With the summer release of Jeff Mickle’s new film, Cold in July, set to prove him as a director of considerable skill who’s in it for the long haul, it seems appropriate to look back on his two previous, relatively unknown and under-appreciated films, truly strong efforts both and films any discerning horror fan can appreciate. 2010’s Stake Land and 2013’s We Are What We Are are scary films, but their horror comes not from shocks but slowly building dread (don’t worry, though, Mickle knows how to underline his composed filmmaking in blood-red strokes when necessary) . He doesn’t give us choppy quick cuts. He lingers, letting his characters define his horror and giving us a blood-curdling melancholy.
Stake Land is a post-apocalyptic vampire road-Western about a family of loners who come together to survive, while We Are What We Are is something of a psychological thriller about a cultish family that maintains religious practices long out of time, including a propensity for cannibalism. But they both share a crucial feeling, a sense of hopeless malaise that seeps out of the screen and permeates the environment. Above all, they’re weary films about the struggle to survive in a situation where survival may not be the best option.
Both films stake their identity on atmosphere and, more than anything, setting. Although both take place in the present or future, they feel like a portal into a black hole where the dreams of the American past go to die. An air of loneliness quietly blankets the land and boils to fruition, but it’s a loneliness that recalls the bittersweet landscape of arid hills where humanity’s only company is itself. Both films share not only genre but interest, revealing Mickle’s underlying fascination with the long-lost demented and unassimilated Americana. Mickle takes his time and gets lost in his old-school storytelling and old-school vibe.
In Stake Land, he fills in the details of one the nation’s apocalyptic Old Western landscapes of loners and left-overs struggling to define “community” for themselves – something they may only be able to do with the destruction of a functioning society (the fundamentally individualist US long ago fell in love with stories about society crumbling apart, and its interest doesn’t seem to be wearying). In his second film, he turns his focus to the historical tension in America’s identity: the need to conform or integrate to function as a community and the undying, and often dangerous, quirkiness of American spirit left out in the cold to rot.
But in Mickle’s fascination with Americana imagery, he finds something more than horror: a pair of tone-poems to family and community in tension with the world around them. Indeed, both films place offbeat family, the kind that can only develop in a land where rules no longer seem to apply, centrally. They remind, of all things, of Kathryn Bigelow’s evocative masterpiece Near Dark. There’s something scary about both of the film’s families, Stake Land’s for its birth in violence and We Are What We Are’s for its continued life through violence. But Mickle manages to make the families daily dialectics between despair and hope, and an internal battle for us; even as we detest the cannibal family in We Are What We Are, they attain surprising depth and (some ) audience empathy. They feel unsure of the world around them, weighed down by its modernization, and are struggling to come to terms with their place in it. Of course, for society to function they need to go, but Mickle is less interested in judging them than in exploring the difficulties of such a need, and the human loss that comes either way.
Make no mistake, his second film, more substantive and weighty than his first (which is a bit less fully formed and more aimless), is a critique, and a criticism, of blind religious observance. But it isn’t the kind that dogmatically wags its fingers – it gets into the hearts of those who observe and scares us for what we uncover. It’s an indictment, a serious one, but it’s also empathetic to the victims who grow up without other option. If Stake Land is a touching exploration of human bonding and the families that can form within suffering, We Are What We Are (which has a stunningly mocking title) shows the underbelly of too much arbitrary bonding and unquestioned family ties.
Mickle’s vision of American lore follows suit. In Stake Land, he presents a murderous Americana where family only comes from violence, twisting the knife of the false dream of the American West left to rot in us while also acknowledging its beauty. Mickle has studied American folklore, and American dreams, well. He understands their haunted appeal. Only, he’s savvy enough to know that what we think of as dreams were more often nightmares. There’s undoubtedly a side of him that finds the whole ideal of the lone rogue’s band attractive, but he also sees them for the open wounds they reflect on the society that creates them.
If you want the textbook with which to understand Mickle’s films, look to the works of John Carpenter. Both of Mickle’s films so far, as well as, it seems, his less openly horrific new film Cold in July, clearly owe a debt to the gloomy loneliness, the dreamlike desperation, and the nihilistic determinism of Carpenter’s best work. Here we have a director in his prime, someone who knows how to look to the past to create the future, but who isn’t running out of ways to recycle other’s ideas with new energy and increased maturity. There are differences, of course; Carpenter used style to create substance, elevating it to a new art form. Mickle is a more traditional narrative artist, and he has more haunted stories to tell.
For example, Carpenter’s synthesizer score to Halloween is updated to a brittle, and equally minimalist, piano score in We Are What We Are, but this one quietly weeps rather than lashing out at us. It complements the emotion of the narrative, whereas Carpenter’s score elevated itself not by infusing itself into the story but by explicitly and brilliantly calling attention to itself and refusing to let us forget it. Both work in their own way, but Mickle gives us something with more humanity than Carpenter’s alien scores often worked with. Mickle’s characters, meanwhile, are Snake Plissken-style loners, yes. But we get the sense they bleed.
Of course, this is a bit of the old double-edged sword. There’s a sense Mickle’s films, even in their dreary pessimism and social decay, are less radical, and he still hasn’t made the great film Carpenter produced with Halloween or The Thing. But if this will limit Mickle’s ability to produce something that forever changes the celluloid landscape, it also means he’s likely to be a more consistent force for good than Carpenter could ever hope to be. He’s a workmanlike director, a craftsman, and not a visionary – his reach is not likely to exceed his grasp, and if this’ll keep him from true greatness, it’ll likely do him well in a quest for consistent quality and respect. One does not detect in Mickle a man like Carpenter, capable of a few visionary films and all-but begging to crash and burn for flying too close to the sun. Mickle is comfortable in his own skin, and at his own level. That’s something to welcome in the world of grandiose, self-important filmmaking and directors who are all braggadocio and no follow-through. He’s the real deal.
Stake Land: 7/10
We Are What We Are: 8/10