Predictably, Stoker is supremely nutty, but it’s also sumptuously assembled, opulently shot in chalk-pastel tones by Chan-wook’s regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, and with a reference-quality sound design by Chuck Michael and John Morris that captures every woodland creak, eggshell crack, spider-leg patter and refrigerator hum with a hyper-real crystal clarity. Stoker – a name that, as Miller has explained “came front-loaded with obvious gothic connotations” refers to the Stoker family comprising off-balance Mother Evelyn (Kidman), stoic and eerily prescient daughter India, and dear Uncle Charlie Stoker who suddenly appears on the scene upon the death of Dad Richard Stoker (Mulroney). Ah yes, dear Uncle Charlie, played with such disarming courtesy by Matthew Goode, occasionally out-Lectering Lecter, and proving that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain, and his impressing himself upon the Stoker household and his casual in-law flirting with both Evelyn and India soon emerges as the film’s primary narrational thrust.
If this all seems familiar, then maybe that’s because Stoker liberally borrows stacks of the ambient menace of Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt, a film that features another Uncle Charlie, who similarly seeks amnesty within his niece’s glowing idolisation. Chan-wook, of course, manages to penetrate the deeper recesses of the characters’ pathologies more than Hitchcock was ever permitted to do. In Shadow of a Doubt, the more carnal aspect of Teresa Wright’s Charlie Newton’s attraction to her Uncle is kept firmly in check thanks to the Hay’s Production Code of the time, but had it been made in an alternate era, scenes in Stoker that juxtapose India’s near-rape at the hands of a classmate, her subsequent and violent rescue by Charlie, and the ensuing moment of sexual-remapping she initiates when later recalling the incident, might very well have come from Hitchcock’s lens. Then there’s the film’s centerpiece, a technically and artistically bravura stretch of filmmaking in which Charlie non-contactedly seduces India during an impromptu duet seated at the family Steinway, Chan-wook’s steadicam pulling back and swooning in, Mansell’s neo-classical score playfully ostinatoing back and forth. It’s dizzying to watch, exhilarating in its heady and immersive qualities.
Highly stylized films tend to be, of course, highly polarising, and Stoker will madden in certain quarters just as it delights in others. Chan-wook delights in presenting a visual aesthetic that places the world of Stoker in anything from the 1920s to the 2020s. It is a world at once both instantly recognisable and blearily recalled from the night before. But there’s also reservation in what he’s prepared to divulge in the way of thematic material that riffs on nascent violence, genetic sociopathy, repressed sexuality. And Stoker, like India’s perpetual mask of restraint, is all the more beguiling for it.
Words: Ash Verjee