In Park Chan-Wook’s first English language film Stoker, artifice and control collide in dizzyingly sadistic and stylish fashion. Fashion being the operative word, as costume design plays an intrinsic part in the story telling of this American Gothic psycho-chiller.
“Just as a flower does not choose its colour, we are not responsible for what we have come to be. Only once you realise this do you become free.”
Mia Wasikowska plays India Stoker, a sulkily withdrawn but free-spirited young woman on the cusp of womanhood, living with her WASP-y lush mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman, having a ball playing a faded belle). Their house on the hill is not a gloomy Transylvanian pile, but rather a Southern mansion, always flooded with deceptively bright light. India’s beloved father dies in a mysterious car crash on her 18th birthday, leading to a visit from a mysterious shaded figure watching the funeral from the sidelines – her heretofore unknown preppy uncle, his brother Charlie (Matthew Goode).
Evelyn perks up with Charlie around, inviting him to stay, to India’s distaste (“He reminds me of your father. When he was…young.”). Charlie sets his sights on both women in a simmering cauldron of pent-up desires, and deathly delights. The hyper-sensatory India bucks against Charlie’s intrusions at first then becomes silently complicit in his killing, awakening the murderous soul and longings tamped down beneath her knife-pleated skirts and slip dresses. But any idea that this modern vampire will take her as his bride is woefully misjudged – what she is becoming, as she sheds her utilitarian, ubiquitous saddle-shoes she’s worn all her life for the crocodile skin Louboutins he slips her feet into, is something all her own…
Stoker is a successful fusion of various influences and nods, everything from the hot-house atmosphere of Tennessee Williams, the mannered glacial beauty of Belle De Jour, through to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, re the mysterious Uncle Charlie, and its many staircase set-tos. All shot through with a mordant humour all of its own (It has the best use of a pencil as lethal weapon since The Dark Knight, with a bloody sharpener curlicue post script).
You see, Charley isn’t really a dashing gad – about who’s been travelling the world all of India’s young life. Just as she has grown up in splendid isolation, so has he, in the rubber room kind. After being locked out of the family for a heinous crime at a young, jealous age, he’s developed an unhealthy, warped obsession with his only niece. The flat heeled saddle shoes India wears exclusively, an identical pair for every year of her life, were not wrapped treasure hunt gifts bequeathed by her father as she believes, but instead sent by Charley. She’s retained every pair, along with the boxes they came in.
By swapping the flat, plain two-tone shoes for vampy heels, India is echoing plaid-skirted, tongue-twisting schoolgirl Audrey Horne’s transformation in cult TV show Twin Peaks. What she doesn’t discover until she later raids her father’s study are the illustrated letters Charley sent, in flawless copper plate, detailing his adventures across the globe – letters that all originate from the same secure facility…
Charley and India are soul mates in his mind, she just needs a little push. In fact, we see they both share a dreamy “snow angel” moment – hers on the bed, in time to the metronome after she‘s an accessory to Charley’s killing of the high school jock who took offence at her bloody version of “heavy petting” – his as a child upon the scene of his original crime.
Charley wears crisp white shirts, a mustard v-neck cashmere sweater, khaki chinos and two-tone brogues, like a simulacrum of a collegiate dandy, something he read about in one of his many books. He also wears the father’s sunglasses, to India’s suspicion. With his wide-eyed direct gaze, yet frozen smile, there are hints of the fragile mummy-boy killer beneath the façade. Much to India’s disgust, in a battle of wills school run montage, her classmates squeal as he tailgates the school bus in his open top Jag.
Goode considered Stoker not to be a vampire film, “but there are things that are similar, in the fact that he’s trapped in the past, and he never really grew up. There’s almost an innocence to him.”
The film’s costume designers spoke to Clothes on Film about Evelyn being “a tight bulb that opens and blossoms with the attention of Uncle Charlie” – going from subdued funeral garb to a peacock blue killer dress and signature jewels, with all the feminine florals and sheer fabrics in between. Her look was deliberately asymmetrical to contrast with India’s own obsessive nature and “soft, geometric look”.
Almost all of India’s high waisted skirts have pockets, to reflect the connection between her and Uncle Charley, who often leans on the car or a wall, hands in pockets, always waiting. Ironically, in view of Wasikowska’s casting in both films, her pin-tucked, flat fronted blouses and wide pleated skirts suggest an Alice In Wonderland feel. The dark fairy tale vibe also highlighted by odd touches, like a tiny spider scuttling up India’s stockinged leg.
The interiors of the house, apart from the women’s bedrooms, are dominated by shades of green. Along with much bird imagery, suggesting a nest or egg shell India is about to hatch from, but not as an innocent…
The camera pans from an extreme close-up of Evelyn’s hair being brushed by her daughter, slowly changing to an aerial view of long reeds beside a lake. Within them we see India lie perfectly still with her father, bird hunting, rifle in hands. The only time she moves quickly is when she kills. And as she bloodily does so at the climax, she breaks the ties that bind, casually dressing in her mother’s loose blouse, her father’s oversize belt (which Charley slipped off to strangle her mother), adding the Louboutins as an afterthought and nodding approvingly at the sharpened garden shears on the passenger seat. Sweeping out of the cold and lonely country pile in Charley’s Jaguar, an unwitting Sheriff asks if she knows how fast she was travelling. “Effectively fast, Mister Sheriff…To get your attention…”