A slightly abridged version of this review was previously published in my weekly column @ Towleroad
A few years ago Park Chan-wook, the acclaimed genre fabulist from South Korea, made an award winning vampire film called Thirst. With the exception of the Swedish instant classic Let The Right One In, it's the best vampire film of the past 20 years. Second best might not seem like high praise but consider the volume of competition!
In Thirst, a priest and reluctant vampire, infects a young girl with his addiction and she flips from moody troubled teen to lusty adult trouble-maker. Is she his impressionable victim or his soulmate apprentice? Or is she much harder to pin down? Having raved about Thirst when it was released (including a Best Actress nomination for Kim Ok-bin right here) and being a shameless Kidmaniac I walked into Stoker with high expectations. Despite the title's nod to Bram Stoker, I was not expecting an English language pseudo-remake of his earlier vampire feature. There are no literal vampires this time but the central power play relationship and overall bloodlust are like eerily similar echoes. Even the supernatural powers remain: India (Mia Wasikowska) even begins the film boasting of her preternatural hearing in voiceover while she hunts a defenseless animal in the tall grass. It's like a Terrence Malick sequence with brutality in place of spirituality. India's hearing is so acute she even catches spidery footsteps (So do we since Stoker shares with Thirst masterfully creepy and super detailed sound design.)
"Don't disturb the family" is a stupid fun tagline for Stoker's ad campaign and poster since the warning is pointless. This family was disturbed long before you bought a ticket. [more...]
India Stoker lives with her distant mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) in a large creepy house complete with a shadowy black cellar with flickering lights and an enormous old fashioned freezer. Outside of mutual contempt for each other, their only shared hobby appears to be obsessing over the same men. Mother and daughter are both mourning the family patriarch Richard (Dermot Mulroney) who burned to death in his car and they're both enthralled by "Uncle Charlie" (Matthew Goode), his younger brother, who comes for the funeral and stays awhile. If his name doesn't tip you off (Uncle Charlie is a nod to Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt) the direction will. Charlie is not right. Charlie is not good. Charlie's eyes never leave the Stoker women. He's like a stalker who's been handed keys and a guest room instead of the customary restraining order.
Charlie is played by perfect specimen Matthew Goode, which immediately tips the odds against propriety. (The odd psychosexual screenplay is by another beautiful man, the actor Wentworth Miller from Prison Break). Park Chan-wook and Goode point to Charlie's sinister nature right from the start but the movie is curiously withholding about the hows and whys of this family's strange arms-length-or-further-please distance from one another. One early scene involving Jacki Weaver as another distant relative, is hilariously tense as the camera continually darts and circles around the family at a dining room table where no one appears to be eating, supping only on their distaste for each other. Stoker even plays coy with the "whens" of the shit going down for far longer than you'd expect or might have patience for.
Which is not to say that it doesn't have its thrills. Goode rules the film with those increasingly spooky unblinking eyes, but the entire cast is compelling. While Nicole Kidman fails to make a full character from the vaguely written Evelyn -- the movie forgets about her for long stretches -- she's such a compelling screen presence that it feels like a gift when the movie hands her a late film monologue just to see her tear into something before the credits roll.
But for such a bloody film (yes, multiple bodies will pile up) it's curiously bloodless, only coming alive in brief kicks… all of them a contradictory mixture of the movie's absurd physical beauty (Production Design Porn alert!) and morally repugnant storytelling (is it just me or is Hollywood obsessed with stories in which we the audience are meant to identify with killers instead of fearing them and rooting for their victims to escape?). I won't give away the goods or even the sick character arcs though I've noticed that the trailer reveals almost all the surprises (pity that) but I will say that I hated the ending. It's not so much a twist as a delayed inevitability given the echoes of Thirst but I was hoping for something more ambiguous and less distasteful. In fact, I might have praised Stoker for its sophisticated horror thrills (one murder involving a telephone call is going to give me nightmares from its simplicity) had it ended just one scene earlier on an absolutely killer shot of a long blood-stained trail, a sense memory of dragging a body through a home to show it the door. The moment works beautifully as satire (never outstay your welcome), creepy horror (another dead body?) and satisfying conclusion.
But the actual ending ruined it for me. I left Stoker feeling only queasy, which I suppose is a testament to its strength as a horror film. But to what end? I prefer bloody movies with cathartic undercurrents (Carrie), sneaky subversiveness (Let the Right One In), gut-wrenching morality (Thirst), or the sheer buoyancy of great thrills (Silence of the Lambs) none of which Stoker left me with despite its meticulous beauty and fine acting. Later that night, I came home and thought about the boxes of mystery swag from Stoker's PR team that keep arriving. At first I thought they were cute and more power to them since this is a tricky sell, too artsy for the slasher crowd, too gorey for the art crowd, but now they're just creeping me out. I am suddenly thankful that Park chan-wook is out there making pictures rather than killing people. I'm not suggesting that this globally renowned director is a latent serial killer but IF HE IS his films are veritably perfect kill trophies, fetishized imagined mementos from the lives he could have snuffed out instead of picking up a movie camera.
Grade: A- for craft but D- for morally repugnant emptiness which leaves us with what exactly... C+?
Best-In-Show: Totally Matthew Goode who nails the patient dead-eyed beauty of a killer until the mayhem starts after which he totally comes alive... so creepy! Honorable mention: Jacki Weaver is very welcome in her small supporting role of Aunt Ginny... that Animal Kingdom performance was no joke and thank God Hollywood noticed, right?
Oscar?: You could certainly make a case for it in the craft categories but it's an early release and far too invested in the horror genre to thrill the Academy.