Visually stunning and thick with sex/death metaphors, Stoker is a challenging, sumptuous film. Not only does it leave you wondering who the villain of the horror story truly is, but you’re left curious what kind of villain is doing the haunting. The movie is a gothic incestuous tale of deranged familial inheritance, classic vampire and serial killer storytelling weaves its way throughout while dark fetishes turn cruel acts of terror seductive and beautiful. Who is the blood nourishing? Why does the evil exist?
The movie begins with death when a wealthy father, Richard Stoker, dies suddenly, and his mysterious brother, Charlie, returns from travelling abroad to care for the grieving mother and daughter Richard left behind. Matthew Goode is both charming and frightening as the lecherous, deranged Uncle Charlie, and nobody plays a fragile porcelain doll as well as Nicole Kidman, who delivers a chilling monologue in the final act of the film that reminds me why I pledged my eternal devotion to Nicole, way back in 1992. It also proves that first-time writer Wentworth Miller is an outstanding talent. The performance that held me most captive though was Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker, the morbid mourning daughter. I’m hard on Mia. I think she’s been given acting opportunities based on performances that haven’t met her potential. I could see it blooming in her performances in Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre, and Lawless, but it never sparked until Stoker. In this film, she proves herself as strong a performer as her contemporaries: Carey Mulligan, Jennifer Lawrence, Rooney Mara. She effortlessly keeps up with Nicole Kidman, looks disturbingly similiar to Claire Danes in 1995, and, as much as I worship at the breathy, damaged altar of Nicole Kidman, Mia is the one who bewitched me.
The story got me thinking about the types of girls who are represented in coming-of-age stories – the whip-smart, strange, unusually beautiful girls. As I ruminated, I split them into categories: The Nymphet (Lolita; Lux Lisbon in The Virgin Suicides; Alicia Silverstone in the mid-90s), The Tiny Bad-ass (Mathilda in Leon; Chloe Moretz in Kick-Ass), The Lusty Awkward Girl (Winona Ryder in Mermaids; Claire Danes in My So Called Life, Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles, Dawn Wiener in Welcome to the Dollhouse), and The Macabre Eccentric (Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle; Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice, Cecilia Lisbon in The Virgin Suicides).
India is a classic example of the macabre eccentric. I love these girls so much. They’re disarmingly smart and confident, they’re aware of their beauty, but they don’t use it, instead choosing to button it up and guard it like a sheathed weapon. They love anguish, yet they cannot externalize their own pain. They often have a caretaker, someone who gently inserts light into their shadowed world. India’s caretaker was her father. He recognized her darkness and brightened it with affection and acceptance. When taken from her, India flounders, left in a world of people who constantly ask, “What’s wrong with you?”
Growing up I so desperately wanted to be that girl. I had a piece of her inside me when I was very young, but she was overwhelmed by my awkward lustiness. I couldn’t own my eccentricities, I had no one who affirmed my strange compulsions by allowing me to be myself and never wonder what was wrong with me. Not that I don’t love the girl I became. I traded Wednesday Addams for Tina Belcher, and while I remained death-obsessed, I became incapable of buttoning up or internalizing. Every emotion released itself via aching tears smearing poorly applied cosmetics or enthusiastic guffaws, often shamed silent, but never for long. Shame entered my world sexually as well and I fervently prayed away a lust that only deepened as I matured. I couldn’t methodically button-up my lasciviousness, I needed to be looked at, affirmed, touched.
All these character types mature a different way, and some bleed into other categories, and other categories certainly exist, but many women are represented by these categories in film and literature. Which girl were you? Which girl did you want to be? Which girl still lives inside you?
With still set photography taken by Mary Ellen Mark, and beautiful direction by Oldboy’s Chan-wook Park, Stoker is intoxicating to absorb visually. Below is a collection of images from the film that best display how beautifully colour, costume, and set mingle to contribute important symbols to this quietly disturbing horror story.