Beautifully Creepy: Reflections on Chan-wook Park’s Stoker

stoker mia wasikowska

Chan-wook Park’s Stoker (2013) is a beautiful, creepy, Hitchcockian film, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it. 

I was stoked for Stoker (hahahahahaha) as soon as I saw the first trailer for it. Then, it came out, but I  was busy with school and didn’t see it. And then, for whatever reason, I continued to not watch it for over a year. UNTIL the other day.

I’m calling this post “reflections on” instead of “a review of” Stokerbecause it contains more ***spoilers*** than a review should. That said, here IS my review of Stoker with some hints at analysis tacked on at the end.

Review (sans summary)
It’s only been a few days since I watched Stoker, and I am already itching to watch it again. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t watched a properly creepy film since my Hitchcock class ended in June, but I have sort of fallen in love with this movie. I fell in love with Hitchcock (after discussing his films for 12 weeks, it was hard not to), so maybe it was easier for me than some to fall in love with StokerI know not everyone will love it and that it’s not perfect, but it just gets so much right, and is so beautifully shot and well written that I’m not really concerned with any of its shortcomings.

Stoker is beautifully shot. Really. It’s a visually stunning film and is filled with shots that are so rich, they are hard to forget. Gorgeous and stylized visuals abound, and the film’s cinematography is consistently strong. Even better, the images one sees in Stoker aren’t just there, they are there to make meaning (as they should be of course).

As for the film being “well written,” well it is. Stoker‘s screenplay is one of its strengths. The film’s “big reveal” near the end is well-executed. The “twist” is not the most original in cinematic history, but it’s surprising in the moment without being unreasonable or unbelievable. I also appreciate the fact that Stoker does not make as big of a show of the reveal as it could. Put another way, it doesn’t try hard to impress with the reveal alone. Unlike lesser thrillers, Stoker does not rely on its final twist for impact. Rather, the entire film stands on its own and is worthwhile regardless of the particulars of it’s big reveal.

The fact that Uncle Charlie has some secrets doesn’t matter all that much; rather, the mysteries surrounding Uncle Charlie are an excuse for the film to explore many of the family-related themes that interest it. (MacGuffin, anyone?) Moreover, even though it becomes clear early in the film that there is a mystery to be solved by the end of it, the script throughout is so engaging, that it’s easy to forget there is a reveal coming at all. The dialogue throughout the film is well-penned and the story is paced so that it sustains tension wonderfully (of course, great editing also has something to do with this).

Now, to expand a bit more on my claim that Stoker is Hitchcockian. Stoker is clearly influenced by Hitchcock and with the film, Park explores many of the themes most often found at the forefront of HItchcock’s work. These themes/topics include family, madness, and the close relationship between murder and desire. That said, Stoker does not merely rehash what some of Hitchcock’s films have already said about these themes. Instead, Park uses Stoker to put his own spin on these topics, to add his own voice to an ongoing conversation in which Hitchcock’s voice is the most prominent. Once one realizes that Stoker is in direct conversation with the work of Hitchcock and with Psycho in particular, it becomes quite clear just how interesting and well-crafted the film is. Very little in Stoker is incidental. Even the (literal and figurative) background noise serves a purpose.

As for the performances in the film, they are strong as well. Mia Wasikowska does a fine job. I’ve only seen her in that god-awful Wonderland film and in Lawless, but she was better in Stoker than I would have predicted. Though the main character in the film, India Stoker doesn’t say that much, but Wasikowska shines all the same.

As Uncle Charlie, Matthew Goode is unsettlingly charming and demonstrates an ability to go from apparently affable to dangerously menacing at the drop of a hat. As India’s recently-widowed mother, Evelyn Stoker, Kidman is electric. Strangely enough, Stoker is the first film I have seen with Kidman in it I know, I know, but even though her role in Stoker is not especially large, her work in the film is enough to make it clear why she’s received so much praise over the years.

Even though there are moments in Stoker that may feel a little more forced or shallow than Park probably intended, they are few enough not prevent the film from succeeding, and they certainly don’t take away from its strong performances.

Someone more intelligent would probably make something of this (instead of just pointing it out), but one of Stoker‘s quirks is that it doesn’t seem to be set in any particular time. In fact, until Charlie mentions that India was born in 1994, viewers are given no reason at all to suspect that the film even occurs in the 21st century. Only after mentioning India’s birth year does the film show cell phones, televisions, or people in what is clearly contemporary clothing. Curious stuff. Watch Stoker Now.

Stoker: AKA “Family is Scary” 
We don’t need to be friends. We’re family— That’s what India says to her Uncle Charlie when he claims he wants to be her friend. At this point in the film, India really has no reason to suspect her Uncle of being the mad and murderous man he truly is, but once his true nature is revealed, her words take on new and frightening meaning. The insidious and terrifying aspects of family are at the heart of Stoker, which is fitting given both the film’s Hitchcockian influences and the dexterity with which it renders a number of common, everyday objects quite creepy indeed.

By the end of Stoker, viewers may very well be freaked out by such ordinary objects as pencil sharpeners, shoes, belts, and even ice cream. Similarly, they may never quite trust their family again either. Like everyday household objects, people tend to accept their family members as part of their lives. “They are family,” is often considered a good enough reason to trust someone, to let them into your home, to include them in your life. According to Stoker, it is precisely because of this that family is so dangerous and threatening. Like the ice cream in the freezer or the pencil sharpener on the desk, the presence of a family member in one’s home is allowed to go unquestioned, and so it is also quite terrifying.

Think about it. Yes, Charlie is India’s uncle, but neither she nor her mother has ever met him. He doesn’t even show up for his brother’s funeral (yes, he watches it from afar, but that’s creepy and doesn’t count). And yet, Evelyn welcomes Charlie into her home and for an extended period of time at that. Even as she begins to realize that Charlie is probably not who he seems to be and likely murdered her husband, she suppresses those dark thoughts; she’s already accepted Charlie as family and has even begun to develop romantic feelings for him. He’s found his way into her life. It’s too late. Charlie is a stranger and India and Evelyn know nothing about him that should lead them to trust him, but he finds his way into their household and into their lives without issue. If he weren’t family, it wouldn’t have been so easy.

The scene in which the late Richard Stoker is shown picking Charlie up from the asylum further emphasizes just how insidious and creepy family is in this film. In the scene, Richard interacts with and even gives a ride to the man who murdered his youngest brother. If it weren’t for the fact that Charlie is also his brother, he would never do such a thing. How many stories are there about people picking up the person who murdered their brother from the asylum, and then giving them a car and setting them up with an apartment? Answer: none. Richard dies, because Charlie is his brother. Family forces him into the situation that ends his life. The murderer is welcomed in, so long as the murderer is a relative.

Of course, family isn’t just creepy, because it leads people to trust and interact with those they may otherwise steer clear of, but also because of just how close they often become. The film begins with India speaking in voice over, and her monologue includes the following: Just as the skirt needs the wind to billow, I’m not formed by things that are of myself alone. I wear my father’s belt tied around my mother’s blouse, and shoes which are from my uncle. This is me. Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be. Only once you realize this do you become free, and to become adult is to become free.

In many ways, our immediate family members may be more responsible for our personalities than we are. Family robs us of control. Family shapes and manipulates, creates and destroys, and for India, part of growing old is coming to terms with this alarming fact.

Revisiting Psycho 
I’m sure one could write a rather lengthy paper on Stoker‘s allusions to Psycho and what it uses those allusions to say. However, it’s 2:30 am and I’m a lazy punk, so here have this instead:

Big old house with a body in the basement. Stuffed birds. A sexually charged but also scary shower scene. Incestuous desires. Sheriff with big sunglasses who pulls over a young woman. All of these things are in Stoker and are clearly, to some degree, references to Psycho. For now, allow me to talk about two of them.

In my recent post on Psycho, I discussed how Marion Crane is sexualized even as she is violently murdered in the shower at the Bate’s motel. I also wrote about how Marion’s death is largely the result of voyeurism, which is linked to sexual desire and which the film links to violence. Similar links between sex and romance and violence and death occur all throughout Hitchcock’s filmography. In light of this, Chan-wook Park’s decision to show India in the shower just after her uncle murders the boy who tried to rape her is quite interesting indeed. In the shower, India is overcome with emotion, but she is also overcome with sexual desire. Where Marion is murdered in the shower, India masturbates. She gets off, thinking about a young may dying on top of her. Thus, Park acknowledges the connections between sex and murder in Hitchcock, while also putting a twist on the whole thing. India escapes her rapist and she isn’t murdered in the shower. Unlike Marion Crane, Park’s heroine is not entirely robbed of agency, nor is she reduced to an object to be hacked to pieces (either by a knife or by the hungry gaze of viewers).

In Stoker‘s final scene, India is pulled over for speeding. The sheriff who pulls her over is dressed and is shot in such a way that it’s impossible not to think of the sheriff who pulls over (and frightens) Marion Crane early in Psycho. However, where Marion is caught off her guard by the sheriff in Psycho, India deliberately gets the sheriff to pull her over. She smiles at him, she is confident while speaking to him and, as her final act in the film, she kills him. Marion Crane is spooked by the sheriff, India Stoker turns him into her prey, into one of HER stuffed birds (I forgot to mention it, but she hunts birds).

In Psycho, Marion seems like a woman with agency at first. She fucks her man, she robs her boss, she does what she wants. But as soon as the sheriff shows up, that begins to change. She grows timid, she eventually regrets taking the money, and she is murdered. India’s trajectory is quite different. She grows bolder as the film moves forward; as things grow darker and more dangerous, she finds herself and claims agency. Having escaped the home of her family, India goes to face the the world as an adult; meanwhile, Marion rots in a swamp. With India, Park gives moviegoers a badass heroine; that he riffs on Psycho while doing so certainly adds to the fun.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading :D. If you would like to discuss Stoker further, just leave a comment below.
Get Stoker on Blu-Ray

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