Stoker - Mia WasikowskaSexual tension and terrifying death scenes make for a good mix in Park Chan-wook’s latest thriller Stoker. The film marks the Hollywood debut for the Korean director, previously known for films like The Vengeance Trilogy, and Oldboy. However, Park makes it clear with Stoker that he has no interest in directing a typical Hollywood horror film.

Stoker stars Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker, a troubled, eerily quiet young woman who has just lost her father in a car accident. She feels as though she is the only one mourning her father’s tragic death, as her emotionally unstable mother (Nicole Kidman) is very quick to invite India’s estranged Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) to live with them. India’s suspicions of her uncle’s off-putting behavior increase, as the film’s body count does as well. At the same time, Uncle Charlie is very taken with India, and soon she finds herself disturbingly drawn to him as well. “I want to be your friend,” Charlie says to India, to which she replies: “We don’t have to be friends. We’re family.” One of the most frightening and tense scenes in the movie is a piano duet between India and her uncle, set to a tune written by Phillip Glass. As the music heightens, India begins breathing heavily; lifting her feet up from the floor. Her Uncle reaches over her to hit the high notes that sound the song’s climax, as she is nearly gasping for air, making for some terrifyingly sexually charged viewing.

Mia Wasikowska delivers a great performance as the young India, even though there isn’t much on the page for her to say or do, portraying a troubled teen with a somewhat devilish quality. Throughout the film, you’ll find yourself questioning her motives as much as she questions them herself. Nicole Kidman is perfectly cast as the mother, reminding us of her talent through her few but poignant monologues. Matthew Goode delivers a very one-note performance as the creepy uncle Charlie, but his eerie smile is enough to sustain much of the film’s horror.

The film’s title is an allusion to Bram Stoker, master of horror and author of Dracula, but don’t worry; Stoker is not another vampire flick. In addition, the film’s screenwriter, actor-producer Wentworth Miller, has said he was very much inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in which a young girl gets an unexpected visit from her creepy, mass-murderer uncle, Charlie. Only, instead of responding with disgust after discovering her uncle’s secrets, the protagonist of Stoker responds with questionable intrigue, making each character in this film more morally ambiguous than its predecessor. Stoker also shares its expressionism with Hitchcock. Park Chan-wook’s breathtaking imagery and direction are the best part of the film. Like Hitchcock, Park places a lot of importance on striking images and overwhelming symbolism  (white flowers stained with blood representing India’s tainted innocence, a first pair of high heel shoes representing her steps into womanhood). The film also alludes to many classic horror tropes including a murder in a phone booth, death by strangulation, and contains a surprising number of shower scenes.

But Stoker is more than just a celebration of Hitchcock, nor is it the typical horror-thriller its trailer portrays it to be. Park stays away from a lot of the stylistic choices that make up modern Hollywood cinema such as rapid editing; this is not a film that makes the viewer jump at the murderer’s reflection in the mirror. Nor is it a classic murder mystery, or Whodunit, in which the bad guy is revealed at the end of the movie. Stoker is scary in a very different, more effective way. From the visually striking opening sequence’s freeze-frame cinematography, and the ambiguous out-of-focus introduction of the film’s protagonist, it is clear that Park is experimenting, not afraid to try new things with the camera. His unconventional compositions and unique framing enhance and maintain the script’s suspense, while emphasizing the themes of the inherent and transformative nature of evil, and coming of age. The result is a horror story told through the lens of a tragedy. Sure, it is a psychological horror-thriller, but at the heart of Stoker lies a sexually perverse family drama that is well worth the price of admission.