, I caught Mulberry Street (previously unknown to me) on Horror last night (under the boneheaded UK title Zombie Virus on Mullberry Street), and I was quite impressed. Very much from the 28 Days Later school of mutant/zombie film, plus a little bit of Rec for good measure, but still it put its influences to good use. The film was shot on DV, which always puts me on the defensive - I think digital video gives film makers a little too much lattitude, with all those absurd camera angles - but it's a very accomplished work. I think you will like this one Jon...

Jon T said...

Great stuff, Wes. Thanks for that. What a crap title! I will keep a look out...

Jon T said...

PS @ Wes. I know what you mean about the DV style being a bit off-putting. I really like the Dogma 95films and there have been some others in the Dogme style, like One for the Road and some of Shane Meadows' films, where I thought it was well used but for horror films generally I don't like it much. I couldn't see the point, for example, in filming 28 Days Later on DV. I thought REC used it well though.