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Jim Mickle Aims for the Heart in "Stake Land"

Mickle's new vampire flick, which plays the IFFBoston Saturday night at 11:59, is a refreshingly far cry from the pretty boy fodder of the "Twilight" saga.

Yes, vampires suck. And in filmmaker Jim Mickle’s post-apocalyptic vision “Stake Land,” they suck on Kelly McGillis… in a nun costume. Or at least, they try to. Sort of.

They also devour humans with a cannibalistic ferocity that trumps Mickle’s previous low-budget, zombie-rat thriller “Mulberry Street,” which was also his directorial debut. Actor Nick Damici starred and served as co-writer for the rodent romp and he reprises those duties in “Stake Land,” which hits the International Film Festival Saturday night at 11:59.

The duo has reunited to deliver an even darker, bloodier shocker. The plot follows a grizzled hunter (Damici) who takes the young Martin (Connor Paolo from “Gossip Girl”) under his wing as they journey through the locked-down towns of America’s heartland after an epidemic of vampirism strikes the country.

In all its indie-horror glory (the movie elevates the typical vamps-and-tramps genre), “Stake Land” portrays humans on the run from vicious, feral beasts as fearful survivors cling together, heading to an undead-free zone in Canada called “New Eden.”

Think of it as a road trip horror flick with fangs … and heart.

On Casting Kelly…

The cast also includes Danielle Harris, known for her early work on the “Halloween” franchise, and yes, Kelly McGillis, as a nun on the run who faces a crisis of faith when her followers morph into ravenous beasts. Mickle says casting the right actors was extremely important during pre-production of “Stake Land.”

“Right away, Nick was cast in the lead and I thought that would be a struggle,” Mickle recalled, phoning from his Manhattan apartment. “We didn’t have a huge budget but we had to ensure we made a film with commercial potential. It’s an ensemble movie, so we had a mandate to recruit actors that are recognizable but with people you don’t see every day, like Kelly McGillis. There’s definitely a name factor there, but you haven’t seen her in 10 years and she looks completely different, which works perfectly for the movie. We really lucked out.”

As far as working with McGillis, Mickle, 31, says he was initially intimidated when the “The Accused” actress signed on to co-star in his film. “I’ve never seen ‘Top Gun’ all the way through, but I grew up watching ‘Witness,’ so that was my link to her,” he said. “I was expecting this serious Amish woman, but she really is one of the least serious people on earth. She’s an awesome, free-spirited woman.”

Unconventional Horror, Unconventional Vampires

Despite having earned critical acclaim at festivals and among horror aficionados with “Mulberry Street,” Mickle admits it’s difficult to promote “Stake Land” because it doesn’t fit neatly into the typical, blood-and-guts horror mold.

“I wish there was a much bigger release,” he said. “But, I do think the slow release is good because it’s a word-of-mouth movie and it generally does well with critics. Overall, I really hope it’s the type of movie that people talk about and it ends up opening bigger.”

“But yeah, there’s definitely a part of me that thinks it’s a vampire movie at a time that Hollywood can’t crap out vampire movies fast enough,” he added, jokingly.

Of course, Mickle’s vision transcends the aforementioned crap-saturated horror market ruled by brooding “Twilight” vampires and serialized slasher flicks with predictable, ghost-faced killers. In “Stake Land,” he explores the darker aspects of American culture by re-imagining traditional elements of the genre.

“Even before “True Blood” and “Twilight,” people had preconceived ideas of what a vampire should be on film. Nick (Damici) is an avid reader and he was interested in going back and checking out vampire lore from different cultures,” Mickle explained.

“So, that’s where we started… by going back and staying away from what’s been adapted and co-opted over the years. We wiped the slate clean and came from an angle whereby vampires don’t have two pointy teeth.”

Christian Extremists

In addition to the blood-thirsty vampires in “Stake Land,” the movie’s crew of misfits encounters a pack of Christian extremists called The Brethren—basically, a fundamentalist militia headed by Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris) that interprets the post-apocalyptic plague as the Lord’s work. Mickle mentioned that some film-goers seem to view the extremists as the true villains of “Stake Land” while the vampires elicit sympathy as victims of a capitalistic society.

“We definitely take a few jabs throughout the movie, but it was important to have that balance with Kelly’s character,” he says, referring to McGillis’ performance as a middle-aged nun armed with a deep faith. “It’s not like it’s a blanket hatred toward religion, but it definitely touches on the fear when it goes too far and is taken to an extremist, fundamental way of interpreting things. It can go to some scary places."

Has Mickle faced any retaliation from the religious right?

“Nothing crazy yet, but we did have somebody at a festival ask us if we had a problem with religion,” he said with a laugh. “We’ve only played in big cities and festivals, but I’m waiting for the e-mails and comments when we start playing in some of the red states.”

Protests from Christian extremists? Now, that’s pretty scary.

Jim Mickle will attend the screening of “Stake Land” at the IFFBoston 11:59 p.m. on Saturday, April 30 at the Somerville Theatre. For more information, call 617-625-5700 or visit iffboston.org.

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