January 21, 2013



STOKER is the kind of swank, elegant horror movie we don’t see very often in these days of unkillable chainsaw-wielding serial killers who make awful use of human remains.  It’s chilling, more than a little crazy, and also borderline silly, all of which are part of the fun.

The film is the first English-language project by the Korean filmmaker Chan-Wook Park, who isn’t a household name in the US, but who’s achieved cult status due to his stylish, intense, and extremely violent “revenge trilogy” of Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance.  (Oldboy is being remake by Spike Lee for wide release this fall.)  Stoker, which was written by Wentworth Miller, better known for playing the guy with the escape plot tattooed on his body in Prison Break, doesn’t have the emotional impact of the Revenge Trilogy, but it’s a diverting piece of perverse terror nonetheless.

The premise is patterned after Hitchcock’s classic Shadow of a Doubt, in that there’s an adolescent protagonist (India Stoker, played by Mia Wasikowska) who finds herself enthralled by glamorous, long-lost Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) when he appears out of nowhere at her father’s wake, even though it’s increasingly clear that there’s something a little off about Uncle Charlie.  Where Stoker departs from the Hitchcock template, though (or, some might say, digs more deeply into it) that that India, while shocked, isn’t necessarily outraged by what she learns about her uncle, even when neighbors and relatives start to go missing.  She’s more bothered by the unsettling relationship between Charlie and her mother Evie (Nicole Kidman), and over time, all of this stews to a deeply disturbing boil.

Stoker doesn’t make much of a secret about where it’s going to end up, and it’s not entirely subtle about how it gets there, with many pointed close-ups of spiders and stains that intrude upon the Stokers seemingly perfect world, not to mention a weird fixation on shoes and feet.  The movie is a somewhat arch exercise in style, and it doesn’t offer the deeper satisfactions of a horror movie that engages the emotions. Still, it’s a wonderfully polished exercise.  The cinematography by Chung-Hoon Chung and production design by Therese DePrez are gorgeously precise backdrops to an ever-rising body count.  Wasikowska, who played Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, seems to embrace the chance to play a much, much darker version of a similar character, and Goode hits the right mix of insouciance and menace.  Kidman gives another of those strangely stylized performances she’s been gravitating to lately, and it works well in this context.,

Stoker is one of the few films to have arrived at Sundance already knowing it would have a theatrical release, having been produced by Fox Searchlight.  It’s scheduled for this Spring, and the recent success of Mama suggests that there’s an audience for a richer palette of horror than the axe-swinging franchises that mostly litter the genre.  It’s beautifully over the top.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."