Disturbingly creepy "Stoker" full of beautifully gothic style

Stoker (2013)
99 min., rated R.

Foreign directors often take time to find their footing in Hollywood by making junky genre pictures, but not Park Chan-wook. Never lacking nerve or dark subject matter, his English-language debut "Stoker" is so assured and strange and perversely disturbing. Internationally known for his "Vengeance Trilogy" of thematically linked films—2002's "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," 2003's "Oldboy," and 2005's "Lady Vengeance"—the South Korean filmmaker has fashioned a cool, deliciously sinister American Gothic psychosexual horror-thriller and some sort of twistedly macabre coming-of-age fairy tale. Though it's not what one would call an empty film, this is visual storytelling at its most breathtaking, substance ultimately taking a backseat to mood and style. Make that great style.

Mia Wasikowska is India Stoker, a pale, sullen high school loner who's just turned 18 and expects her annual boxed present of saddle shoes from her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney). That same day, Dad dies in a car accident. At the funeral, Dad's younger brother known as Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she never knew existed, shows up from doing business in Europe and prolongs his stay in the house with India and her icy, distant mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). He's handsome and charming, albeit mysterious, and begins spending time with Evelyn, but India doesn't like to be touched and has no intention of being Charlie's friend. Incidentally, just as Charlie starts getting cozy in the Stoker home, a housekeeper mysteriously leaves town and his Aunt Gwen (Jacki Weaver) disappears. Will India distance herself or grow up to be just like good 'ol Uncle Charlie? Maybe it's just in the Stoker bloodline that everyone gets a little mad sometimes.

TV's "Prison Break" actor Wentworth Miller makes his screenwriting debut with a script that owes great debt to Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt." Not only is there a bored teenage girl and a mysterious "Uncle Charlie" walking into said girl's life, there are traces of mordant wit and taboo-breaking in the Hitchcockian vein. (Although, as far as the latter is concerned, the Master of Suspense has never framed an erotically charged piano-playing duet or linked masturbation and murder.) Chan-wook even throws in some cute visual cues with stuffed birds, a motel, and an unharmed insect, all subtle homages to "Psycho." The story itself keeps teasing us about who Uncle Charlie really isWas he really in Europe? Why does he like digging up the soft soil in the front yard?—until revelations are finally laid out in unsettling, demented flashback. Its characters are hard to pin down, but boy, are the Stokers intriguing.

If it offered no deeper meaning beyond the plot, "Stoker" would still be an exquisitely photographed and fetishistically art-directed husk of a movie. Fortunately, the actors translate the dark, gray areas of human nature with blank stares and gestures that fill in the gaps for dialogue. Only ever smiling when cracking wise to spite Mom or putting on a face to a cop, Wasikowska is effective in the role of India, a young woman whose uncle's arrival signals her adulthood and metamorphosis into her true self. Goode, an often-forgotten actor, terrifically blends seductive charm and chilling menace without ever going the hammy, bug-eyed route. Working with what's mostly a one-note character on paper, Kidman is emotionally frosty but still vulnerable as Evelyn, delivering a quietly tense monologue where she lets India have it ("Personally speaking, I can't wait to watch life tear you apart," Evelyn says). Supporting roles are well-filled by Weaver, whose character might hold a few answers to Charlie's closet skeletons, and Alden Ehrenreich, having recently fallen in love with a pale outcast in "Beautiful Creatures," as a jock who might desire the odd India.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Chan-wook seduces (and impresses) with his stunningly beautiful, borderline show-offy artistic style, visual motifs, and poetic deftness in every shot. Every inch of the film seems to have been designed with care and a painterly eye that even the murders are directed like love scenes (a tip the director takes out of Hitchcock's book), sexual tension turning to cold-blooded murder on a few occasions. One would be remiss not to give kudos to cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung and editor Nicolas De Troth, who both put in stylistically complex work. Swinging overhead lights in the dark, ominous cellar (another nod to "Psycho" perhaps?) cut to an illuminated Evelyn and Charlie upstairs. A shot of an egg transitions into India's eye. Evelyn's brushed hair dissolves into blades of grass where India and her father used to take their beloved hunting excursions. Sound design, too, is aces, from the nails-on-a-chalkboard-like cracking of a hard-boiled egg being rolled on a table to the sounds of a pencil being sharpened.

Made with tension and elegant restraint, "Stoker" is more of a thinking man's horror film. It's shocking without being cheap and the shocks are more akin to someone breathing down your neck than jumping out to say "boo!" Definitely not for all tastes, this would make Alfred Hitchcock proud and will make Brian De Palma green with envy.

Grade: B +