Much will be made of the fact that “Stoker” is the first American film by Park Chan-Wook, the Korean director responsible for such exercises in theatrical cruelty and revenge as “Oldboy” and “Thirst,” and how his cutting-edge, regally detached horror vibe carries over into the English language.
But I think any hack American director would have made a film as bad as “Stoker.”
All you do is exaggerate sounds, shoot meaningless shots of spiders creeping here and there, induce a competent cast to deliver cold, unreadable performances, then splatter blood in exquisitely beautiful patterns.
You might also want to play the art-by-association game. There is no reason, for instance, to call the main family by the name of Stoker other than to allude to “Dracula” author Bram Stoker, whose novel has absolutely nothing to do with this movie.
For the knowing cineaste, you establish a similar though more subtle allusion to Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” wherein a mysterious “Uncle Charlie,” a man of apparent sophistication and worldly travel, drops in out of nowhere to visit the quiet family home of his sensitive niece, who soon enough notices a lethal edge to her relative.
But as that great critic Otis Ferguson once remarked, “you can copy every last trick of a Hitchcock picture without having anything but Boris Karloff left.”
A great effort has gone into making the overly familiar seem odd and particular without much success. It’s still familiar: a Southern mansion in splendid isolation — the film was shot in and around Nashville — wherein resides a young woman, let’s call her India (Mia Wasikowska) to make her seem exotic, who is going through one of those phases in life.
You know, the kind of thing. Dad has just died in mysterious circumstances and mom, Evie (Nicole Kidman), is sufficiently unstable to invite dad’s long-lost brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), to stay on for as long as he likes after the wake.
Soon mother and daughter are in sexual competition for Charlie’s attentions — they both get some to varying degrees — but that’s not what’s really weird. What’s really weird is the constant disappearance of people.
Dad’s (Dermot Mulroney) demise was tragic enough but then the housekeeper suddenly vanishes. A day or so later, Aunt Gwendolyn (Jackie Weaver) shows up and then she too goes missing without a trace. (And without anyone much noticing for that matter.)
Hmmm, how odd though — ever since Uncle Charlie arrived all these people just melt away.
Images of death and sexuality co-mingle freely within Chung-hoon Chung’s restless cinematography, most blatantly as young India showers and masturbates to a memory of violent death.
(To say more would require a spoiler alert although I’m not sure such a thing is necessary when a movie veers so predictably toward the macabre.)
The screenplay is by Wentworth Miller, an actor best known for his work on the television series “Prison Break.” He has written enigmatic roles for his fellow thespians that require little more than blank expressions and moments of silence into which the viewer can read just about anything.
Here the “moment” is everything. People act out thoughts and emotions as if these just occurred to them. Motive vanishes in place of “bad blood,” which explains everything.
Or perhaps it’s simply the Southern Gothic tradition.
The aestheticizing of horror, a devise Hitchcock often did use to contemplate more fully its reality instead of turning away from it, is but a cheap gimmick in Park’s hands. Blood and deaths are merely shocks of sensation — all the more so for their senselessness — rather than emotional upheavals.
Park takes the elements of a splatter movie and lovingly bathes them in silky imagery and sound as if to wash away the stink of the grind house. But it doesn’t wash.
The glee of the outrageous one gets from a true trash movie vanishes here to be replaced by a deadening sense of the filmmakers’ calculation and cynicism.
Opens: March 1, 2013 (Fox Searchlight)
Production companies: Fox Searchlight in association with Indian Paintbrush presents a Scott Free production
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver, Phyllis Somerville, Alden Enrenreich
Director: Park Chan-Wook
Screenwriter: Wentworth Miller
Producers: Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Michael Costigan
Executive producers: Steven Rales, Mark Roybal
Director of photography: Chung-hoon Chung
Production designer: Thérèse DePrez
Music: Clint Mansell
Costume designers: Kurt Swanson, Bart Mueller
Editor: Nicolas de Toth
R rating, 100 minutes