For a horror filmmaker to traffic in vampires or post-apocalypse survival scenarios these days is to risk a collective "Really, again?" But resourceful writer-director Jim Mickle covers both in his realism-tinged indie "Stake Land" and shows that a savvy mixture of characterization, atmosphere and gore-eographed suspense can make even the most familiar fright tropes feel vaguely organic again.
The template is a coming-of-age story in which our narrator — orphaned teen Martin (Connor Paolo) — is schooled by a mean yet moral, Bronson-esque vamp hunter (co-writer Nick Damici) in the art of what may best be described as stake fu.
As they trek through an undead-stricken America — which, apart from the human carnage, looks suspiciously like regular ol' poverty-stricken America — the pair pick up travelers (Kelly McGillis as a nun, Danielle Harris as a pregnant singer) and fend off attacks. More menacing than the bloodsuckers, however, may be a fundamentalist sect led by the creepy Jebedia (Michael Cerveris), who sees the vampire swarm as a holy reckoning.
Though it never really scares or surprises, "Stake Land" does exhibit a painterly eye and feel for performance, as Mickle artfully toggles between the moody human drama of living in open-space captivity and the expected crunchy, squishy showdowns.
"Stake Land." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.
— Robert Abele