HORROR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: STAKE LAND II (2016)

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STAKE LAND II (2016)

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Sequel to the Jim Mickle’s 2010 vampire epic, Stake Land, takes place ten years later with Martin (a returning Connor Paolo) living in New Eden with Peggy (again Bonnie Dennison) and raising a young daughter. One night, The Brotherhood lays siege to this sanctuary lead by The Mother (Kristina Hughes), a vampire who commands an army of Berzerkers. The village is massacred with Peggy and their daughter brutally killed. Now the surviving Martin returns to the desolate wasteland of the United States to find Mister (Nick Damici reprising his role) to exact revenge…and that’s exactly what Mother is counting on.

Jim Mickle sits this sequel out for the most part, appearing only as a producer. His star and co-writer on the original, Nick Damici, returns to script and the directorial reigns are turned over to Dan Berk and Robert Olsen…sadly with mixed results. Damici’s story works fairly well in reuniting Mister and Martin with some interesting developments having transpired between films. With the human population devastated, the vampires have grown desperate for food and will now risk coming out in the sunlight to pursue a meal, even if it means burning up. Some of the humans have turned to barbarity and resort to cannibalism and staging gladiatorial battles between strangers…which is where Martin finds Mister. The character of Mother is also interesting, though a bit underused as Damici’s story focuses on Martin and Mister and the groups of humanity they encounter. We do find out a little about Mister’s background, a past he shares with Mother. On the downside, Berk and Olsen are a bit pedestrian in their direction and thus it lacks the first film’s intensity and atmosphere. The action and drama are all a bit by-the-numbers and this doesn’t help as the film needs a fresh touch, being the second time around for what was a different take on the traditional vampire tale in the original. It comes across as more of a TV movie which, having premiered on SYFY, it kinda is…and it shows.

At least the cast all do well, especially the returnees. Paolo gives us a far more mature and able Martin, now more of a grizzled warrior than the naive boy we met in the first installment. Damici is solid once again as Mister. He gives the vampire hunter a bit more inner pain accumulated over the last decade and the fact the character is sidelined with injury for part of the flick is disappointing, as it’s great to see him back. Damici reminds one of Charles Bronson, at times, with the grizzled tough guy roles he often plays. Hughes is creepy as Mother. She has a presence and it’s unfortunate she’s a bit underdeveloped. Rounding out is Laura Abramsen, who is fine as Mister’s mute, feral woman companion and A.C. Peterson and veteran actor Steven Williams are entertaining as two leaders of an armed outpost who join Mister in standing against Mother. Sadly Bonnie Dennison’s part is far too short to really count as more than a cameo.

Overall this is an OK sequel to, in my opinion, one of the best horror films of 2010. The returning characters were fun to see again and were well played by the returning stars. Actor/writer Nick Damici had a worthy enough story and some interesting developments, but the film lacked Jim Mickle’s touch behind the camera. The direction was by-the-numbers and while entertaining, the film lacked the intensity and atmosphere of it’s predecessor and appeared to be working with a smaller scale and budget. Worth a watch if you are a fan of the original film, but if you haven’t seen Stake Land, seek that out first.

-MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1/2 stakes.

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REVIEW: BENEATH (2013)

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BENEATH (2013)

Larry Fessenden is one of the busiest people on the indie film scene especially when it comes to indie horror. If he’s not writing and directing one of his own features, he’s acting, producing, or both, for features made by other indie filmmakers such as Ti West and Jim Mickle. Having just seen him as the backwoods father in Jug Face, I now got to see his latest directorial effort Beneath.

The title in this horror flick, written by Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith, refers to not only the giant carnivorous fish hiding in the waters of a remote mountain lake, but also the dark sides and secrets that lie hidden within the six youths who it’s chosen as it’s prey. Secrets that surface along with the vicious predator as they fight to survive. And that’s what I liked about this low budget thriller, is that it takes what could have been a typical monster on the loose scenario and uses it as a study of how relationships quickly deteriorate and a group of close friends turn on each other when faced with a fight for their lives.

The story is simple. High school is over and six friends decide to go for a camping/partying trip in the woods across a large remote mountain lake. There have been legends about there being something in Black Lake, but none of them, except for moody Johnny (Daniel Zovatto seen recently in It Follows), pay them any heed. So they head out into the lake in a rowboat and despite Johnny’s warnings to stay out of the water, they go swimming. Soon they realize that the stories are true and they are attacked by a large and very vicious fish that proceeds to kill one of their number, damage the boat and one by one relive them of their oars. The teens find themselves trapped in the middle of the lake with the boat slowly sinking and the fish patiently circling it’s prey. But even more dangerous then the aquatic predator is the threat they pose to each other, as they start to turn on each other and see their compatriots no longer as friends, but as meaty distractions to lure the fish away, while they try to escape. The dark secrets and hidden emotions rise up as they try to decide who stays and who is going over the side. As the day lengthens and their situation grows more dire, they may find themselves in more danger from each other than the creature lurking just outside their boat.

That’s what I liked most about this little flick, is that it really focuses on the breakdown of friendships, civility and morality when the instincts to survive kick in. Fessenden does create a very tense situation in this sinking boat while keeping us reminded of the constant threat outside in the water. The creature is almost always present lurking nearby keeping constant pressure on the youths inside the boat. It’s this pressure that quickly breaks them down and sets them at each others throats just as quickly as the monster waiting outside the boat sets upon those unfortunate enough to find themselves in the murky lake waters.

Helping the director achieve his effectiveness are fairly sturdy performances from his cast including the before mentioned Zovatto as Johnny, Bonnie Dennison as Kitty who is Johnny’s ex and is now dating jock Matt (Chris Conroy), Jonny Orsini as Matt’s brother Simon, Griffin Newman as would be filmmaker Zeke and Mackenzie Rosman as sassy Deb. Rounding out the cast is Mark Margolis as Mr. Parks, an odd neighbor who gives the teens the traditional ominous warnings. None of the cast are perfect, but considering the material’s intensity, they handle it effectively enough.

As for the effects, there is plentiful and well orchestrated gore and Fessenden wisesly chooses to go with a animatronic fish over CGI and while it isn’t the most realistic looking critter ever on film, it is effective enough in appearance and movement and has far more personality and threat then something created digitally. Being that the creature is more of a catalyst for the horrors going on inside the boat, it is more then efficient for it’s purpose.

The film is not perfect. There is some weak dialog that sticks out here and there. The teens turn on each other and come to the conclusion that sacrificing one of their own is a good idea far too quickly, but I can understand for the sake of keeping the story moving as to why the breakdown occurs quicker then you might expect. There are some time lapse shots to indicate that they have been there much longer then the 90 minute running time, but the events still take place over a matter of only a few hours and things do disintegrate rather rapidly, especially considering they have been long-time friends. There is also one character’s fate that I’m not sure totally worked except to move certain story elements along, but for the sake of not ruining anything, I won’t mention details.

Flaws aside, this is an interesting and effective horror that has some intense and disturbing moments and some good old fashion bloodletting, too. I give it a lot of credit for taking what could have been a routine monster movie and turning into a character study of how fear and survival can break down moral barriers even among friends. So I would recommend this to those who like indie horrors and something a little offbeat and outside the box, but to be honest, even if you like your horror a bit more traditional, there is enough of the monster movie elements to make it certainly worth a look. An entertaining and offbeat little horror from a man who has made quite a mark on the indie horror scene.

3 toothy and hungry lake predators!

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