Don’t let the title fool you—this psychological thriller has nothing to do with the father of vampire literature, Bram Stoker. Yet there is something fitting about this connection, for the title invites the same Gothic sensibility, which is very present in this macabre movie.
The film’s namesake is India Stoker, a troubled girl whose father dies in a car wreck on her eighteenth birthday. Mystery envelops the nature of this accident when an uncle she never knew she had shows up at the funeral, and India’s equally-troubled mother (brought to life by Nicole Kidman) invites him to stay with them in their rustic, woodland house. It would appear that Uncle Charlie has spent the last eighteen years traveling the world—yet something about him is not quite right, evidenced by India’s great aunt, who tries to warn them of something before she disappears.
Initially, the plot takes a Hamlet-esque turn as the thoughtful and melancholy India observes Uncle Charlie successfully wooing her mother. Disturbed by the strange, almost-but-not-quite-incestuous relationship, the girl who is afraid of being touched runs off to recreate her mother and uncle’s makeout session with a boy from school, who has stood up for her in the face of outrageous bullies. The encounter takes a turn for the worst when we learn the boy isn’t actually the nice guy he appears, and Uncle Charlie comes to her dark and gruesome rescue. Though India has been extremely distrustful of him so far, their bond is now cemented by a terrible secret.
The mystery surrounding Uncle Charlie begins to unravel after an awful discovery in their basement freezer, as well as a stack of letters India finds hidden away in her father’s desk. There is more to the letters than it initially appears. I won’t give too much away, because the revelations are so well sequenced as the tension mounts to a violent climax.
It’s rare to find such an artful horror movie, and it is here that Stoker rises above most other horror fare by leaps and bounds. Some might be hesitant to categorize it as such, but it deftly covers many horror tropes in a visually-stunning, engrossing hour and a half. I argue that this is not only horror, but it is what horror should strive to be. Folks, this is a horror movie done right: a movie that shows us that not all horror must be cheap, gore-filled trash, but rather there is such a thing as artistic, moving horror—something that I, personally, try to emulate in my writing.
Stoker really succeeds on all levels: stylistic editing, Gothic visuals, a clever script, spot-on acting, and a truly haunting piano score (I can’t stress how important music is in horror movies). Though the few schoolmates we meet are a bit painfully over the top, that’s easily forgiven in light of the artistry at work in the movie. Nicole Kidman is a perfect emotionally-distant yet somehow neglected mother, and Mia Wasikowska provides great depth to what might otherwise be a one-dimensional troubled teen character.
Hey, Hollywood: are you listening? This is what you need to emulate if you want to create a brilliant horror movie. Stop relying on cheap shocks. The insidious draw of this movie trumps any jump scares you might throw at us.
Plot: 9 out of 10 mysterious shoeboxes
Acting: 9 out of 10 mysterious shoeboxes
Visuals: 10 out of 10 mysterious shoeboxes
Music: 10 out of 10 mysterious shoeboxes
Scare factor: 7 out of 10 mysterious shoeboxes
Overall: 9 out of 10 mysterious shoeboxes
*Please note that I watched this movie on a plane, and it was edited for content. Apparently, they cut out at least one entire scene, so I’ll have to see the full unedited version—but it didn’t feel as though I was missing anything when I watched.