Horror films are seldom attributed with fine characterization. For the most part, a viewer of horror films is more likely to remember the villain than the protagonist. This is especially true of horror franchises in which the monster or villain has taken on legendary status and viewers, more often than not, root for the monster rather than the "hero".
That being said, there has been of late a spate of horror films that feature strong characters, films that relegate that source of thrills and chills to the backseat and allow the protagonist a turn at the wheel. Movies like Monsters, Carriers and Let Me In place an emphasis on the relationships between characters and the ways by which the horror aspects--be they invading aliens or prepubescent vampires--affect those relationships.
Stake Land falls solidly, cleanly and impressively in this new category of sophisticated, cerebral horror movie. It is not a film about vampires, nor is it a film about a post-apocalyptic America. It is a movie about a teenage boy and his struggling to come of age in a post-apocalyptic America infested with vampires.
Martin's parents are dead and he is taken in by the nomadic vampire hunter known only as Mister. America has fallen to a series of economic disasters and a vampire plague has spread through the blighted country. Worse, large swaths of the country have been taken over by militants and religious fanatics. Martin and Mister make their way north, hoping to reach Canada, deemed the New Eden.
Stake Land is technically impressive; the cinematography is excellent, establishing a bleak tone without resorting to the washed-out, under-saturated look of previous post-apocalyptic films. The acting is solid, the make-up effects are effective if unremarkable. The script, though, is where the film makes its mark, helping usher in the aforementioned new age in horror cinema.
Stake Land, as with Let Me In, Monsters and Carriers, is, above all, about people, people we care about, people we want to see survive, live, thrive. We do not root for the villains in Stake Land. Our attachments are well-defined by the filmmakers and we have no choice but to cheer for and hope for Martin and Mister, for all the people trying to do good in a world that no longer expects it.
There are excellent writers working in the realm of horror literature and I am heartened to know that the same can be said of filmmakers. Stake Land, along with the other movies mentioned above, proves it.