Funnily enough, and unfortunately for all the unsuspecting victims going to see it on the spur of the moment, Stoker is not a biography centred on the life of Dracula author Bram Stoker (although someone should green-light that concept) but a slow burning ,coming of age horror. Stoker is the family name of India and Evelyn, mother and daughter left isolated in a large new-England home after the tragic death of patriarch Richard Stoker. Mother daughter relations are predominantly filled by deafening silence until Richards brother Charles Stoker turns up to the wake, and as all good Hitchcock fans know life is far more exciting once Uncle Charlie comes to town.
Stoker, although confusing name for some, is actually an apt name for the film and the family because Uncle Charlie, played by Matthew Goode, is very similar to the classic Count Dracula persona; an attractive, charming, well mannered guy who manages to appear harmless externally whilst drawing women in to his psychological web. (I should make it clear here that I refer to Dracula’s classic film portrayals like Christopher Lee’s Count) Both Uncle Charlie and young India possess unusual powers as well, India is able to hear things others can’t hear; the whispered conversations across the room at her fathers wake for example, and Uncle Charlie can appear in places where he is not. At one point Charlie appears like a psychological apparition next to India on a piano stool. They play the piano together, and he seduces her, only to vanish at the peak of her excitement. India seems to have inherited these gifts through her bloodline on the Stoker side and as she comes face to face with Uncle Charlie she must face the nature within herself.
Directed by Chan-wook Park who also directed the ‘Vengeance’ trilogy and Thirst, Stocker is hugely influenced both visually and tonally from Korean and east Asian film, although it is equalled in it’s Western influences. The scenes between Charlie and India are reminiscent of Kubrick’s Lolita, and with their costume and setting Charlie and Evelyn could have walked straight out of The Great Gatsby, but, as Murry pointed out to me, Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska are dressed so fetishistically throughout the film that at some points they almost appear like china dolls, which is very much a characteristic of the female costuming in Asian cinema. Stocker also plays at a pace more familiar in J horror, which can only be described as a contradiction of relaxed pacing coupled with intense imagery and strong subject matters. Stoker owes a debt to Hitchcock’s A Shadow of a Doubt were young Charlie (a girl) longs for a visit from Uncle Charlie her namesake whom she feels a strong connection with. She feels he will improve their family life and bring a bit of excitement, but Uncle Charlie is a much darker character with many secrets. In Stoker the immortal lines; ‘say hello to Uncle Charlie’ are uttered when India is introduced to him for the first time.
So onto strong subject matters, there are murders, and as I mentioned previously hints at Vampirism. (at one point Uncle Charlie offers India a taste of red wine, she gulps it down and then appears horrified. Is it horror at the contents of the contents of the glass or the first taste of wine, does the glass contain something else, or having just turned 18 is it the horror of reaching sexual maturity, Uncle Charlie tells her he has waited for her to ‘come of age’ before visiting her) But with its immaculate set and visuals Stoker also plays out as part costume drama, part study on the mores and social structure of the family dynamic. So much so that until the scene where we see India’s school for the first time I actually did think the film was set in the past.
Stoker contains plenty of shocks, (that’s shocking violence rather than cat jumps out from a tree shocks) and plenty of eroticism. Chan-wook Park explores the idea that violence can be a turn on. Although violent sexuality seems to be a side effect of the palpable repression in the house. In an unusual role reversal Uncle Charlie seems happy to submit to the female gaze and India’s burgeoning sexuality, even in it’s more extreme moments, is viewed relatively none judge-mentally by the film-maker. Incidentally India hates to be touched before Charlie arrives, her mother calls it ‘my curse.’
Another issue Park seems interested in is why people do the things they do. At various points the characters seem aware of what will happen, or sense in some form the possibilities of what could happen, and yet they never try to alter the course of events directly. There is some passive resistance but generally characters embrace their fates and their miseries. As a young child India’s father spends hours teaching her how to hunt, in scenes reminiscent of The Most Dangerous Game, he seems aware that one day she will face the threat that Charlie posses and yet face to face with Charlie he can do very little. Because, as fans of Zodiac will know, the most dangerous animal in the most dangerous game is us.
Stoker is a beautiful and fascinating peek behind the curtains at the inside workings of the family unit. Despite it’s more shocking moments Stoker is not frightening as a horror, but that doesn’t matter because Stoker is such a great, and brilliantly directed picture that will leave you with a vivid and lasting impression. What more can you ask?