Stoker (2013)

2015 #162
Park Chan-wook | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

Director Chan-wook “Oldboy” Park makes his English-language debut with this modern-Gothic thriller from the pen of Wentworth “yes, the guy from Prison Break” Miller.

When well-to-do architect Richard Stoker dies on his daughter’s 18th birthday, he leaves said insular daughter India (Mia “Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland” Wasikowska) stuck in their Tennessee mansion with her unbeloved mother (Nicole “the face behind the nose” Kidman). At the wake, both are surprised by the arrival of Charlie (Matthew “Ozymandias” Goode), Richard’s brother who Evelyn has never met and India has never even heard of. Nonetheless, he’s all charm and good manners, though when he moves into their home he begins to build up a slightly creepy relationship with Evelyn, and essentially stalks India. The Stokers’ housekeeper clearly knowns something about him, but then she disappears; and Richard and Charles’ Aunt Gwendolyn turns up wanting a word with Evelyn. Just what is going on with Uncle Charlie that everyone apart from India seems to know about?

And I’ve already said too much, maybe. Stoker isn’t all about its mystery and its twists — it’s at least as much about its carefully constructed Gothic mood; but part of that is the mystery, so, y’know. Indeed, it’s so moody and atmospheric that it seems to turn some viewers off. It’s certainly not thrill-a-minute, and it has a very particular pace and tone. I’m going to keep coming back to the word Gothic, because that really is the best word for it; whether that should be “modern Gothic” or “neo-Gothic” or “Southern Gothic” or what, I don’t know, but it’s definitely Gothic — with little more than cosmetic changes, I’m sure the story could be shunted back to a crumbling pile in 19th Century England. So precise is the mood of this secluded household, it’s kind of weird when, a little while in, we get to see India’s place of education: a typical US high school. In another film I might call this sudden change of locale a misstep, a breaker of tone, but in the world Park has created it just feels like a point of contrast.

Visually, Stoker is peerless. It doesn’t scream “beauty” at you, but the shot composition, Chung-hoon Chung’s photography, and Nicolas De Toth’s editing are all exceptional. The sound design is incredible too, with judicious use of ultra-heightened effects to imitate India’s skill for hearing small things others maybe miss. Finally, the music is perfection. A piano duet composed by Philip Glass is one of the film’s most memorable sequences, but Clint Mansell offers a doom-laden score, of a piece with his work on Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain (both of which I think I’ve written of my admiration for sometime previously), and there are some choice songs too: I’d never heard Summer Wine by Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood before, but it fits the film like a glove, as well as being fantastic in its own right; and Emily Wells’ Becomes the Color slugs in with a kind of perfect dissonance to the musical style to that point. A comment on iCheckMovies used the word “sumptuous” for all of this, and that seems apt.

I have a feeling “not for everyone” may be one of the most overused phrases on this blog, but, if so, I think that’s for good reason: some of the best movies are “not for everyone”. We may not agree on what those movies are, but that’s kind of the point: they fit our own individual tastes, not “everyone’s”. Stoker undoubtedly doesn’t have easy mass appeal — it’s got a 6.9 on IMDb — and even some people open to its charms deem it to only be style over substance. I don’t think it’s wholly lacking in the latter, though if you’re looking for some Significance then I don’t know if you’ll find it — it’s an artistically-made Gothic thriller, not a soul-bearing artistic portrait of humanity. And as for the style… well, I’ve already talked about that. Whether you can have “style” for style’s sake, or whether it needs to be in aid of something, is a debate for another day. Here, it is in aid of something: amping up the Gothicism of the inherently Gothic story, which in other hands could have just became any-old present-day-set family thriller.

Describing something as “an acquired taste” might well be another phase I’ve used often, especially as it’s essentially a synonym for “not for everyone”. Nonetheless, that’s what I’ll go for here. Stoker will most decidedly not appeal to all palates, but for the right viewer, it’s a dark, moody, sensuous, Gothic delight.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Stoker is on Film4 tomorrow, Friday 30th, at 9pm.

It placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

2013 #91
Charles Laughton | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA / English | 12

The [box office] failure of The Night of the Hunter was not, forty-five years ago, much remarked upon: it was a modestly budgeted picture, a little thing in Hollywood terms. But it has drifted slowly, steadily down the river of the years between then and now, and the long flow of time has brought it to a better place, where critics and filmmakers and moviegoers honor it

The Night of the HunterBox office gross is one of the methods most often used to summarise a film’s success and standing, and yet it’s one of the most useless markers of quality — and quotes like the above, from Terrence Rafferty in his article “Holy Terror” for Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Night of the Hunter (and available online here), prove why. This is an exceptional film, by turns beautiful, funny, and not merely scary, but terrifying. If Hollywood movies can be art — and I think we know they can — then this is surely a foremost example.

Based on the 1953 Southern Gothic novel by Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter sees convict Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) attempt to find the hidden robbery haul of his former cellmate, by inveigling his way into the man’s family posing as a preacher. While the mother (Shelley Winters) falls for the lies, her young son John (Billy Chapin) is more suspicious, and tries to protect himself and his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), while keeping the money hidden.

The story is largely told from John’s perspective. It’s a big tale to put on small shoulders, full of complex emotions and sometimes difficult themes (per Rafferty, “those venerable American subjects: fear, sex, money, and religion”), but Chapin bears it well. I guess this is one of the reasons why groups including the BFI recommend it as a must-see for kids. Although it’s dark and grim, it rarely wavers from the John’s point of view — it’s an induction into the harshness of the adult world for the two young siblings; a harshness the sweet, innocent community they come from does nothing to prepare them for.

Perceiving a knifeIn another piece in Criterion’s booklet, “Downriver and Heavenward with James Agee” (online here), Michael Sragow reckons the film is a “meshing of adult sensibilities with childhood perceptions”. I couldn’t have put it better myself (hence the quote). John is also the only one to see the truth of Powell — as, of course, do we — which completely ties in to how it can feel to be both a child and an older sibling: adults are dumb and don’t see the truth that children do; and younger siblings need protecting because they can be easily persuaded to the adults’ side (as Pearl almost is). Although it’s a tough film in many ways, this depiction of childhood, and at least one aspect, the loss of innocence that comes when you realise the world isn’t all fluffy and safe, is well captured.

Don’t think it’s too kid-friendly, though. Rafferty asserts that it’s “among the greatest horror movies ever made”, while Sragow thinks it’s the “intimate observations of the children’s psychology” we just discussed that “make the suspense almost unbearable.” Without once resorting to blatant horror techniques, the film builds a quiet and implacable sense of fear. The overall effect is one less of terror and more dread. It’s best described as chilling, which is so much scarier than the occasional jump.

Love-hate relationshipAnd yet, as Rafferty explains, “the most radical aspect of The Night of the Hunter… is its sense of humor. More conventional horror movies overdo the solemnity of evil. The monster in The Night of the Hunter is so bad he’s funny. Laughton and Mitchum treat evil with the indignity it deserves.” I wouldn’t say that humour is one of the film’s defining characteristics, to be honest, but it does undercut its villain. He’s not some unstoppable supernatural creature, but a man who can trip over while chasing you up the stairs, and so on. In some respects it’s this very ordinariness that makes him so scary: however much they creep you out during the film itself, you know there’s no such thing as vampires or werewolves or ghosts. There are Powells in the world, though; an everyday evil that you might not see coming, but can still get you. Brr.

It’s also stunningly shot — not just beautiful, but routinely incredible. It has imagery that instantly sears itself on your brain, with gorgeous lighting and perfect composition. Whatever else the film has to offer (and that’s a lot), it’s exceptional just to look at. That it’s the sole directorial effort from Charles Laughton may be a crying shame, because on this evidence — not just the pictures, of course, but the entire picture — we’ve missed out.

A long nightIn my 2013 top-ten, I described The Night of the Hunter as “darker than a long night of the soul”. That’s too good an expression to not repeat, partly because I think it sounds good, and partly because I can’t think of another way to succinctly summarise the film’s unique feel. I’m not convinced it’s a great film for children, not because they need protecting from the darkness of the world, but because it’s almost too good — it’s a great portrait of childhood, but perhaps one best appreciated in hindsight. Maybe that’s just because I haven’t seen it until adulthood. Whenever you catch it, this is a film of dread, fear, cruelty, and near-peerless beauty.

5 out of 5

The Night of the Hunter was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2013, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.