Friday, 6 September 2013

Blood is Thicker Than Water: Stoker (2013) Review

Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Alden Ehrenreich

After India Stoker’s (Mia Wasikowska’s) father dies in a car accident on the day of her 18th birthday, her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman). While Evie readily welcomes Charlie into their home and her heart, allowing him to fill the void left by her dead husband, India is not so sure of her feelings for this mysterious newcomer. Is he the charming traveller he purports to be or is he hiding something more sinister beneath his handsome exterior?

India Stoker exists in a strange world. Although she lives in the 21st century and attends an ordinary American high school, for India, going home at night is like stepping through a portal into another time. She lives in a big, old gothic mansion that is almost completely devoid of modern technology; dresses in clothes that are decades out of date; and her main interests are playing the piano and hunting game in the fields surrounding her house.  Her father was both her only friend and hunting companion, so when he dies, leaving her with her mother who is more of a teenager than India is, India finds she is more or less alone in the world. Enter Uncle Charlie, a kindred soul for India, even if she refuses to admit it.

Writer Wentworth Miller (best known for his acting work in the TV series Prison Break) combines elements of Dracula and Shadow of a Doubt (both clearly referenced in Charlie Stoker’s name) to create a film that is something you would imagine Alfred Hitchcock coming up with if tasked with modernising Dracula and relocating it to the American South. Not that this movie is about vampires. It’s a psychological horror/thriller with a much more human evil at its core. Much of the suspense hangs on the questions of what Charlie’s motives really are and what India will do when she discovers them, and the answers become less and less obvious as the film progresses.

Although, with its teenaged protagonist, Stoker ostensibly fits the teen movie mould, this is no ordinary teen horror flick. It’s a teen movie made for adults. It’s very smart and makes you join the dots yourself rather than spelling everything out for you. There’s bloodshed and a body count, which will keep horror fans happy, but it’s not the over the top gore you’d find in a Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street movie. There are no machete wielding maniacs on the loose. It’s also completely bonkers. The more we learn of the Stoker clan, the more apparent it becomes that none of them are 100% sane, and as you would expect from such a family, their actions are completely unpredictable. This means the film twists and turns in ways you wouldn’t imagine and it is one of the rare films I've seen where I genuinely had no idea of what was coming next.

Stoker is Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s first English language movie. Park manages to extract incredible performances from his three leads, in particular Wasikowska, who proves she now has what it takes to break into more adult roles. He even outdoes Oldboy, the movie which brought him international fame in the first place. The film is beautiful to behold and reminiscent in style of the visually striking work of Italian horror director Dario Argento at the peak of his career (in particular, his masterpiece, Suspiria). I’m not sure what the Academy’s opinion of weird, twisted horror thrillers is, and I’m sure the Academy’s notorious conservatism will work against this film. However, when it comes to award season, it will be a crime if this film does not pick up at least one or two prizes.

Verdict: One of the best films of the year to date, Stoker is unlikely to be everyone’s cup of tea, but is well worth seeing for all fans of high quality psychological horror.

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