Amongst horror’s most enduring monsters, the vampire has long been the most romantic, and even most accessible. The charming nature of undead bloodsuckers can be traced back to Irish author Bram Stoker’s classic 1897 novel Dracula, in which an English lawyer gets seduced by the pleasantries of the titular count and succumbs to the mind-controlling powers of Dracula and his sexy vamp brides. Director Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation, the most iconic of all book-to-film versions, deleted the brides but cast Bela Lugosi as an exceedingly charismatic incarnation of Stoker’s character. Save for German filmmaker F.W. Murnau’s ghoulish Nosferatu (1922), all of film’s Dracula translations have paid as much attention to vampires’ appeal as the creatures’ scare tactics.
And that’s never been the case more so than today, in a popular horror landscape dominated by Tiger Beat-worthy vampires (Twilight, The Vampire Diaries) and sun-haters who drink blood for the sexual thrill and regularly fang-bang humans (HBO’s True Blood). Once monsters become sex symbols, it’s almost impossible for them to be scary.
That is, unless they’re taken seriously as the murderous, flesh-biting dead things they’ve always been. With Stake Land (in stores on DVD and Blu-ray today), director Jim Mickle has done just that, saving his dialogue for human characters and treating the film’s ferocious vampires as hideous, veracious killing machines. The filmmaker’s second feature, following 2007’s super-low-budget Mulberry Street, a zombie film in which the zombies are human/rat hybrids, Stake Land follows a rugged wanderer (co-writer Nick Damici), his young road companion (Connor Paolo), and a pregnant woman (scream queen Danielle Harris) as they search for salvation amidst a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by vamps.
More specifically, legitimately frightening vamps. For Stake Land’s DVD/Blu-ray debut, Complex chatted with Mickle about reinstating an old-school monster’s scariness, making a small film look huge in scope, similarities to Zombieland, and why teen horror movies suck.
Interview by Matt Barone (@mbarone)
Complex: When Stake Land hit theaters this past April, the release was quite limited, a common problem for most interesting yet smaller genre movies. Do you see the DVD/Blu-ray platform as the real test for a film such as yours?
Jim Mickle: Yeah, I think it kind of is. With VOD [Video On Demand] and that kind of stuff, having that available during a film’s theatrical run is good, but a lot of people don’t know about it; even though a lot of people have it, it’s not that easy to find. But when a movie like this comes out on DVD, people then think, “Oh, I can actually see it now!” [Laughs.]
Did that play into how you approached the DVD special features, in terms of fully taking advantage of having more eyes on the film now?
Yeah, we really wanted to pack that full. I’d always hoped for a bigger theatrical release; I’d always hoped that they would do a little bit more with the movie. But I am happy that they seem to have taken a bit more care of it on DVD. We did short films for each character that went online during the theatrical run, so it’s good to have those all available in one place, so they make more sense. I like it when I love a movie and the DVD has tons of stuff on it for me to lose myself in, and that’s what we tried to do with this one. We didn’t want to just fill it with fluff.
The idea behind Stake Land started off as a web series, right? Was it always a vampire set-up?
I think it was, yeah. I remember Nick [Damici, the film’s star and co-writer] sent the first script, and it was just this creature in a trunk—he didn’t know what it was yet. I remember calling him and saying, “Dude, we already did Mulberry Street—it’s not going to be another creature movie, is it?” [Laughs.] We talked about it, and he presented this cool take on how we could take vampires and try to make them cool again, try to make them scary again.
So the impetus was looking at all of the vampires that are out in pop culture these days and realizing that they’ve fallen off a bit?
Well, at the time, I think the first Twilight movie was close to coming out, so everybody knew about it, and True Blood was out for a season or so. But I love Let The Right One In; I think that’s the best vampire movie in quite some time. Once that came out, then True Blood started to get more and more popular, and Twilight was about to come out, so it just felt like, “Wow, it’s been a while since vampires have been really dark.” More like Near Dark—that realistic sense, but there’s an intensity to it.
I like the fact that they made them real in Let The Right One In, but there was also the unavoidable fact that it’s this sweet tale of a little boy who meets a little girl. So it became a question of, How do we maintain some of that but also give it an edge and make it scary? How can we make people afraid of these things again?
Both Nick and I love zombie movies, because I think there’s so much that you can do with them. They can stand in for social commentary, and they can also be characters in their own way because there is a piece of humanity left in them. You can make them fast or you can make them slow. There are all these different angles you can go with zombies, and I think vampires are kind of the same thing, in a way. You can go classical, with the Bram Stoker idea, and you can also go into different cultures and see what their ideas of vampires are, which is often really surprising and different.
I think that’s where we kind of came from in the beginning, especially Nick. He was in the middle of reading a lot of stuff about foreign vampires, and, like, what the Chinese idea about vampires is. The webisodes originally took each type of vampire; it was almost like a school where Mister [Damici’s character] was teaching Martin [Connor Paolo’s character] about the different kinds. At one point, they got a call to go into Chinatown and check out a vampire that was in a basement somewhere. It was interesting, because it had this element of an almost-scientist teaching you about the different types. We kept some of that for the feature, like the “berserkers” and “scamps.” But ultimately when it became a feature, it became more about the characters themselves.
Mulberry Street was a clear homage to the old classic zombie movies, specifically Night Of The Living Dead, and that element of “multiple threats versus a few survivors” is at the heart of Stake Land, as well.
Definitely. I don’t think we set out with the feeling of, “Oh, we didn’t get to do a lot of things the first time around, because we didn’t have a lot of money.” But I think, at the end of the day, it kind of was. [Nick and I] both love Mulberry Street; that was such a great experience. We didn’t know if anyone was going to see it, and it wound up doing fairly well for what it was. I know there were things I wanted to do that we couldn’t do because we didn’t have the time or the resources, and I think it’s the same for Nick; with his script, there were a lot of things we had to skip over at the last minute, because it became a thing where we said, “Look, we have to be realistic about what we can actually pull off here.”
It was nice this time around, even though there really wasn’t that much more money. [Laughs.] I felt like we had more tricks this time; it was a little bit more of the sense that we knew what we could get away with, in a way. We didn’t have much more money, but we did have many more people involved, and I think a lot more people psyched to help out. And, ultimately, that’s how you get these kinds of movies made—a lot of people putting in a lot of time.
It’s interesting to hear you say that Stake Land didn’t cost much more than Mulberry Street, because it looks like a big-budget Hollywood movie by comparison. For such a small flick, Stake Land looks pretty amazing, visually, setting-wise, and overall scope. How’d you pull that off with such little resources?
That’s a good question. I think a ton of that is Ryan Samul, the cinematographer. The first time around, on Mulberry Street, it was literally just a few lights we bought at Home Depot and a DV camera; this time, for Stake Land, we used a Red [digital] camera, which makes a huge difference, because the information we can get on that is amazing; the lens is amazing. It just has a very cinematic look. We also shot in wide screens to make it feel like a big, epic western.
We went into it saying, “This isn't going to be another claustrophobic little Manhattan movie.” It’s a movie about Americana, open spaces, and all of the details and textures. A lot of it is the music, too. We went for more of a classical vibe, which I think really feels big. It’s kind of like the movie itself: It’s small, but it feels big, in a way. The scale of it is big, even though it’s kind of a sweet and innocent score. We just treated it like we were making a western, and made sure that every extra had some dirt on their clothes. We just pretended that we were making one, even though we really didn’t have the money to do it. [Laughs.]
The score is very reminiscent of the music heard in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, actually.
Yeah, I love that. We looked at that movie a lot. It’s also an ode to the beginning of Days Of Heaven. I love what Jeff [Grace], the composer, did—he really took the cool familiar instruments of classical music and gave them a modern sound, to bring them into a horror context.
I think so, yeah. More importantly, I think Mulberry Street, after seeing it with live audiences, there’s a sense of, once it gets going, I think people are really into it, but there is a long set-up. Some people love that, and some people get impatient. This time around, we really wanted to say, “Look, we’re gonna kick you in the ass in the first three minutes, just to make sure you know what kind of movie it is.” [Laughs.] And then we can spend the time doing the character stuff and not feel like we’re straddling the line and testing horror fans’ patience.
It goes back to a quote from Wes Craven, that he said about Scream, how all a horror movie director needs to is scare the audience right away and then he or she can basically not scare them again until the ending. That way, the audience remains on edge, having seen what the movie is capable of doing.
Yeah, and I hate how so many of these kinds of movies tend to do that. Like, literally do that. “OK, let’s throw them something and then we can go about setting up some characters and not worry about scaring them ever again.” [Laughs.] What I liked about Nick’s take is that, the way that it started, you still get that initial sense of character, but then it goes into this hardcore flashback. That way, the first initial scare is still character-based; in some of these movies, it starts off with somebody getting killed off in some ridiculous way, and then it fast-forwards to, like, a girl graduating from college or something. [Laughs.] And that’s the set-up to your shitty movie.
Stake Land is a vampire movie, but the vampires in it aren’t like any bloodsuckers we’ve seen in a long time. You could not call them vampires and they’d still be effective; they’re not stuck to popular vampire conventions in any way.
We wanted to make them different, yeah. Nick had this idea, which I thought was very cool, that, in real life, if this happened, we would just call things what they are; even if they’re not like exactly how we’re used to them in the movies, the movies have their own take on what things are. Even with zombies, people start cutting split hairs over whether they should be fast zombies or slow zombies. But in the real world, if something was coming at you and trying to take your blood, you’d call it a vampire no matter what it was. I like that idea. It’s this version that almost existed in a world without vampire movies. They just come out at night and want human blood.
With Brian Spears, the effects guy, we wanted to do something that didn’t feel like vampires you’ve seen before. So he had fun with the teeth, and the different levels of decay. There was a little bit of its own science with how long they’ve been preying and how strong they were. It was a lot of fun to walk on set each day and see what the new ones would look like.
There’s a strong element of religious fanaticism in Stake Land, with the Brotherhood, this band of extremists who use the vampires to attack non-believers. What made you and Nick want to add that element into the story?
Ultimately, as much fun as the web series was, it was kind of fluffy, and it wasn’t saying much. It wasn’t relevant beyond, “Oh, there are some cool vampire scenes and some nice character stuff.” We wanted to have a little bit more weight and depth to it. We worked on the script right during the middle of the elections, and seeing the country go into these different directions. The thing I think is interesting about the religious angles, and the political angles, is when you have people that feel so completely opposite from one another, yet they’re so steadfast. The debt ceiling stuff that’s happening today intrigues me, because it’s looking at two sides of the country ready to blow each other up if they don’t get their own way.
I thought it was an interesting thing, because it was one of the first times that you could really feel that creeping into American politics and the American culture. It was so huge during the elections that I think it kind of informed where we went with the story for Stake Land. We wanted to give it another layer, but, also, when you’re looking to tell a horror story, you sort of have to find something that scares you. You won’t be able to scare other people if you can’t scare yourself, in a way. So, at least I looked for what creeps me out, and it’s that sense of fanatical, literal beliefs. That could really bring about the end of the world much more easily than a vampire apocalypse.
Stake Land takes several horror movie tropes that we’ve seen a million times before and adds these really unique and cool ideas into the mix, like the scene in which the Brotherhood drops vampires from helicopters into a crowd of survivors. You’ve staged the scene as a no-edit, single take sequence, and it’s pretty badass. Was that a tough scene to shoot?
I think that’s the fourth take, actually, and we shot five, to have one safety one. It was tough, but it was kind of fun at the same time, because there was so much going into it. Throughout the production, we tried to keep things small and loose, and that was the day that everyone was on set, just to see how we’d pull the scene off. It felt fun. I’m a big competitive sports guy, and it kind of felt like that sense. It was like a very choreographed dance, because one person had to hit their cue, and then the next person had to wait to his or her cue once that previous person hit theirs, and so forth. In the end, it felt like we did the impossible, honestly.
Since vampires are so popular right now, with True Blood, Twilight, and The Vampire Diaries, three properties that are nothing like Stake Land, do you think it’s a good or bad thing that the film is being mostly recognized as a “vampire movie”? It seems like it’s positive in the sense that it brings eyes to Stake Land, but also negative because people might expect something like those softer titles.
I think both. I was just at a festival, and someone said, “Oh, it’s a shame that Zombieland destroyed you guys, and really undercut you guys” and almost made it sound like we had such an amazing movie but then Zombieland came and fucked it up for us. I don’t think that’s the case.
I think it’s both with the vampires. On one hand, it really helped us get green-lit, I’m sure, and helped us get exposure, I’m sure, because it’s a part of the genre that’s very big. I think it should have gotten more exposure because of that, to be honest, because it is about vampires. So it helped us get a bigger release and bigger exposure, but then, on the other side, I think there are a lot of people who like these movies and are disappointed by the ones that are out there. They are very one-note; so, if you like vampires but you don’t like teen movies then you’re kind of screwed. [Laughs.] I think we've provided an alternative to that.
At the same time, there are a lot of people who say, “Oh, I’m so tired of vampires right now, I don’t want to see this.” Or I hear people saying, “I didn’t want to see your movie when I first heard about it because I thought, ‘Oh, another one of these.’ But when I saw it, I really liked it.” Ultimately, it was sort of out of our control; all these things came along after we had already started working on Stake Land.
Interview by Matt Barone (@mbarone)