Though it shares the surname of Dracula’s daddy, Stoker is not a supernatural creature. It is, however, as gothic as it gets.
A horror film this weird was sure to alienate mass audiences. Its vague premise was not enough to put butts in seats and its flittering life at the box office drew little commercial attention. For those lookeeloos as actually wandered into a showing the stilted dialogue and roaming camera were apt to confuse rather than intrigue. It’s understandable. For a good portion of this movie it’s difficult to figure out just what is going on. Why everything seems so…peculiar.
We have a girl – young woman, really – scampering barefoot over her family’s manor in search of her eighteenth birthday present. She tells us she can hear things far away, see with acuity, feel with supreme sensation. It sounds like teenage pretension. It’s not. India (Mia Wasikowska) is intelligent and alienating, possessing these hyperactive senses and the heart of a hunter. Her beloved father is killed that morning and soon she and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) are introduced to Charlie (Matthew Goode), the uncle India never knew she had. Charlie moves in with the girls during their time of grief, much to the delight of Eve and and the loathing of India. But Charlie is not what he appears to be. Nor, for that matter, is India.
Stoker is a moody little movie, the black comedy step-child of Heathers, once removed. The main trio – Charlie, India, and Eve – speak in mannered dialogues that echo its gothic forebears – not always enjoyably, mind you. The strange conversations do have the effect of drawing you down into the isolated mansion of the Stokers, forcing the eyes to accompany the ears into its black and winding depths. Once there you are trapped in Park Chan-Wook’s web (director of Oldboy and Thirst), and it is a beautiful and deadly trap.
Wook’s first American film is like a luscious poison infiltrating the nervous system. Time is staggered so that reactions to events come first, the events after, foregrounds glide seamlessly over faded-in landscapes. Strands bend to Wook’s whims until the film cannot be ignored. To look away would risk missing another elegant albeit bloody clue.
Wook took a bold chance directing a film like this, with characters stranger than anything in mainstream cinema. There is never a moment offered for redemption and so the tale is allowed to go to some very dark places. Even when digging into that black soil there are moments of genuine mesmerism, such as the Phillip Glass-composed piano duet between India and her uncle. The direction is exhilarating and the symbolism is much, much more than suggestive.
Stoker is a very different kind of horror film, not quite on the opposite end of the spectrum as Zombie’s psychedelic Lords of Salem (being the violet to its green). Both films are breaking the boundaries of contemporary horror, but where Salem is nightmarish, Stoker is dreamy. Its gothic trappings are exactly that, traps woven for this family of broken creatures.
Getting too much deeper into the plot would spoil, so let us say that it is a coming of age story, a mystery, and a litmus test for sociopaths v. psychos. This strange brew may not be your cup of tea, but if you like ’em dark and dirty, bottoms up.
Directed by Park Chan-Wook
Fox Searchlight Pictures
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