When I first heard of Stoker I assumed it would be a biopic of Bram, with the genesis story of his Dracula as the framework. Park Chan-wook's first English-language feature isn't about a vampire as such, but it does focus on a pale intruder with a taste for young flesh. That would be Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode), arriving out of the blue for his older brother's funeral and soon showing an unseemly interest in the widow (Nicole Kidman), to the chagrin of her daughter India (Mia Wasikowska). The latter is a haughty, whey-faced 18-year-old who used to go on hunting trips with her dad and thinks she might have spotted another predator in her uncle.
The script by Wentworth Miller (star of TV's Prison Break) is an operatically twisted version of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. As psychodrama, the twist is that India and Charlie may have a shared destiny. But it's Park's visuals that make the film fly.
There may not be anything here to rival the infamous squid-scoffing of his signature revenge movie Oldboy (2004) but there are lurid images aplenty of spiders and eggs, sly camera moves and jumpy, Roeg-like edits to keep us on edge. Some moments are ominously beautiful, such as the shot of brushed hair eliding into long grass, and others, usually of Goode framed in long shot, are just ominous.
Given the ripe atmosphere of insinuation, the performances are admirably taut and unhysterical. Wasikowska, close-mouthed and watchful, keeps her poise as her heredity teeters on a knife-edge. As the brittle, flighty mother, Kidman does the best she can with a face that seems ever less mobile – not a single line marks its egglike smoothness. And Goode is pleasingly ambiguous as the Ripley-ish charmer whose two-tone shoes echo his niece's, just like their two-tone personalities.
The brutality just below the surface of Stoker doesn't make it easy to like, and its head-in-the-clouds plotting is still less easy to believe. But it does have the bewitching derangement of a proper Gothic nightmare.