What’s in a name? If it’s Stoker, it evokes a gruesome but romantic history of violence in popular culture, of the undead rising from sarcophaguses, the rat-infested vessels that ferry them across angry seas, the horse-drawn carriages they ride beneath starry midnights, the blood that’s their sustenance, the sun that’s their poison. For India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), the essence of this violence is a birthright, and one that the pubescent straight-A student remains oblivious to in this predictably ostentatious and inane first English-language film by South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook. That is, until India’s uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode), comes to live with her and her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), following her father’s mysterious death and, beginning with piercing eyes he conceals beneath a pair of glasses as if trying to protect himself from the skin-combusting sun, he slowly teases out of her the realization that she’s meant for a life of blood and guts.
Though obviously indebted to Bram, Stoker isn’t a story of vampires, but of the bloodlust that passes between members of a rich family, and it’s the story’s conflation of sexual and violent compulsion that most strongly connects the film to Dracula. In a key scene, India, not long after having mustered the strength to stab a high school bully with a pencil and flirted with a boy during a nighttime stroll in the woods, touches herself in the bathroom while not so vaguely incestuous visions of her uncle and the violence that he may or may not have helped her commit dance inside her head. In the annals of horror cinema, the idea of a girl coming to terms with her sexual identity at the same time that she realizes her proclivity toward violence is a familiar one, but what makes this articulation of the theme feel so airlessly pretentious is how India is neither liberated nor, like Carrie White, imprisoned by her awakening. All it does is transform a geek into a mean girl.
Only the existence of cellphones places Stoker, whose milieu suggests an Eames-era fanatic’s wet dream, in the present-day, but the fantastic ornate-ness of the Stoker clan’s manse isn’t reflective of a family’s desiccated sense of purpose, their moral life, but the means by which an insecure filmmaker attempts to disguise flimsily thematic subject matter. Working very much in the key of Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, which features a very telling scene in which Lee Yeong-ae’s Geum-ja buys a frilly gun because “everything should be pretty,” Park excessively primps his images, forcing a stylistic obliqueness on generic material with off-center compositions, arrhythmic cutting that often disregards eye-line matches and undermines his actors’ performance, and an overblown use of music and sound effects. Even the film’s closing credits are affected, crawling down instead of up.
Stoker’s weird mix of dollhouse dread and fashion-magazine chic can be fetching, but it’s nothing if not vacuous, a series of disjointed, improvisatory riffs that recall the brazen aesthetic overload of Amer, though Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s homage to the giallo dares to key its collage of symbolically charged signs to its main character’s lust. Stoker is highfalutin kitsch that lacks for such synchronicity. In one scene, India strikes a pose similar to a nearby statue, and Wasikowska’s natural talent is such that you almost believe she’s doing so for reasons other than ensuring a pretty shot. There’s also a graphic match between an egg and one of India’s eyes, which makes about as much sense as the girl arranging a series of shoeboxes around her in the shape of a horseshoe. And then there are the graves of the Stoker clan, which are topped with tombstones in the shape of cement beach balls, if for no other reason than a parallel to be drawn to a shot of a dung beetle obsessively but aimlessly pushing around the world’s most perfectly round piece of shit. Which, come to think of it, is the perfect metaphor for Park’s artistic process.