Park Chan-wook takes his time terrifying an audience. At the beginning of Stoker, his first film made in Hollywood, his heroine shares some reflections on growing up while the camera lingers on lovely red blossoms by the roadside. When Park returns to the image at the end of the film, it packs a wallop. For some, the wait may be too long. Here revenge is not just served cold; it's practically frozen. But the power of the dream-like imagery lingers, and the horror felt is not visceral, but metaphysical.
Park narrates with wry obliqueness, many flashbacks, and bold visual links. I can't think of a recent film with as many match cuts, and certainly none this poetic. Teenaged India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), never an easy child, becomes impossible when her father dies in a car crash. She fetishizes saddle shoes, refuses to be sociable at her 18th birthday party, and studies The Encyclopedia of Funerals and Mourning. "Don't be morbid," her flighty mother, Evie (Nicole Kidman), says. This is hardly surprising, though, when you consider India's favorite pastime used to be hunting with dad and stuffing the kill for trophies.
Then a specter appears on the edge of the cemetery at her father's burial, almost like her own bad thought. It's Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who, like his namesake in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, comes out of nowhere, ingratiates himself instantly, and is up to no good. Evie clings to the stranger. India is ambivalent; she's suspicious, but curious, too, especially when people start getting murdered.
This all takes place at the spooky Stoker estate, and Park seems to be using his cultural unfamiliarity to an advantage, creating a witty, menacing landscape of the mind. Reminiscent sometimes of David Lynch, sometimes of Charles Addams, Stoker has tonal troubles. Shot for shot, though, it has few rivals in evoking the terror and delight of a deranged mind.