About a year ago, I made a joke on Twitter that all one has to do to create a genre is to append “punk” as a suffix to any word (and thus I ushered “dentalpunk” into the world). My annoyance with this particular phenomena stems from the fact that the -punk part has come to be a completely meaningless appellation (much like -core before it), only serving to point out that one is talking about a genre rather than, say, a combination shotgun/drink mixer. When punk was first applied as a suffix with “Cyberpunk,” it was a quintessential descriptor if the genre. The cyber part applied to the advanced computer-centric technology, while the punk part was the irreverent ethos and the background of societal breakdown into postmodern tribes. Clint once argued that “steampunk” was losing meaning due to scope creep; I would argue that the punk part of that word was already meaningless in the vast majority of media bearing that title. When was the last time a steampunk cosplayer looked like anything other than an upper-class time-traveling Victorian? The only thing Victoriana and punk have in common is that they’re both from England.
While steampunk is long on the steam and short on the punk, the same can’t be said of all of these newly created subgenres. One in particular, splatterpunk, is little more than the punk part of the word, liberally covered with enough blood, gore, and entrails to open a sausage factory. Coined in the ‘80s to describe the excessively bloody horror that was coming into the vogue at the time, “splatterpunk” as a term was the “torture porn” of its day: a way for establishment types to dismiss a new direction they didn’t understand or appreciate, essentially lumping everything under a generic heading that’s code for “horror I don’t like.” To be fair, a lot of splatterpunk is terrible. But when you have true horror greats like Clive Barker, Jack Ketchum, and Joe Lansdale dipping their toes into the crimson pond of the genre, it’s probably not the best idea to dismiss it out of hand. Today’s movie, the 2010 survival horror Stake Land, is one of the better splatterpunk movies out there.
Stake Land takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States after a plague that has turned a large majority of the populace into vampires. Martin (TV’s Connor Paolo) is a normal kid whose family gets wiped out in one horrible night, and is himself only saved by the intervention of Man-With-No-Name hero Mister (Nick Damici who also co-wrote). Mister and Martin eke out an existence as Mad Max versions of the Winchester brothers, complete with aging muscle car. They’re headed resolutely north to the possibly fabled safe zone of New Eden, up in Canada, where it’s too cold for the bloodsuckers to function. Along the way they accumulate other survivors including battered nun Sister (Kelly McGillis, yes, that Kelly McGillis), pregnant waif Belle (pint-sized scream queen Danielle Harris), and ex-Marine Willie (Sean Nelson), marking Mister as belonging to the Josey Wales school of laconic badasses.
Stake Land is ostensibly a vampire movie, though the nature of the vampires themselves as well as the post-apocalyptic trappings mark it as a closer relative to the zombie picture. The vampires are more or less mindless eating machines, though the existence of one subspecies, (the berserkers, who have been around long enough for their ribcages to fuse over their hearts) hints at the possibility of other mutant breeds. True to its zombie heritage, the vampires are dangerous, though they are not the primary antagonists. Fellow humans, in the form of a cult called the Brotherhood, are the real bad guys. These religious nutballs have decided the plague of vampires has been sent by god, and do everything they can to help out, including dropping vampires into safe zones from a helicopter. Their leader, Jebediah Loven, develops an abiding hatred for Mister born of the fact of the latter’s inability to give a fuck about much beyond survival.
Stake Land is admirably cruel to its heroes, picking off even those that should have been immune through unwritten rules of genre. The film announces this with the first glimpse it gives us of a vampire: feeding on Martin’s baby sibling before carelessly dropping the tiny carcass in favor of bigger game. With a story like this, it would be easy to fall in love with the heroes and elevate them to cartoonish levels of badassery and drain any of the danger away. Mister — looking like a combination of Tom Savini’s Sex Machine and Andrew Robinson’s Scorpio killer — is very good at what he does, though the film gives the sense that a single slip up could mean his death as well. Fitting, since he is the symbolic father of his group of survivors, and the very first scene of the movie is of a father being fed upon and then mercy killed (by Mister, no less). He then raises the boy to survive, only relinquishing control when the kid moves in with a lady, just like a real dad.
Mister, by necessity, is a pragmatic man, which contrasts nicely with Sister’s (and Loven’s) more religious outlook. At several points in the film Mister responds to a religious platitude with concrete advice, most notably when he goes out into the rain to kill an infected nun. “Go with God,” Sister advises. “Lock the door,” Mister responds. The film lines up squarely on the side of pragmatism (and I would be lying if I said this did not endear me to it), with religion either being rendered useless (Sister) or evil (Loven). Mister never wastes his time cursing the Almighty, either. For him, that’s just as pointless as praying.
Belle occupies a place of outsized symbolic importance as well. Her pregnancy (as both my readers remember) marks her as an avatar of hope (and considering what happens to hope and who does it, further underlines the previous point). Belle also has shades of innocence and purity. Her pregnancy would prevent a complete alliance to those concepts, yet it’s there all the same. In one pivotal scene, she wears a white dress, yet it’s under a black leather jacket, hinting that her innocence is inside, protected by a tough shell of armor. She’s in stark contrast to a little girl who does in fact wear all white (and is shortly killed by the Brotherhood).
Stake Land is far from a perfect film — the pervasive voiceover in particular should be excised — though it’s nifty splatterpunk, much more intelligent than its title suggests, and filled with gorgeously stark exteriors. Larry Fessenden, the patron saint of flawed-but-fascinating low-budget horror pops up in a welcome cameo as a friendly bartender and serves as one of the film’s producers, putting his stamp of approval on the proceedings. Trust in the Fessenden, and then watch his 1995 flick Habit as the weirdest vampire double bill around.