Stake Land (2010, Jim Mickle) - Netflix
Sweet Tooth volume 1, DC Comics/Vertigo
From alien annihilation to crippling pandemics to robot uprisings, zombie plagues, and nuclear holocausts, so often in post-apocalyptic fiction (as opposed to non-fiction?) we're left unaware of the specifics of how the near-obliteration of came about. We're often given small clues through the progression of the story, yet the characters we're following are rarely privy to the true source of their condition, and the cause of the apocalypse is rarely relevant to their survival.
A lot of post-apocalyptic fiction is derived from the elements of the western genre. The idea of the wasteland is akin to the wild west replete with roving gangs of marauders, rapists and opportunists, run-down towns, bounty hunters and/or the lone wanderer, lawlessness and a general lack of technology amongst other tropes.
Stake Land and Sweet Tooth are not of the same sub-genre of post-apocalyptic storytelling (nor of the same medium), yet they utilize many of the same tropes, starting with the lone wanderer rescuing a boy and taking him under his wing as they navigate the treacherous terrain that remains, a specific end destination, a supposed safe-haven, in mind (its a genre staple, this same starting point was also used in Winterworld, an comic mini-series from the '80's I recently recapped).
Toasty wrote about Stake Land here a year and a half ago, and has brought it up occasionally in conversation since (including making a point to let me know it was recently made available on Netflix). My initial impression, before actually watching it, was that it was a low-budget, vampire riff on Zombieland, but beyond the title and the lone-wanderer and his protege, it's a vastly different film owing more to dire hopelessness of Cormac McCarthy's The Road than the Jesse Eisenberg-starring pop-art semi-comedy. It's actually a very well made, well acted, and well conceived film which takes its characters journey very seriously and, besides a single mis-step towards the end, presents a bleak vampire-infested future that doesn't just recycle but actually adds something to the genre.
Teenaged Martin witnesses his family being slaughtered and eaten by vampires, and is only spared himself by the intervention of Mister, a grizzled veteran hunter of the vamps. Mister takes Martin under his protection as they travel through middle-America towards Canada ("New Eden") where it's too cold for the vampires to live. Along the way they pick up a couple of strays, and come into contention with a burgeoning religious sect (founded by racists and rapists) called The Brotherhood. They believe that the vampires are a tool of God to cleanse the land, and men such as Mister work in defiance of God's will. They also proliferate the vampire infection by "bombing" communities with bloodsuckers.
Though The Brotherhood is a dominant presence in the terrain that Mister and Martin (and strays) travail, they seem to be in the clear once they cross the border, until their car breaks down and they must survive the wilderness, where food and other resources are sparse as they'd been warned. They'd also been warned of cannibals, and as their numbers diminish, they're unsure of what they're facing. Unfortunately, the script takes an unnecessary turn in trying to loop back the Brotherhood into the story, and it's a somewhat goofy escalation, five minutes of facing down "the big bad", attempting some form of resolution to a story where no resolution can possibly be had. It's not enough to destroy the film, as it quickly recovers with a solid epilogue.
Most post-apocalyptic stories will take one of two paths, hope or hopelessness, but in both cases survival is always the core focus. Stake Land clearly follows the hopeless path, since the characters affect very little change in their surrounding, and their continued survival at the end of the film remains in question. Like the Western, the landscape is what it is, until there's institutionalized change, one man (and a boy) can't make a tremendous difference. All they can do is survive.
Unlike Stake Land, Sweet Tooth does have a bigger picture to the story than just a man and his ward finding their way to a safe haven, although that is the focus of the first volume of this series (which concluded with issue 40 last month), equally taking inspiration from The Road.
Review continues over at Second Printing...