With “Stoker,” Park Chan-wook’s first English-language film, the Korean director of the 2003 cult hit “Oldboy” makes the translation to Hollywood without losing any of his visual verve. This violent psychological thriller looks fantastic, even (perhaps especially) when blood is spurting onto a cluster of Queen Anne’s Lace flowers from a neck wound caused by a pair of garden shears.
Other shots are equally impressive, if less gory: an overhead view of a bucket of tennis balls being dumped onto an empty court; a teenage girl lying on a bed surrounded by every one of the 16 pairs of saddle shoes she has ever owned; a spider crawling up that same girl’s leg as the camera follows it, pruriently.
What is it with spiders? Park makes use of this creepy image twice here, even though it has nothing to do with anything. It does, however, illustrate what’s wrong the film. “Stoker” is so in love with fetishizing creepiness that it forgets to be, you know, creepy.
Working from a script by actor Wentworth Miller (“Prison Break”), the filmmaker tries way too hard to turn something that’s just not that scary into a beautiful nightmare. Park’s first attempt to translate someone else’s story doesn’t work. The images may be haunting, but the events aren’t.
Here’s the set-up: After the death of Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney) in an apparent car accident, his brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), moves in with Richard’s widow, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and their 18-year-old daughter, India (Mia Wasikowska). Almost immediately, it’s blindingly obvious that there’s something wrong with Charlie, whom neither Evelyn nor India has ever met. He smirks and leers at his hosts like the sociopath he very clearly is, and he comes on to both of them sexually.
After a family dinner party, Charlie’s very worried-looking aunt (Jacki Weaver) presses a note reading “call me” into India’s hand. Thanks, but I would have dialed 911 the minute Charlie crossed the threshold. He’s the kind of villain that exists nowhere except in the kind of movies they stopped making years ago, for good reason. It figures that Park dresses his cast like their characters are living in 1950.
Soon, terrible, terrible things start happening.
None of these things are very frightening, or even particularly disturbing, because the people who are doing them — or having them done to them — are so darn affected. Even India, a freakshow who doesn’t like to be touched, walks around like a zombie, even when she’s stabbing a classmate with a pencil. Later, Park zooms in as India inserts the bloodied tip into her pencil sharpener. Paging Dr. Freud!
Kidman’s Evelyn is practically the only character who behaves in any remotely real fashion. And she loses all credibility simply by not having Charlie locked up 10 minutes into the story. Come to think of it, Evelyn might want to have someone check out India, too. The girl’s not right in the head.
Oh, there’s a secret revealed, but it’s not much of a mystery. Even if you can’t guess what the backstory is, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise, let alone a shock. “Stoker” plays out like a Kabuki “Macbeth”: gallons of style slathered on a story you already know by heart.
R. At Bow Tie Harbour and Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains violence, obscenity, nudity and sexuality. 92 minutes.