The vampire movie, without the vampire
When you hear that Chan-wook Park is directing his first American film, and that the film is a psychological thriller, you may look up to the skies and say a little prayer to whoever persuaded him to embark on the west. You may pen in its release date into your diary. And underline it, several times. What you certainly wouldn’t do is even let it cross your mind that, even for a second, it will be anything less than you expect.
It’s been almost four years since Park left his unique stamp on the vampire genre with his refreshingly romantic vampire horror Thirst, and naturally the title of Stoker indicates that the director may be returning to the genre where he left off.
The assumption of vampirism is made almost certain when
scurrying up a tree and her opening monologue reads “just as a flower doesn't
choose its colour, so we don't choose what we are going to be.” But an hour into the
movie, you become aware that the initial reference stands alone. Ah but wait, a
tall, dark, handsome stranger with abnormal tendencies walks in to impart his
teeth-baring habits… nope, just a murderous psycho with an obsession with
strangling people with his belt. Charlie’s motive is largely neglected and we
are never really encouraged to dig into his psychological state of mind, other
than through a flashback to something disturbing he did as a young boy. India
So there are no vampires and the dysfunctional family narrative seems more one-dimensional than you may have imagined. The credits roll and you think you’ve missed something. You haven’t. The clues are all there and it thrives on the constant second-guessing of what is going to happen- but then never does- and the apprehension of a twist that never really takes the audience by shock.
It’s at this point that you remember the Vengeance Trilogy creator did not write the screenplay.
Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller played it rather safe on his writing debut, and his depiction of the dysfunctional family doesn’t verge groundbreaking either. The disconnection between mother and daughter is conveyed with not a whole lot more than a handful of stiff, icy glares on the staircase and an over-stated mismatch in interests. While Kidman goes shopping, Wasikowska reads.
Wasikowska again transitions child to woman in a matter of minutes and her oddities are well-balanced against Kidman’s straight misdemeanour. But it’s the character of uncle Charlie that steals our attention away from their morbid grieving, and it is Goode’s mysterious obscurity and his ability to stir both
Evelyn’s fascination, and ours too, that keeps us intrigued. India
Time and time again it is Park’s aesthetic imagery that hones his deliverance of the symbolism to expose the plot’s metaphoric meanings. And he doesn’t disappoint here. In a series of intermissant revisits to the image of India and her father aiming shot at a deer, the acqusition of the 'hunter' is toyed with. His stylistic sequences of eloquent shots create an ambiguous and uncertain ambience, and the tension this arouses is kept strung tight right through to the climax.
As much as it is a relish to see his artistic style on the big screen, it is a tool used much less frequently than in his former works and we can only presume this was down to Park’s worries that it wouldn’t translate to an American audience. He would probably have been right.
VERDICT: The outcome is by no means spectacular, failing to triumph the director’s prior horror works, and it misses the depth of character analysis and an brutally revengeful plot that could have been delivered with Park’s screenwriting presence. But the suspension holds its own and the plot is duly engaging, even if it does appear insipidly straight-forward on reflection.