In our most recent look at Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt (May, 2012) we noted with some hypothesis that the British filmmaker’s 1943 masterpiece of Americana was one very much drawn in the key of the vampire. As unlikely as that sounds. Imagine our surprise to discover that television actor turned pensmith Wentworth Miller had cited the Master Of Suspense’s finest two hours as his “jumping off” for his renewed look at a tale which is bound by fate (well, a title) to Bram Stoker’s famous tome, even if traditional vampirism is nary present.
It’s an unlikely project, brought to life by an even more unlikely pairing in the form of Miller and Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, who here makes his feature length debut in the English language. Park, who is perhaps best known on Western shores for his Vengeance Trilogy of Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, subtly reshapes his typical interests here with a tale concerned with the hereditary, the inherited and family. Human nature, in all of it’s guises comes under scrutiny, with an ultimately fairly straightforward central notion given impetus via self-mythology and a playful approach to filmmaking conventions.
As a stylistic exercise it’s difficult to place Stoker. Plot is certainly present, and yet Park seems to spend the greatest portion of the films running time avoiding it, for better or worse. Layered montages are present in almost every section of the film, and awkwardly punctuating the flow of the picture, which, while presumably intentional, can’t help but deliver a final product which feels distractingly staggered and unfinished. A campy melodrama, recalling David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, seeps in at times, especially during the film’s opening act, while one also felt a touch of the sensibility of Wes Anderson, and that particular filmmaker’s structured, emotionally dislocated approach to material. There are even shades of Terrence Malick’s Badlands too, thanks to elements of the subject matter (a girl, coming of age in the face of darkness), and the director’s languid approach to film form. It is perhaps Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, a film, like Stoker, that is also dependent on immigrant talent (the four central performers in Stoker are non-American, while James Mason and Peter Sellers both hail far from the Hollywood Hills) to which Park Chan-wook’s Stoker owes it’s greatest debt, with both films sharing the common line of a desire for love.
While the film impresses in a number of areas, Stoker is nothing if not a mixed bag. It’s infuriating banal at times, and at others the film is painfully over-cut, with montage creeping up more often than one might deem to be necessary, while a shoe-horned in blood analogy and an unwise prolonged emphasis on a nature TV documentary charting sibling rivalry feels a tad heavy-handed. But alas, and ultimately, it’s a moderately interesting and subtle variation on an age old tale.