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Catching Up On 2013: Stoker

Stoker

You know how there are certain actors you’re such a big fan of that you feel like you could watch them read the phone book, and you’d still be incredibly interested and entertained?

If you’re asking me, the same applies for filmmakers, and Park Chan-wook (or Chan-wook Park, if you prefer) is one of those filmmakers for me; a guy who could film a phone book, and make it both incredibly interesting and entertaining. And there’s only one other filmmaker who I feel that way about; Quentin Tarantino.

Like Tarantino, Park Chan-wook is a guy who was clearly born to make movies, and that shows in every single frame of every single movie he’s ever made. Never do I feel like I’m in better hands than when I sit down to watch a movie made by one of those guys, as they just have a certain way of telling stories that is – in my personal opinion – so far above and beyond what anyone else is doing, either in Hollywood or outside of the Hollywood system.

Released last year, Stoker is the latest film from Park Chan-wook, who has in the past brought us incredible Korean films such as Oldboy and the vampire love story Thirst. His very first English-language feature, Stoker is the story of the Stoker family, a mother and teenage daughter who are at the start of the film grieving the loss of the family’s patriarch. Their lives are turned upside down and inside out when the late Richard Stoker’s brother Charles comes into town… and to say anything more than that about the plot would quite frankly be spoiling the puzzle-box nature of this little Hitchcockian gem.

As big of a fan as I am of Chan-wook’s work, I must admit to being a little hesitant about this one, going in. Not only is Stoker the Korean filmmaker’s first English-language film, but it’s also the first film of his that he himself didn’t write. In the past I’ve seen many filmmakers lose themselves in the work of other writers and – in the case of foreign filmmakers – in the transition to making films for American audiences, and I couldn’t help but be worried that both of these factors would result in Stoker not quite feeling like a Park Chan-wook film.

Hindsight is of course 20/20, and in retrospect, this was a completely foolish fear to have. Stoker is absolutely oozing with that unique Park Chan-wook style, and if these are the kinds of film he’s going to be making here in America, then I for one hope that he continues making films here in America. Doing so would prevent the desire for less-talented American filmmakers to remake his movies for American audiences, which is all the more reason that I’m all for Chan-wook making the transition to American cinema.

While Oldboy will perhaps forever be his grand masterpiece, Stoker is without question a mini-masterpiece of its own, the kind of elegant and classy horror film that’s typically accompanied by subtitles. The script is excellent and the actors are all top notch, but it’s Chan-wook’s directing that really shines in this one, as he uses the camera to tell a story that’s perhaps even more enthralling and interesting than the story itself.

I’m not even sure how to describe Chan-wook’s directing style, or why I am so in love with it, but there’s just something about the way he moves the camera that makes his movies so visually appealing. Simple actions like a girl laying in bed with a bunch of shoes, a man taking off his belt and a daughter brushing her mother’s hair become beautiful pieces of art in the hands of Park Chan-wook, and there were several moments throughout the movie where I was quite frankly in awe of what I was watching. True, that’s nothing new for a Chan-wook film, but I am continually impressed by his ability to draw me into stories and make my eyes go wide, my butt slide to the edge of my seat and my jaw drop down to my chest. The sign of a true artist, and a guy that was born to do this for a living.

While I have no doubts that a lesser filmmaker would’ve turned the script into a much lesser movie, I don’t in the least mean that as a dig at the script, which is as top notch as American horror screenplays were in 2013. The man who penned the script was Wentworth Miller, who you may remember from the hit TV show Prison Break. Making a transition from actor to screenwriter is no easy task, to say the least, and the fact that Stoker is Miller’s first produced screenplay – and is so damn good – makes that transition doubly impressive.

Stoker is at the end of the day a coming-of-age story, about an odd young girl who only discovers who she truly is in the wake of her father’s passing, and it’s one that I can guarantee Alfred Hitchcock would’ve been proud of. Plenty of Hitchcock-influenced writers try to write scripts that Hitchcock would’ve written, and very few succeed in that mission. Admirably, that’s a mission that Miller very much succeeded in, and Chan-wook’s impeccable directing guides us through all that mystery and intrigue in an absolutely breathtaking fashion.

Also must give props to the cast, who shine as bright as Miller and Chan-wook do. Nicole Kidman is as good as she needs to be as the mother who has no idea what’s really going on, while Mia Wasikowska is an absolute delight as young India Stoker. Wasikowka is an actress well beyond her years, and her performance turns the dialogue on the page into one of the more interesting female characters in recent years. As for Matthew Goode, he brings a whole lot of Anthony Perkins into the role of Charles Stoker, a soft-spoken man with boyish good looks that you kinda can’t help but like… even though you know he’s up to no good. Norman Bates, anyone?

A mesmerizing story about human nature, and coming to grips with who you really are, Stoker is without a doubt one of the best horror films of 2013, possibly even the best. Even when it’s horrifying, the film is absolutely beautiful to behold, and it’s further confirmation that Park Chan-wook is one of the very best living filmmakers we’ve got. Ultimately, it’s the incredible way he presents the slowly-evolving story that makes it such a special one, and I hope that anyone who missed it last year doesn’t let another day go by without experiencing it this year.

Stoker is horror cinema at its finest, and you owe it to yourself to enjoy it. God knows us horror fans spend enough time watching crappy movies, but it’s all worth it when you watch a movie like this.

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If you don't get enough of me here on Halloween Love, you can also find me on Dread Central, iHorror and Shock Till You Drop. Contact me via john@halloweenlove.com.