Bad blood 

Stoker sets the scene for brutal violence

The Stokers live in a Victorian mansion with a winding staircase and a wrought iron gate to lock in all their secrets. Mia Wasikowska plays India, a sullen teen whose father (Dermot Mulroney) was killed in a suspicious car accident on her 18th birthday. Her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), looks right at home in her black dress. Who's that man standing on the hill overlooking the funeral?

Stoker is well-crafted, chilly and a little hollow. It's the horror film Hitchcock would have made if he'd lived long enough to get into splashing a lot of blood around. It's hard to paint a picture so cold and frightening with such a rich color palette, but director Chan-wook Park does precisely that, and this is only one of the film's many contradictions. Wentworth Miller's script is essentially the story of India's sexual awakening, and it wonders about bad blood: Are we born monsters or do we become them?

There's something not right about India. She wears little girl shoes, bobby socks and long pleated skirts, which is pretty strange, since it's not a period piece. She exists in her own world, but she goes to a high school with normal teenagers, so it's hardly surprising to see the guys react by sexually harassing what they don't understand.

India has a talent for noticing details up close that the rest of us miss. A doctor might put her on the autism spectrum. When she zones in on the look and sound of brushing her mother's hair, the corresponding visuals are almost hallucinogenic. When a spider crawls up India's leg, you hold your breath and listen to its tiny feet tapping against her stockings, and then the spider disappears under her skirt and now you don't know what to think of yourself.

click to enlarge I’m only happy when it rains.
  • I’m only happy when it rains.

The man standing at the top of the hill at the funeral is India's father's brother, Uncle Charlie, played by Matthew Goode. There's something off about him from the start. He always says and does the right thing, and it's weird that nobody ever told India that her father had a brother. Uncle Charlie is Hitchcock's charming psychopath, and his effect on the women of the house determines the rest of the movie's action. The less you know, the better. Just be prepared for blood and inappropriate touching.

This is Korean director Park's first English-speaking film. He's the man behind 2003's Oldboy, a spectacular and bizarre revenge saga. People have described Stoker as violent, which is true, but only by American standards—and really, who hasn't seen a guy get shot in the neck by a duck-hunting rifle by now?

The violence in Oldboy is even more graphic and visceral, but it has a point. When Woo-Jin Lee eats a live octopus, for example, it's a metaphor for embracing his own life. In Stoker, when the blood splatters against the white flowers and makes them red, it means something, and the voice-over narration even tells us what, but we haven't been given enough meat to comprehend the change.

We never find out who India is or why she does things, which is problematic. Her relationship with her dead father is hinted at often, but it doesn't amount to much. Their relationship feels underwritten. Finally, the film can drag in places, but sometimes a little dullness is a necessary trade-off for the chilling atmosphere you get in return.

Still, most movies are flimsy and uninspired. Stoker is worth seeing for the visceral experience alone. It's sexy in a disturbing way unique to Korean cinema, like spiders crawling on your skin that you don't want to bat away.

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