Stoker is the most beautiful horror film I've seen since Three...Extremes (2004/2005 US). Coincidentally, it's also the first Chan-wook Park film I've seen in theaters since Three...Extremes. Park knows how he wants to tell a story and he is not afraid to move at a crawl to get there. Park's oeuvre is a master class in exploring the psychology of revenge on film. Oldboy, his most well-known film, tells the story of a man imprisoned in a windowless room for years before being set free without fanfare to take revenge. His Three...Extremes segment involves a film producer fighting a losing battle against the clock to figure out who the madman is that is brutally torturing his wife for revenge. Even Thirst, a film about a priest who is tragically transformed into a vampire, deals with revenge in a very shocking way.
Stoker might be Chan-wook Park's revenge masterpiece. India Stoker is grieving the shocking and unexplained death of her father, Richard, when her long-lost Uncle Charlie comes to stay with her and her mother for a few days. India is different. She has enhanced sensory perception, letting her hear distant sounds, see minuscule details, and feel everything so strongly she can't stand human contact. As India rejects her uncle's attempts to befriend her by any means necessary, she witnesses mysterious disappearances in the household. Slowly, she begins a transformation into a strong person capable of fighting her own battles.
Screenwriter Wentworth Miller and contributing writer Erin Cressida Wilson play on an old Edgar Allan Poe trick to set the audience on edge. Poe's greatest strength was convincing the reader that the narrator he identified as untrustworthy in the first paragraph is a realistic arbiter of events. India Stoker shares the same gift as the protagonist in "The Tell-Tale Heart," giving her the ability to see and hear things far better than anyone else. These things have no real bearing on her life. She concocts stranger and stranger explanations for what's happening with Uncle Charlie that are refuted time and again by her mother. Nothing will convince India except her exceptional sensory perception. Since, with one exception, we only have India's take on the story, we have to rely on a very unreliable narrator to slowly put the pieces together in a satisfactory way.
India's perception of reality is off in a very clear way. The young woman is so afraid of human contact that she observes everything she obsesses over as an outsider. She walks outside and stands a good distance away from a door or window to eavesdrop or spy on her mother and uncle. She has quiet, intimate conversations no closer than four feet away and freezes her body with an unnerving stoicism. No one can talk to her directly to clear up what's happening because she refuses to open up with her concerns. This includes her anger at the mysterious death of her father that slowly becomes a thirst for revenge. The refusal to actually ask questions does not stop India from investigating on her own without actually interacting with witnesses, suspects, or evidence.
Her precious hearing and exceptional eyesight are amplified to an unnerving level onscreen. Chan-wook Park loves a good cinematic conceit to establish his alternate realities and Stoker is no exception. The sound design is loud and unexpected. The cracking of a hard-boiled egg on the kitchen table during a wake is louder than the voices in the next room. The gentle whisper of India's name floating in the wind from over a hundred yards away creates a distracting cacophony of echoes at the funeral. The metronome on the piano is so loud to her that its steady click can be heard clearly upstairs, on the opposite side of the house, with the doors closed, in a fabric-covered room.
The cinematography is even more unnerving. The opening credits are a visual feast you won't soon forget. As India describes her life and her abilities, the cameras freezes on minute details--a solitary hair, the individual seeds in a beautiful red and white flower, the stitches on the hem of her skirt--that any other film would ignore. In art class, while her fellow students sketch a still-life of a staged table, India draws a macro-photographic view of the art deco pattern inside the rim of a tall, slim vase. India's life is all about observing details at an alarming level and Stoker does not let you escape her reality.
Park allows this level of detail to build an otherworldly sense of suspense before India's abilities have any real impact on the story. When the technique begins to intersect with the plot in a meaningful way, the results are terrifying. A piano duet turns into a moment as tense as a Hitchcock chase scene on a train. The ringing of a cellphone becomes a harbinger of doom and a single drop of blood from a minor injury is more startling than most of the death and destruction chronicled in the film.
Stoker is a modern Gothic suspense story brought to life in beautiful detail on the big screen. Then, after the first act, it shifts into full blown horror and never backs down. It is a slow film, crawling to its conclusion in a flurry of sound and visual wizardry that makes the short walk from the school bus to the front door a moment of unbridled terror.
Thoughts on Stoker? Share them below. And for those keeping score, that make two 2013 horror releases (with Resolution) that are likely to make the cut in my Best Films of 2013 list. It's March. Just saying.