“Just as a flower cannot choose its color, we are not responsible for what we’ve come to be. This is what it means to be free.” Stoker, the first English-speaking film by Korean horror-flick director Chan-wook Park (Oldboy), practically hemorrhages that kind of pretentious, dumbfoundingly meaningless writing. But it does have a dark, satisfyingly sinister feeling of gothic creepiness that I somewhat reluctantly admit appealed to my enjoyment of perversity as entertainment, including the rather obvious title nod to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. That is not a recommendation. Clearer heads will find it absurdly pointless.
Chan-wook Park, sometimes listed as Park Chan-wook (don’t ask) has a nice feel for spacey thrillers, but he speaks only a few words of English, and it shows. The script, by Wentworth Miller, an actor with scant writing experience, seems to be constructed phonetically. It is simply awful, so you just have to stop worrying if it will eventually come together into a cohesive entity and enjoy the ride. It’s about the demented Stoker family, a bunch of sick sisters who inhabit a morose old mansion somewhere in the wilds of an uncharted Connecticut nobody has ever found. It begins on the 18th birthday of India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska from The Kids Are All Right), when her architect father Richard (Dermot Mulroney, who is seen only briefly in a couple of flashbacks) is killed mysteriously. Grief-stricken India and her loopy, oversexed mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) are suddenly invaded by Dad’s long-lost younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), who takes up residence and becomes part of the family. Uncle Charlie is a handsome, friendly and charming guy who kindles in India a passion for firearms and awakens her mother’s sleeping hormones—and he can cook, too. Then India notices that when Uncle Charlie takes his belt off, it doesn’t always lead to sex. Sometimes there’s homicide by strangulation. First she finds the Stoker housekeeper in the freezer with the ice cream, then a curious aunt who disappears after Richard’s funeral. Finally, after he interrupts a boy on the verge of ending India’s virginity on a country road, she watches in fascination as Uncle Charlie ties him up, twists the belt around his esophagus and breaks his neck. This all happens early, so don’t worry about spoilers. There’s much more to come.
“Sometimes you need to do something bad to keep from doing something worse,” uncle and niece agree. There was a baby brother who disappeared. What happened to him? India finds a stack of unopened letters from Uncle Charlie that her father kept hidden. Why do they all bear the return address of an insane asylum? As Margaret Hamilton cackled in The Wizard of Oz, “all in good time, my dears, all in good time.” Meanwhile, Ms. Wasikowska fares well in her first grown-up leading role. The hugely underrated Mr. Goode, who lived up to his name as Colin Firth’s lover in A Single Man, is smoothly suave, dashing and sexy as he covers up the traces of a psychopath. You will be reluctant to take your eyes off him as he changes moods and expressions right before you like a chameleon. Jacki Weaver, Oscar-nominated as the mother in Silver Linings Playbook, provides moments of real tension as the distraught aunt whose warnings go ignored until it’s too late. Even the criminally wasted Ms. Kidman and Mr. Mulroney bring some badly needed shivers to their enigmatic assignments. The ghost of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, with Teresa Wright as the wary niece and Joseph Cotten as the dubious uncle, hovers in every frame. Of course, Hitchcock was a much better filmmaker, who tied all of loose strings together in tidier knots. Stoker doesn’t add up to anything memorable, but Park Chan-wook (or Chan-wook Park) has a few arresting touches of his own, and the film is elegantly, masterfully photographed by cinematographer Chunghoon Chung.
I’m so dizzy just spelling the names that I hope this polyglot doesn’t become a habit.
Running Time 98 minutes
Written by Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson
Directed by Chan-wook Park
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode