Wednesday, October 12, 2011

More Scenes from the Apocalypse

'Tis the season for economic horror movies, I guess. Stake Land (2010, directed by Jim Mickle) is another snapshot of the zeitgeist, in which the survivors of the apocalypse wander through the wreckage of America. The thing is, though, that the wreckage of America wasn't purpose-built for the movie. It was already out there waiting for the filmmakers to shoot it. This is the horror movie as looking glass, and what you see on screen is as through a glass, darkly.

In terms of its plot, this is a vampire version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. You have the bad-ass adult and the green kid setting out across a blasted landscape. Even though Stake Land dresses this up with genre elements, it's a bleak movie. You might also consider this to be the serious version of the similarly titled Zombieland, which this film also resembles. In terms of its look, this has a late fall/early winter setting that amplifies the sense of collapse, and its portrait of rural America after the apocalypse is not very different from what rural America actually looks like in the early 2010s. This film is a close cousin to Winter's Bone in this regard, including that film's ties to roots music. The universe of the film posits a disaster that the government hasn't been able to deal with, and hints that the fall was accelerated by religious fanatics using airplanes to fly into buildings. The major threat this movie poses for our heroes isn't really the vampires. Killing vampires is kind of a chore they do now and then. The main threat is fundamentalist Christian nationalists, constituted as an apocalyptic cult. This, too, is uncomfortably similar to the world outside the film frame these days. In some ways, you can view our heroes as the American Left, attempting to flee an increasingly fascist America for Canada.

This film uses vampires as a stand-in for zombies, and it announces that it isn't kidding around at the beginning of the movie in the scene where our hero's family is wiped out by vampires. Martin and Mister, our dual protagonists, burst in on the scene and hear a baby crying. Their flashlight scans up into the rafters of the garage that sets this scene to find a vampire draining a baby, then letting it drop to the floor. This is not going to be a "fun" zombie movie, a promise it pretty much delivers on. And while I think this film is every bit the social commentary that any of George Romero's films is, it doesn't build its commentary into its plot so much as it builds it into its setting and its cinematography. This is very much a film about landscapes and found images. It's as much a film about the collapse of the American manufacturing infrastructure as it is about vampires, and it takes pains to shoot ruined factories and abandoned businesses at the so-called magic hour, when the mournful crepuscular light is at its most photogenic.

This movie is hard on fundamentalist Christianity and I'm not going to say I don't groove on that, because I do. They're as much a part of the rural landscape of America anymore as dilapidated tin-sided buildings, and I think they're equally a signpost toward a new dark age. The way this movie associates fundamentalism with white supremacy isn't entirely unearned by the religious right, either. I live near the territory of The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, so this strikes a nerve. Stake Land may be exaggerating things a bit, but it isn't actually inventing anything, per se. It would be a mistake to call this an anti-Christian movie, though, given the role that is given to the nun that our heroes rescue from rapists. She's a stand-in for a more moderate and more comforting version of Christianity. That she's played by Kelly McGillis has a meta-level, too, given that the actress is out as a lesbian and that the segment of Christianity that is accepting of GLBT people is often drowned out by the rabid frothing of the fundamentalists. She offers the film something in the way of a moral compass, though, significantly, she's overwhelmed by the horror of the world in the end.

The movie provides our heroes with a villain in the person of Brother Jebediah Lovern (Michael Cerveris), head of "The Brotherhood," and a character so vile that the movie plays fast and loose with its own rules so that there can be a final confrontation with him. The vampires in this film are generally Romero-esque zombies, but the movie makes a special dispensation for Lovern and he keeps his intelligence and his malevolence intact once he becomes a vampire, thus fusing the fanciful evil of vampirism with the more mundane evil of fanataticism.

The way this is structured--it's narrated by Martin, our young hero--frames this as a coming of age film, and we see Martin struggling with his role as vampire hunter. He fails utterly as a protector of women. Both of the key women in the film come to bad ends. Danielle Harris's pregnant honky tonk singer ordinarily would provide Martin with his redemption in another film, but as the opening scenes I've already described suggest, this one has enough of a mean streak to make sure that that doesn't happen. Still, Martin's character arc provides the movie with an ending that lets the audience off the hook, though it certainly earns the ending it gives us. The horror is still there, but there's hope, too.

Current tally: 12 films

First time viewings: 12

Around the web:

Friend of the blog Jamie "Streebo" McRoberts of Mutantville Productions is videoblogging the challenge. Streebo's good people. Check it out.

Mr. Gable takes on one of the great gross-out movies in Squirm.

Caroline over at Garbo Laughs views The Island of Lost Souls, a particular favorite here at Stately Krell Labs. Are we not men?

The Vicar of VHS says "open wide" to The Slit-Mouthed Woman.

Insanislupus over at 1001 Things strikes the Boogeyman Motherlode.

Eric at Expelled Gray Matter inflicts Cannibal Holocaust and The Satanic Rites of Dracula upon himself.

Andreas at Pussy Goes Grrr serves up flying brains in The Fiend Without a Face, another favorite around the lab.

Tim over at The Other Side finds that the flesh is weak in Flesh, TX.

A short reminder about the Facebook group devoted to the challenge. Lots of conversations there from people who aren't necessarily blogging the challenge. Plus, some smack talk and general community. Check it out.

Finally, make sure you drop in on Countdown to Halloween. There's still a whole bag of yummy Halloween candy goodness to be had there.


Renee said...

You nailed my feelings about this film pretty much entirely. About halfway through the run time, I recall saying to Matt, "This guy [Jim Mickle] shares my fears." And that was strangely comforting to realize, even though the film was so bleak.

I need to go back re-watch Mulberry St., I think.

Mutantville Productions said...

Thanks for the kind words, Christianne! You're a doll! ^_^