Stoker begins as a dark haired girl gets out from a car, crosses a road awash with heat haze, and intensely observes something on the other side. How and why India Stoker ends up there proves to be a dark, sumptuous and rather strange viewing experience, leaving you wondering how exactly you should feel about what you’ve just witnessed.
Despite the title – when I first heard of this film, I, too, thought it would be about the author of Dracula – there are no vampires to be found in Stoker. No obvious ones, at least. But, to quote Fritz Leiber’s 1949 short story The Girl with the Hungry Eyes: ‘There are vampires and there are vampires, and not all of them suck blood.’ What Evelyn Stoker invites into the family home in the wake of her husband’s death might not be a fiend of the night, but the ensuing corruption and awakening of darker urges are recognisable even without supernatural elements. This Gothic flavour in turn allows the film’s other major inspiration, Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, to expand far beyond the limits that 1944 would allow it; Stoker takes what was sinister in Shadow and transforms it into something you can’t look away from, however much you wish you could.
I’ve never seen any of Park Chan-wook’s films before now, but he certainly makes Stoker a fabulously surreal thing to watch. The film is perfectly shot from start to finish. Each scene seems almost a work of art regardless of the content; incredible camera angles and lighting heightens the atmosphere of a transcendent world. There are transitional images, such as Evelyn’s hair morphing into the waving grass of her daughter’s memory, that are truly beautiful. Acts as simple as sliding a glass across a table can make the viewer hold their breath in anticipation.
If Stoker’s a feast for the eyes, then the ears are invited to the table as well; not only for the incredible soundtrack from Clint Mansell, but also for the sheer lengths to which auditory effect is taken. During the opening credits alone we’re confronted with not just the sight but the sound of India bursting and draining her blister. When she sips the wine that’s offered to her, her breathing and gulps are amplified by the glass to fill the entire cinema. The smallest auditory details, from cracking the shell of an egg to sharpening a pencil, are magnified to the extreme.
This indulging of the senses only adds to the already disconnected nature of Stoker. The film’s ethereal qualities extend to the plot, with mixed results; reality often takes a holiday when it comes to interactions between characters. Or – let’s be honest here – between our main trio and the people who flit into the story to serve a brief purpose, and flit out again. Scenes cut swiftly from one to another, only to backtrack and cover what’d been skipped or concealed earlier. Some revelations leave you wondering what on earth just happened, or how that could possibly work even in this unreal world. And, for all that Stoker focuses on sound, there are plenty of instances where the characters are silent, or say very little, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Wentworth Miller’s script and its riotous conclusion isn’t bad, per say, but in the hands of any other director and any other actors it could have easily fallen flat.
Thankfully, not so in this case. Nicole Kidman took rather more of a backseat than I was expecting, but managed to completely own the role of a neglectful mother whose conundrum you can still sympathize with: is it possible to love your child, when they make it nearly impossible for you to do so? But as the importance of bloodlines and whatever might be lurking within them rises, so the combination of uncle and niece eventually dominates. Matthew Goode managed the array of masks that Charlie wears, as well as the chilling face – or faces? – beneath, in a performance that left me shivering. Mia Wasikowska does so much more than capture an emotionally withdrawn, lonely teenager; India displays many autistic features and her evolution throughout is gratifying, intriguing and harrowing in equal measure.
This is a film that’s constantly aware of its own nature as a gorgeous set piece for plenty of nightmarish situations. It’s seductive and shocking, and I at least was uncertain of what to think when the cinema lights came up again.
I still am.