Back in 2011, when Stoker was announced as Park Chan-wook’s debut American feature, the notion that he would continue in the tradition set forth by his 2009 vampire film Thirst, appeared plausible. But as details on the picture began to surface, details on its narrative began to draw parallels to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of Doubt. The two descriptions aren’t too far off, with Stoker adhering to some of the principle details of Hitchcock’s film while embracing the vampire lore of Bram Stoker’s gothic novel. But most of all, Stoker is Park Chan-wook’s most aggressive effort as a stylist – a perpetual exercise in visualizing the bizarre and ultraviolent.
Stoker rarely adheres to any specific narrative thread. The spider motif that Chan-wook adopts serves to underscore how individual scenes simply function as one strand of a larger web –sequences pack a visceral wallop even as the larger tapestry lacks cohesion. This becomes clear through its rather manic editing – at times jarring, at other times wonderfully realized, Stoker’s inconsistencies may actually aide the picture in achieving its tonally haunting presence. Simply put: the whole film is odd. Oddly structure and removed from any kind of time and space. Certain technological markers keep the film footed in the present – otherwise, much of the picture registers as something found in Bram Stoker’s novel.
Blood, in the kinship sense, is the overarching thematic element that occupies Stoker’s runtime – can one find a piece of themselves run through the blood of a total stranger? The idea is somewhat half-baked; largely as writers Wentworth Miller and Erin Wilson introduce elements of sexual discovery, the outlets in which individuals release their aggression, and incest. Thematically, the whole picture is a hodgepodge of ideas, none that are ever particularly realized. But the way in which the film comes together with these strands of thoughts makes for something of an interesting, if not noble, effort.
Having a stylist like Park Chan-wook helming the material is undoubtedly the most crucial aspect to the film’s modest success. A viscerally engaging director with the ability to take material that relishes in the uncomfortable affords Stoker a measure of success – in the hands of any other director I can imagine some of the film’s unpleasant material losing impact. Chan-wook, a director whose work I truly admire, with films like the aforementioned Thirst, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, has a distinctive visual sensibility that does not get lost in translation. But it’s when constructing a narrative does Stoker lacks clarity and force.