Contrary to its title, Park Chan-Wook’s English-language debut has nothing to do with Bram Stoker or Dracula. Park, after all, has already made his vampire movie, basing it on Therese Raquin, of all things, rather than any canonical horror story. Stoker (2013) defies any easy genre classification. It’s a Gothic, definitely. Is it a horror story? I think it is. Is it a melodrama? I think Douglas Sirk and Tennessee Williams would recognize it as cousins to their own work. Is it transgressive? For this director, that almost goes without saying.
The story here finds 18 year old India Stoker coping as best she can with her father’s death. She’s estranged from her mother, so living under her thumb chafes at India. Enter Uncle Charlie, who India has never known. In fact, she never knew he even existed before seeing him standing atop a mausoleum like some memento mori or harbinger of doom. Soon, Charlie ingratiates himself to India’s mother, and to India herself, stoking a cold war of jealousy and recrimination between the women. Meanwhile, Charlie is keeping some dark secret. The family’s long-time housekeeper knows it, but she vanishes one day, without a word. India’s paternal aunt seems to know something, too, and seems greatly concerned about Charlie’s return. Soon, she’s gone too. Charlie, for his part, awakens something inside India, something sexual, something violent, something questioning. India begins to poke around Charlie’s life in order to find out what drives him. She finds it, but finds that instead of being horrified by it, she’s aroused. The endgame finds India, Charlie, and her mother at the corners of a triangle, with Charlie playing them off each other.
This is a film that's mostly about sexual awakening, following as it does India's transformation from innocence into experience. The film contrasts this with the very adult sexuality of India's mother. Both of their sexualities are focused on Charlie. Uncle Charlie fills the same role in this film as his namesake in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt: he's the chaos that disturbs the placid surface of mundane life, though in this case, life was never mundane. In the context of this film, Uncle Charlie is more a manifestation of the id of its lead antagonists, incarnating the sexual frustration of Evelyn and the sexual curiosity of India. India's other opportunities are at the hands of rough boys without the allure and charm of her uncle. Charlie represents another Hitchcockian trope: shared guilt, though India's response to her participation in one of Charlie's crimes is very different from young Charlie's reaction to her Uncle in Hitchcock. In absorbing her uncles attentions, she seems to have absorbed his psychopathology as well.
In spite of its allusions to Hitchcock, though, this most reminds me of the Gothic hothouse flowers that briefly sprang up in the horror movies of the late sixties and early seventies, movies like The Beguiled (especially The Beguiled), The Other, and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, horror movies that traded in mood more than shock, on ambiguity more than genre signifiers, on perversity more than a natural, blank-faced reality. This is certainly perverse. Perhaps a better touchstone would be the novels of Shirley Jackson. I couldn't help but equate India to Jackson's Merricat Blackwood in We Have Always Lived in the Castle whose precociousness and fondness for deathcap mushrooms was equally sinister. Like Shadow of a Doubt, We Have Always Lived in a Castle also has a disruptive male relative named Charles. Park does like to layer his literary references. This also takes its sense of microcosm from Jackson. There's a sense of confinement to this, of social and emotional inertia, and that acts as a kind of crucible that strips away the concealment of secrets and resentments. This is highly stylized, sure, but by the end of the film, it's rubbing raw nerves.
Stoker is a surprisingly feminine movie, given the occasional muscularity of Park's other films, but that may be part and parcel of the Gothic madwoman in the attic. It is certainly an element of its decor, its choice of costumes, and it's signifying objects. On top of its thematic and story elements is a delirious sense of style. Visually, this is one of the most beautiful films I've seen in a long while, from the saturated color designs of the interior sets to the languid glide of the camera through the film's Gothic house to the striking juxtaposition of a lifetime of shoes as related through a series of lap-dissolves to the fury in Nicole Kidman's blue eyes. The visual style of the film is a trap, of course, a lure to conduct the viewer to the end and to a profoundly disquieting series of closing images. Most of these are the same images that start the film, but they've taken on a distinctly different meaning by the end of the film. Why does India act as she does at the end of the film? That's a question Stoker declines to answer, and it lingers in the air after the credits roll.