The first Stake Land is a minor miracle of low-fi workmanship that plays on very familiar genre tropes (namely the “walking dead” aesthetics first popularized by George Romero and then played out into oblivion by his modern imitators) while retaining the spirit of independent apocalyptic innovators like Don Coscarelli (whose Phantasm films are another series touchstone). Jim Mickle (Cold in July) transformed his Eastern Pennsylvania shooting locations into sparse backdrops for humanity to regroup against the growing “vamp” crisis that had overtaken the United States (and, presumably, the world at large), while Nick Damici (Late Phases) channels '70s character actors like William Smith. In ninety brief minutes, the creative team cemented a minor horror icon in the enigmatic, single-monikered Mister, one of the last badass vampire hunters still drawing breath.
At its core, Mickle and Damici’s movie (the two co-penned the script as a planned web series) is an episodic coming of age story, as the slayer takes the freshly orphaned Martin (Gossip Girl’s Connor Paolo) under his wing and teaches him how to survive in the barren Hellscape they now call home. All in all, it’s a refreshing treat for horror heads, who will instantly recognize the iconography Stake Land is drawing from, while simultaneously latching onto the mean spirited attention to character detail and sparse world building Mickle and Damici’s screenplay focuses on.
In Stake Land II (or The Stakelander, as it was known when the film first premiered on Syfy back in Octobter ’16), the events of its predecessor are now merely a bedtime story Martin tells his young daughter, Belle (whose name should be familiar to fans of the first), before she lays her head down at night. Martin and Peggy (Bonnie Dennison) have settled together in a quaint cottage, safe in the Canadian territory of New Eden. However, their domestic bliss barely lasts a scene, as the fascistic human Brotherhood cult pound on their door. Seems they’ve joined up with an all-powerful vampire “God” named The Mother (Kristina Hughes). Tragedy ensues, and Martin is back on the road again, grief-stricken and needing to find the surrogate father who walked out on him. It’s unclear just what their reunion will yield, outside of relieving Martin’s sense of loss and the loneliness that comes with it. Thematically, this tidily ties The Stakelander to its prototype, as Damici (writing solo for new directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen) is undoubtedly fascinated with the human connections that carry these characters through their hard journeys in a collapsed America.
Generally, there are two types sequels – those which expand upon previously established mythologies, and those which mostly offer up a retread of what came before. The Stakelander combines a little bit of both, with the new details helping to elevate the recycled road trip narrative. Cinematographer Matt Mitchell attempts to channel the amber hues of Mickle’s movie, but this new quest (taken on foot as opposed to in Mister’s beautiful beater convertible) leans a little too hard on the burnt brown/green colors Walking Dead aficionados haven tuned in to over the last hundred-plus episodes. Colonies become a big focus, replicating Romero’s captivation with the ways humans begin to gather and rebuild in the wake of catastrophic destruction.
Damici’s plotting remains episodic, as we meet sinister Ma & Pa types, Mad Max inspired arenas of gladiatorial entertainment, and former municipal buildings turned into post-apocalyptic strongholds. A new familial unit is formed with Mister, Martin, and a feral daughter, and the vampires attack with animalistic ferocity, their facilities reduced to lizard brain functions by a plague we still don’t fully understand as an audience. As if looking to fill their Stake Land Bingo Card, producer Larry Fessenden (whose Glass Eye Pix had a hand in bringing both movies to life) even makes a colorful cameo, practically winking at the modest cult of admirers this scrappy pair of pictures has spawned.
A late in the game reveal that hinges around betraying Mister’s ruling refusal to “do history” (meaning he and Martin don’t discuss the past and only look toward the road ahead) ends up coming back to bite the two wanderers, bestowing The Stakelander a sense of linear purpose in the final act. This means filling in some background gaps that explain the reason for Mister’s path of constant destruction, thus ruining the character’s unknowable nature. But it also clears the way for this rather admirable DTV horror team to show down with the series’ first stab at an “ultimate evil”. In the end, The Stakelander is slightly repetitive and may not completely stack up to the first’s modest charms, but is definitely worth spending another eighty quick minutes with.
Stake Land II is available now on various VOD platforms and on Blu-ray/DVD February 14th.