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By Ben Nicholson • June 27th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 3/5
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Release date: July 1st, 2013
Running time: 98 minutes

Director: Park Chan-wook
Writer: Wentworth Miller

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman


Adolescence is a time in our formative years we tend to have a strong recollection of. Whether it’s the anguishes of young love, the mortification of pubescence, or the self-conscious attempts to grasp adulthood from a distance, it’s always memorable; for better or worse. It’s of course the instant in which the majority of us explore our own personalities, growing less ungainly and more comfortable in our own skin. I recall a shift in myself over a summer at the age of seventeen where I went from being the awkward boy to the exordium of the man I would become. I’ve not shed awkward completely, though.

The horror genre has long portrayed this particular period as one fraught with peril. Teenagers are invariably the target for any crazed killer/alien/beast roaming the woods/town/school. Pubescents obsession with sex, for instance, leads them right into the genre’s trap; lascivious characters are famously unlikely to make it to the end credits. Puberty is also a time of transformation. This makes it an ideal situation into which to hurl additional supernatural turmoil and there’s a lineage of movies that have cast teens as the newly villainous. This is notably, though not exclusively, the realm of teenage girls with films such as The Exorcist (1973), Carrie (1976) or Ginger Snaps (2000) all utilising the motif. It’s this through-line from which Wentworth Miller took inspiration for his thematic explorations when penning the script for Stoker, the English language debut of Korean auteur Park Chan-wook.

If it crimped its themes from a line of horror films dealing with the approach of adulthood, and subsequent transformation, it grabbed the scenario from Hitchcock. India Stoker (Mia Wasikiwska) sadly loses her father on her eighteenth birthday to a motoring accident. The stilted loneliness of the home she now shares with her distant, and distinctly non-maternal, mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is broken by the arrival of a guest. That guest pays homage to Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt (1943) in the form of a relative India never knew she had, the mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). Arriving on the day of the funeral, he quickly makes himself at home encouraging the advances of the merry widow, Evelyn, and inspiring both suspicion and infatuation in India.


Uncle Charlie brings with him an all-pervasive sense of unease as his charming smile barely conceals his salacious interest in his niece. Whilst Evelyn fawns over him, others – the housekeeper Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) and his Aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver) – seem less than thrilled by his sudden appearance. India is intent on resisting his allure but slowly he breaks down her resolve as his detractors conveniently disappear one by one. It seems that Uncle Charlie has grand plans for India although she is, herself, initially unaware of them.

The underlying message of the film – in fact, it’s stated quite openly – is that only in knowing who you really are, can you be free. With a protagonist on the cusp of womanhood, she’s already groping in the dark to determine her real identity. Uncle Charlie’s arrival serves as a catalyst for a murderously gothic voyage coming-of-age that sees India truly embracing the darker sides of her personality.

The performances from all three leads are fantastic. The ageing Evelyn strikes a jealous figure, having drifted apart from her late husband while her daughter did not, she sees Charlie as a chance to hold on to the last vestiges of a sexual life that appears Stokerto be slipping away. Matthew Goode is magnetic as the much-travelled uncle, as dapper as he is dangerous. India finely conveys the quiet, introverted and bookish teenager searching for the key to unlocking herself.

It’s the direction for which Stoker is remarkable though. Park’s style has evolved and matured over the years since I first discovered his work at a screening of Oldboy (2004) at the Cornerhouse in Manchester. Here he’s on the top of his game combining perfectly with his creative collaborators to construct a wonderfully charged atmosphere that quite literally marries sex to death. Within a consistently beautiful, evocative and inescapable ambiance of fatal desire and burgeoning sexuality there are standout scenes: an exceptionally worked piano duet between India and Charlie made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end; the furious editing of a sequence in which the protagonist makes an alarming discovery in the cellar almost had me hooting in the cinema.

While the film doesn’t deal in the absolutes of heroes and villains in its narrative, the roles are regrettably still up for grabs. Where Park is unreservedly the hero of the piece, screenwriter Wentworth Miller is sadly its villain. The script was much lauded in Hollywood and appeared on 2010’s fabled ‘Black List’ of the best unproduced screenplay, but it’s ultimately the culprit that stops Stoker from soaring. After doing a sublime job of creating a world and setting up the characters, it wastes its promise with an obvious and badly executed twist and a finale that left me feeling thoroughly disappointed. Whilst India was set free by coming to terms with who she was, Stoker is ultimately hampered by not really being sure what it wanted to achieve. Miller shows promise though and top marks for presentation.


Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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