There's a suggestion of vampirism in the title of "Stoker." The stylish chiller shares its name with Dracula's author, but its fixation on blood moves in a different direction - deposits, not withdrawals. The tale concerns bad blood being transfused from one generation to the next.
The blood relations in question are prim, privileged India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), whose father dies in a car crash on her 18th birthday; her icy, passive-aggressive mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman); and long-absent Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). Charlie views the funeral from afar but takes center stage at the wake. Projecting self-satisfied charm unbecoming for a bereaved sibling, he mesmerizes Evelyn and turns moody India's head, as well. Soon emotionally incestuous vibes are crackling around their old-money mansion like static electricity. Is Charlie after Evelyn and her fortune? Or India, with her promise and potential as an accomplice?
As the attractive, elegant characters inflict punishment both unsettling and horrifying, the film asks us to ponder whether evil is innate in humanity, a family trait like freckles, or a matter of learned, imitative behavior. "Just as a flower doesn't choose its color," India declares, "so we don't choose what we are going to be." In this poisoned fairy tale, it's hardly so open and shut. "Stoker" will leave you with more questions than answers - and quite a few nightmares.
The Stoker estate is almost a character unto itself, with a forbidding basement where hanging lights go a-swinging "Psycho"-style and the old freezer is just right for a body. It's not hard to predict trouble from Charlie, whose ice-pick smile and vacant, predatory eyes signal his sinister nature straightaway. It's clear his character arc is going to mimic a hatchet stroke and sure enough, people he perceives as impediments will not be reprising their roles in any sequels.
As the bodies fall, the big question is who will be the final heir of this wealthy and apparently doomed lineage. The rich, wide-ranging score provides hints. Verdi's "Il Trovatore," with themes of an abducted child and vengeance, surfaces repeatedly. The sultry Lee Hazelwood/ Nancy Sinatra duet "Summer Wine" amps up India's jealousy against Evelyn. A throbbing Philip Glass piano piece played in tandem by Charlie and India gives form to their twisted uncle-niece dynamic. Their relationship is depicted as disturbing and mutually destructive, yet granted genuinely poetic interludes. The film evokes a time when film studios were willing to invest in morally complex stories.
Renowned South Korean director Park Chan-wook's first American production has the enthralling visuals and elegantly creepy tone that have earned him the devotion of fanboys and critics alike.
His great gift is suggesting a hostile world beneath a placid surface. Balancing knuckle-gnawing anxiety and florid melodrama, he finds his characters charismatic and toxic, pathetic and frightening, absurd and overwhelmingly sad.
Kidman's performance is among her career-defining roles, and she tears into the ripe dialogue with gusto. Goode is diabolical as the suave, strangely unemotional interloper. But this is Wasikowska's film, her interpretation of youthful angst, confusion and romantic naivete shading into something dark and dreadful.
Refracted through Park's graceful filmmaking style, "Stoker" is mysterious, demanding, sometimes baffling and richly rewarding.
• Rated: R for disturbing, violent and sexual content.
• Director: Park Chan-wook.
• Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman.
• Running time: 100 minutes.