The gothic fiction genre, where horror and romance come together to define and sometimes undermine the moral sensibilities of the era, originated in England and was most popular throughout Europe. Originally a literary genre, its global popularity and influence across all art forms, especially film, has been such that one of the greatest gothic fiction films of recent times is Stoker, an American written and produced film, directed by a South Korean filmmaker and starring an international cast that includes several generations of Australian talent. And like so many of the best genre films, it undermines and takes the conventions into new territory.
The title Stoker alludes to Irish author Bram Stoker whose 1897 novel Dracula is one of the definitive gothic fiction texts. Dracula is the story of a predator, using vampiric violence as a metaphor for sex, and depending on interpretation it explores a variety of sexual anxieties of the era concerned with men, women and mysterious foreigners. Stoker is not a vampire film, but it shares some of the eroticism and bodily horror that director Park Chan-wook explored in his previous film Thirst (2009), which provided its own spin on the sex/violence symbolism of vampire mythology. In Stoker, violence as a trigger for sexual awakening is a major theme and like Thirst Park relies on the sound design to convey desire making every breath of air or sip of wine the soundtrack for lust and bloodlust.
The predator character in Stoker is Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode), who on the day of his brother’s funeral turns up to stay with his dead brother’s wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and her daughter India (Mia Wasikowska). There is no doubt about Charlie’s sinister intent as when India glimpses him standing in the distance he looks like Norman Bates from Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) standing in silhouette next to the hotel. As Charlie ingrains himself into the lives of his brother’s widow and his niece, and starts digging up the garden, the film sets the stage for the oncoming nastiness.
The figure at the centre of the film is India who like many female heroes of gothic fiction is a young woman on the cusp of sexual awakening. The film and Charlie are obsessed with her age, reminding the audience that she turned eighteen on the day her father died. She always receives an identical pair of black-and-white schoolgirl Oxford shoes for her birthday, which increasingly become fetish objects that define her youth. She appears tiny against the large furniture in the house she lives in. As Charlie opens a bottle of wine he comments that it is young and ‘not ready to be opened’ at a stage in the film where it is clear he has plans for India now that she is of age.
India’s sexuality and how Charlie influences it is a central theme in Stoker. Initially India is portrayed as conservative and puritanical while Evelyn is sexual and open to Charlie’s seductive presence. However, like Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), Charlie is using the mother to get to the daughter and manipulates every moment to sway India from repulsion, to jealously to forbidden desire. Much is made of India’s sexuality from the mystery of what happened to the shoes she was supposed to receive on her eighteenth birthday to the close-up of the water dripping between her feet after having come in from the rain. She unlocks a box full of family secrets, which possesses all the symbolism of Pandora’s Box in terms of it containing both the evils of the world and female sexuality. And then there are the repeated shots of a spider crawling up her leg and in-between her thighs at precise moments in the film. Meanwhile, Charlie is frequently associated with the buzzing sound of a fly.
Not everything is what it seems in Stoker and its strength lies in how much it undermines expectations by taking a revisionist approach to gothic fiction conventions. The film never pulls the rug from beneath the audience, but it gently slides it out so that the audience can go along for the ride and accept the film seems to be one thing, but turns out to be something else. A key line of dialogue occurs early when Charlie comments that India has the advantage by physically standing on the stairs below him. Throughout the film India does physically appear lower than other people, just like her status as a young virginal girl makes her of traditionally lower status in gothic fiction. However, her uncle is right, she has the advantage and throughout Stoker it becomes apparent that a lot of generic conventions are being turned upside down so that the young virginal girl is not the victim she is often cast to be.
Stoker is about an awakening within India; an awakening triggered by Charlie, but not in the way he anticipates. The film begins with a flashforward where India narrates that she is wearing her father’s belt, mother’s blouse and uncle’s shoes and by the end of the film it is clear what these objects mean and how the different members of her family are part of who she is. Stoker almost feels like an origin story or a prequel to another popular genre, while remaining a more subversive than usual spin on gothic fiction conventions.
The blend of sexuality and violence of gothic fiction is right at the forefront of Stoker even if it mostly exists off-screen or through implication. Similar to the way that David Cronenberg’s films have moved from the visceral to the psychological, Stoker heralds a similar transition for Park. His meticulous framing and visual composition are more than evident in Stoker, but the transgressive thrills mostly occur under the surface in the psychological realm. This interior focus is effectively alluded to in the art class scene where instead of painting flowers in a vase, India paints the intricate pattern on the inside of the vase. And throughout Stoker the audience is in her intricate, violent and sexual interior world. It is a disturbing place to be in the most wicked and wonderful way possible.