DVD Review: Stake Land II (2016)

It’s no secret that I adored the first Stake Land film. For me, it epitomised just how much you could do with familiar horror elements, if you had a clear idea of the importance of character, and an understanding that good horror stories depend on an awareness of the ratio of ordinary:extraordinary, whether that ratio be skewed greatly in one direction or another. For all of my enthusiasm for the film, however, I had absolutely no idea that a sequel had been made; I have since found out that actor/writer Nick Damici has hopes of getting a Stake Land franchise off the ground, but in any case, it’s a pleasant thing to get the chance of a screener which is – at least in promise – a very happy surprise. Now having watched the second film, I’m completely torn. On one hand, it’s immensely gratifying to again see characters on screen that (for me) work so well, in a film which re-captures some of the striking visuals and atmosphere of the first film. But in re-capturing much of what made the first film so effective, Stake Land II has seemingly re-trod a very, very similar story arc. This has led me to ponder – when is a sequel truly a sequel? And when is a sequel justifiable?

The story picks up ten years after the end of Stake Land, where young Martin (Connor Paolo, who also played Martin in 2010) and a rescued girl, Peggy, parted ways with the taciturn vampire-hunter Mister (Damici), with the justification that the young ‘uns should go and take their chances in ‘New Eden’, or a part Canada, as-was, before the world fell to the double-whammy of bloodsuckers and religious fundamentalists. The ‘happily ever after’ interim does not make it to screen, though we glean, via a bedtime story Martin is reading to his daughter, that New Eden was in fact real, and that the couple had successfully settled there. Then – bam – New Eden gets hit with a new band of vamps, and the happy family unit are almost instantly goners. It also seems that these vampires are acting differently to before; one vampire in particular, a Tilda Swinton lookalike known as ‘The Mother’, seems able to control their movements. Oh, great. Organisation.

Bereft, Martin decides to head South again, in the hopes of tracking down his erstwhile companion, Mister. The first building he enters has a scrunched-up ‘WANTED’ poster bearing Mister’s image, which apart from being a hell of a fluke, tells him that Mister must’ve passed back this way. He moves on, with the screenplay taking every opportunity to assure the audience that it’s the humans, again, who are the real problem – but, in amongst all the liars and thieves he encounters, it seems they all know Mister. Martin can’t be that far away…and, indeed, after a small-scale ‘Thunder Dome’ sequence adds some heightened tension to the mix, the two men are finally reunited. Mister can see that Martin is now motivated by revenge, a thing he knows only too well, and so together again, they press on, with a chance reunion with some old friend’s of Mister’s seeing them safe – for the time being.

To begin with, I think I need to establish what I very much liked about this film, because it would be very easy to simply criticise – this wouldn’t give a true reflection of what I think of it overall. For starters, this is another brilliantly-shot and lit film throughout. From the vast vistas to the small-scale ephemera, and certainly through the incidental music being used, the film screams Americana, with some truly excellent shots; the approach of Mother’s ink-black covered wagon through a wide-open, sunlit space looks staggeringly good on screen. Mother her/itself is the seed of an interesting idea, albeit that we have been through the ‘one sentient monster among monsters’ thing in various other films, such as that godawful I Am Legend and of course, Land of the Dead. It’s also great to see actor Nick Damici in anything, and I’ve yet to watch anything he stars in without being impressed by his natural gravitas and screen presence; Mister is 100% his role, and seeing him warm to old friends Doc (Steven Williams)  and Bat (A.C. Peterson) is a distinct high point in the film. Damici wrote this film, and he co-wrote Stake Land with then-director and long-term collaborator Jim Mickle; here, there are some good lines to be had, though honestly it’s a shame Mickle wasn’t on board for this, because he is amazing and deserves far more time in the sun than he’s getting currently, not to mention the fact that Damici/Mickle together have produced sterling work. What Damici achieves quite neatly here, though, is a sense of the growing similarities between Mister and Martin.

(The following paragraph contains mild spoilers…)

All of this being true, I am nonetheless disappointed that Stake Land II is essentially… Stake Land, only rinsed of much of the omnipresent threat, that pressure-cooker which saw a handful of good people working together to overcome terrible odds. The vampires, ten years down the line, can limp around in the sunlight, for example, where they then get cut down like wheat; the religious cult which comprised as much of the horror last time is back, but far less populous, with only a few novice grunts and no real sense of leadership. Threat is spread thinly, and gets limited screen development time. Yes, there’s ‘Mother’, but I feel so much more could have been added there; why was she sentient? How did she know Martin would lead her in the right direction? And why was this potentially-intriguing character ultimately so damn easy to dispatch? So, overall, despite a few brief, grisly moments, there’s very little of the blood and guts you might expect in a post-apocalyptic world, and little sense of why, what and how where Martin and Mister are concerned, so that they seem mainly to enact the same story, only sadly shorn of the impact of the new which Stake land was able to generate. Yes, we glean the parallels between the two men’s states of mind. But there’s more that could have happened with this; ultimately, they go in a circle. And as for the mute Girl Friday character! Was she there simply to add a dash of (threatened) rape/revenge and then self-sacrifice for the good of the men? Laura Abramsen does okay in a role where all you have to do is wrinkle your nose and walk around with her head bowed, but still. An unnecessary addition, for sure.

I’ve been thinking about my feelings about all of this, as such a fan of the first film, and how would I have felt had the new chapter taken a radically different turn. What if this had been Aliens to Alien, to use a big-name example – a new entity entirely, with a new pace, new atmosphere, new direction? And I’m afraid the jury’s out. I may have praised its bravery. I may have kvetched about how the gloomy, ponderous pace of Stake Land was one of the film’s key strengths, and words similar; what I do know is that a sequel needs to tread a very careful line. If there is indeed to be a franchise, then having two men meet, fight and part, against a backdrop of rather underdeveloped foes, is not really adequate all over again. There’s so much potential in this universe. Please let’s have it, if we’re heading back in future.

Stake Land II was released by Kaleidoscope Entertainment on 2nd April 2017.