In 2012 there were two movies based on the life of master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. The first was “The Girl”, a made-for-HBO flick that focused on Hitchcock’s relationship with Tippi Hedren during the making of The Birds and later, Marnie. The second was simply titled, Hitchcock, and it focused more on the director’s relationship with his wife Alma Reveille during the making of Psycho.
Hitchcock, arguably one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and his work continue to fascinate audiences and influence other movie makers nearly thirty-three years after his death.
The latest quasi-homage is Korean director Chan-wook Park’s (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) long awaited English-language debut, the ultra-creepy Stoker, which bowed at Sundance at the end of January. Reactions seemed to be generally enthusiastic with little gray area. Screeners either loved it or hated it. Variety, for one, loved it, calling Stoker a “…splendidly demented gumbo of Hitchcock thriller, American Gothic fairy tale and a contemporary kink all Park’s own…” The Wrap’s Alonso Duralde however, calls it “silly melodrama” and “self-parody”. Having just seen it for myself, I think that the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Stoker is a tale of psychological as well as physical terror that follows India Stoker, played by a brilliant Mia Wasikowska, an introverted young girl (woman?) whose personal and sexual awakening arrives with the unraveling of a macabre family mystery involving the death of her beloved father “by a cruel twist of fate” and the arrival of her seemingly charming uncle (Matthew Goode). It’s a sort of Gothic version of “Hamlet” with India as both the Danish prince and Ophelia, since as soon as Charlie arrives he appears to start to romance her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman).
First-time screenwriter Wentworth Miller (yes, that Wentworth Miller), admits to having been influenced not only by Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” but by Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. His script landed on the 2010 Black List*
Take a look at the first domestic trailer:
Before we even see her, we hear Kidman’s sigh, followed by scenes of idyllic family life as she begins, “You know I’ve often wondered why it is we have children and the conclusion I’ve come to is we want someone to get it right this time. But not me.” Then we see her face, “Personally, speaking I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart,” That is one hell of a (terrifying) opening.
I think the UK trailer manages to outcreep that one. If the domestic version made it seem like Kidman was the villainess, this one puts that into doubt and emphasizes how truly bizarre Wasikowska’s India actually is:
Park is known for gore, shocking twists and expressive visuals. A film maker as non-conventional as he is would appear to be taking a step toward the conventional with Stoker given the increased budget and big name Western cast, but it’s a baby step. The visuals, including the fast forward and stop-motion photography and the flashbacks that melt in and out of the present and the future, are impressive as well as expressive. It’s rife with symbolism (flowers and India’s shoes, the spider that disappears under the hem of her skirt, the repeated close-ups of eggs) Park’s affinity for Hitchcock is obvious. He’s said that his interest in film making started with Vertigo. There can be no mistaking the references to not only Shadow of a Doubt, Goode’s character is “Uncle Charlie” after all, but he also bears physical resemblance to the star of Rope and Strangers on a Train, Farley Granger. Costume designer’s Kurt & Bart had to have had not only the lanky build of both actors, but the sophisticated style of the costumes from both of those earlier films, in mind when clothing Goode. The movie looks at once modern and dated. It’s apparent that it’s set in the present, but is somehow askew. The people, places and things all seem like they come from an earlier time. The gorgeous (yet slightly crumbling) family manse is another character in the film and emphasizes the isolation and alienation of the people living in it.
There were all sorts of rumors surrounding the casting of this film. Every young actress in Hollywood was considered before Wasikowska got the role of India. At one time Clive Owen, Joel Edgerton and Michael Fassbender were attached as Charlie. Colin Firth was announced, but dropped out and Goode replaced him. I almost wish I didn’t know that as I watched the trailers. I couldn’t help but imagine what any of those actors would be like in the role. Watching the finished product however, none of them came to mind. Goode’s seductive Uncle Charlie more than made up for his lackluster Ozymandias (Watchmen). Kidman, no stranger to making eclectic films with some of the world’s most brilliant and controversial directors, beginning with Gus Van Sant (To Die For), Jane Campion (Portrait of a Lady), Lars von Trier (Dogville) to Lee Daniels (Paperboy), plays Evie Stoker as wound tighter than a drum. But while you think you know her at the beginning of the film, your perceptions will be turned on their head by the end of it.
The supporting cast is steller as well. Dermot Mulroney appears as the deceased Stoker patriarch. Jacki Weaver, Oscar nominated for Animal Kingdom and Silver Linings Playbook is ill-fated Aunt Gwen. Alden Ehrenreich, who can be seen in Beautiful Creatures and Lucas Till from X-Men: First Class also appear.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Aunt Gwen is “ill-fated” since that’s pretty much given away in the trailer, but I will say that this movie has a high body-count. Take a closer look at that poster up top. The three attractive actors look like a prettier version of the Addams Family. It certainly emphasizes the “American Gothic” aspect that Variety mentioned. (“Do N0t Disturb the Family”? How about the rest of us?) What saves a film chock full of images including blood-spattered wild flowers, ritualistic bonfires, clandestine burials and actors who all look like they are both driving someone and being driven mad, from tipping over into the land of either full-on gruesome or parody is the feeling they’re all in on the joke. As the tension mounts and more of Charlie’s motivations as well as modus operandi are revealed along with India’s less than typical reactions to them, the film walks the tightrope between suspense and camp mostly by virtue of the terrific performances from the three leads.
In one of the film’s best and most powerful scenes, Uncle Charlie joins India at the piano. We’ve already seen him “playing with” her mother, tentatively. She thinks she’s “teaching him”. Charlie and India, however, play a complex and hypnotic duet that is clearly meant to suggest something besides piano playing. (The duet composed by Philip Glass for the film is stunning. Wasikowska took three months of intensive lessons to believably play it onscreen.) The next thing we know she’s out trying to seduce the local bad boy. Their date does not go well. India ends up in the shower in a scene that dissolves from Hitchcockian to DePalma-esque.
Nothing ever happens exactly like you think it will (or like the trailers and tv spots have led you to believe that they will.) The characters aren’t exactly likeable so we never really root for anyone, although I did “like” the ending. I can understand how some viewers would think the whole thing adds up to a visually exciting mess, but I can also side with those who thought it was brilliant fun. Park Chan-wook isn’t going to be everyone’s cuppa in any language (I’m looking forward to seeing what Spike Lee does with the American remake of Oldboy). I don’t think Stoker is a film I need to add to my collection, but I did enjoy it while I was watching it, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. While I don’t usually give a recommendation quite so ambivalent, I can recommend it, especially if you’re a fan of the original master, Alfred Hitchcock.
*An annual list of the best unproduced scripts circulating in Hollywood. See 2010’s here and marvel at how many you recognize as having been made since.