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 remade 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.
A couple of Sundances ago, the actress/writer/producer Brit Marling was a festival darling, with two acclaimed pictures unveiled the same week. In the end, while both Another Earth and Sound of My Voice received distribution, neither found much of a mainstream audience. (Marling’s also established an acting career that included a very good turn in last year’s Arbitrage.) She’s reteamed with Zal Batmanglij, her co-writer/director on Sound, for The East, a somewhat slicker reexamination of some of their earlier themes.
As In Sound of My Voice, The East concerns infiltration into a small, secret, tightly-protected group. Instead of a religious cult, this time it’s an environmental activist cadre that stages “jams” against polluters and other evil corporate entities–and not just symbolic protests, but serious criminal actions that inflict very carefully-designed harm on the corporations and their leaders. Marling, rather than playing the head of the group as she was in Sound, is here the infiltrator, a former FBI agent named Sarah who works for a high-level security firm (run by the icy Sharon, played by Patricia Clarkson) whose corporate clients want The East stopped.
The members of The East, who include leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), Izzy (Ellen Page) and Doc (Toby Kebbell), are rightfully paranoid, and Sarah has to prove herself multiple times before she can even begin to earn their trust. Once she’s thoroughly enmeshed with them, the inevitable question becomes whether her sympathies will begin to sway to their side despite the serious consequences of their actions, or if she’ll remain a good corporate spy.
The East sets things up extremely well, with a thoroughly engrossing account of Sarah’s first encounters with The East and the interrelationships among its members. Marling and Batmanglij’s script, though, reaches a point where it becomes too concerned with knocking audiences off their feet with constant double, triple and quadruple-crosses, until by the end of the movie, there have been so many increasingly formalistic twists that the life has been sucked out of the tale. Perhaps this conveys a profound cynicism that the filmmakers intended, but it’s not very satisfying for viewers.
Nevertheless, The East is absorbing and exciting for most of its length, with a aesthetic (the photography is by Roman Vasyanov) that believably shifts from the grungy life of The East to the well-heeled environs of their victims and Sarah’s employer. The cast is very fine, with the shifting dynamics between Skarsgard and Marling particularly notable.
Presumably as part of the Sound of My Voice distribution deal, The East was put together by Fox Searchlight as well, and is scheduled to be released in theaters later this year. It adds enough to the bare-bones production values of the Marling team’s earlier films that it should be able to be marketed as more of a straightforward thriller, although it’s still likely to hold appeal mostly for an art-house audience.