South Korean director Park Chan-wook wastes no time in setting up his stylish and visually stunning horror treat, “Stoker.” From the opening, book-ended scenes framing the story to the clever title sequence where a festively lit birthday cake is snuffed out by a glass cover as the director’s credit appears, “Stoker” offers up winning visuals and psychological terrors.
Known internationally for his “Vengeance Trilogy” consisting of “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy,” and “Lady Vengeance”, Park assembles a fine acting “family” for his first American feature. Mia Wasikowska stars as the moody, reclusive, 18-year-old India Stoker; her mother, Evie is played by Nicole Kidman; Matthew Goode plays Uncle Charlie, the brother of deceased father and husband, Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney), while Jacki Weaver’s Aunt Gwyn arrives to the Stoker residence to help or maybe to hinder.
The story at first glance seems simple, yet tragic – on her 18th birthday, India’s father dies in a car crash. Her mother, Evie, is devastated, while India continues to be distant. It’s immediately apparent that Evie has a strained relationship with her daughter who was much closer to her father, Richard, who took his daughter on endless hunting trips as evidenced by the stuffed birds throughout the house (“Psycho” comparison – perhaps). But then the mysterious Uncle Charlie arrives. Is he there to comfort poor Evie or young India?
To build the psychological tension, Park enlists the technical crafts of his five-time director of photography, Chung-hoon Chung. Per the film’s production notes, the film’s producer, Michael Costigan of Scott Free credits Park and Chung’s ability “…to create character and story through visual language and camerawork. Director Park does so much preparation. He prepares meticulous storyboards.”
Likewise production designer, Therese DePrez (“Black Swan”) explains in the film notes director Park’s thematic attention to detail – “There is nothing in the design that doesn’t have a reason. It’s meticulously done…. We spoke about the idea of the hunter and the hunted. These characters are very much circling each other, and the hunting motif became a major theme in the movie.”
But as skilled as Park’s team is, accolades also go to the “Stoker” script, which began as a bit of a mystery itself as it was shopped around under the name, Ted Foulke. Strangely little was known about Foulke even as the script landed in the 2010 Black List (an industry list of the best unproduced scripts). But when Costigan showed interest in producing, the cat was let out of the bag. The script’s author was actor Wentworth Miller (“Prison Break”).
Even with its gory violence, which is more often implied than explicit, it’s refreshing to watch a horror film with a sense of verve. With homages to suspense maestro Alfred Hitchcock (including “Shadow of a Doubt’s” notorious Uncle Charlie), “Stoker” has an ethereal feel – part retro and yet technically modern. Adding the acting talents of Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman to Park Chan-wook’s psychologically menacing, yet stylish direction in “Stoker,” creates a big win for fans of gothic horror tales.
“Stoker” is 100 minutes and Rated R. It opens March 1.
For other film reviews by Lori Huck, check out:
‘Wake in Fright’ Film Review: A Newly Rediscovered Aussie Classic
‘The Awakening’ Film Review: A Good, Scary Ghost Story
‘Insidious’ Movie Review: Terror Team Wan and Whannell Deliver Chills and Thrills with Their Latest Scare-fest