The movie Stoker snuck up on me. I didn’t even know it was coming out until a few days before opening weekend. I was first introduced to Korean director Chan wook-Park’s work when I saw part of his Vengeance trilogy Oldboy, one of my first exposures to K-horror. It was a tense, scary movie, one of those where I sometimes had to put my hand up and block parts of the screen from my vision, especially when a hammer came into play. After that movie, I was so glad to walk out of the dark theater and come into sunlight on a smelly, garbagey New York street. That movie smashed my preconceptions of what horror should be—so often I was truly shocked and horrified by what came onto the screen because the clichés, the rules, were not followed. But that’s also what made it so wonderful—it wasn’t a predictable movie.
I can see those same sensibilities in Stoker, Chan wook-Park’s first English language production. Right away, it’s apparent that there’s something off in this story, but it’s so subtle, you can’t put your finger on it right away. The protagonist India (Mia Wasikowska) fills the screen, gallivanting around the trees and garden areas of her family’s country estate. From a distance she looks like a child, all long limbs and gangly while climbing a tree, but as the camera focuses in on her, it becomes apparent that India is almost a full-grown woman who aggressively keeps herself childlike.
The audience finds out that this particular day happens to be the funeral for her father, who passed away in a terrible accident when he was two states away from the family home, unbeknownst to them. India is afflicted with a mysterious disease, where her senses are hyperacute. She has X-Men-like powers of hearing and can’t stand to be touched. She also has incredibly morbid tastes, and I couldn’t help but see India as a teenaged Wednesday Addams.
India lives in a beautiful house, wears beautiful clothes, and has a beautiful mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), but there is an austere, cold quality to her life. She has no friends and keeps everybody at a distance—perhaps in memory of her father, who appears to have been her best friend.
Her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up at the house on the day that her father is buried. India and Evelyn have never met him since Charlie has been abroad with business, but with the tragedy, he returns. Charlie does his best to ingratiate himself with India, bringing her treats, trying to give her rides, etc., but she’s a hard sell. Evelyn, on the other hand, is ridiculously easy to persuade, and she does whatever Charlie wants. He seems intent on replacing his brother in this very strange household—no matter what it takes.
Evelyn has romantic designs on Charlie, but India tries to hide her curiosity (she wants to know who he is and where he came from, but she doesn’t want him to see her interest). At school, India is subjected to some bullying by boys, mostly sexual in nature, but it doesn’t get to her at all. She brushes them off like flies. She’s a pretty girl, but it’s her ice queen exterior that seems to bring about the unwanted attention. When the bullying intensifies, India becomes the aggressor after she is provoked. I found it refreshing to see a female who could more than take care of herself and pull a few surprises when in the middle of packlike behavior that could turn quite dangerous.
This is an odd little horror movie and very nuanced, so I’m glad I saw it on a big screen and could really take in all of the details. If you’re looking for broad splashes of blood, monsters in the basement, and other familiar horror tropes, this is probably not the movie for you. But if you want to see horror as Stravinsky might have visualized it, Stoker delivers.