In 1954 William March published “The Bad Seed,” a National Book Award-nominated juggernaut that immediately spawned a Tony Award and Pulitzer-nominated play, as well as a Oscar-nominated film. March died within a month of publication, never to see how deeply his story about a child with a propensity for murder would grip the nation’s collective imagination.
Stoker opens on the immediate aftermath of the death of a patriarch, a man who we learn went to extremes to protect his only child, and his family name. Stoker owes a lot to the 1956 film adaptation of The Bad Seed, starring a pig-tailed Patty McCormack as Rhoda, the eponymous “bad seed.” The title is also an homage to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” by admission of screenwriter Wentworth Miller, the British-American actor who stars in Fox’s Prison Break, and much as the film is an homage to Hitchcock’s familial thriller Shadow of a Doubt. Over a century ago, the original Stoker created our modern perception of the vampire, one that feels more intensely and communicates telepathically on a plane of understanding that we mere mortals could never hope to reach. Is this not why the Twilight series, True Blood, and its pulpy inspiration are so popular amongst teens and adults alike? In a 140-character world, vampires don’t need words to really get you.
Mia Wasikowska’s India Stoker is the average exceptional American teenager wasting away in the pastoral suburbs, skilled at piano, obsessed with morbidity in a cutesy, Edward Gorey girl kind of way, and her inner monologues suggest she’s hyper-literate. Bereft after a freak accident that leaves her alone in a big house with her cold and Percocet-ed mother Evie, played excellently by Nicole Kidman, India pushes her even further away. Evie is more house-cat than mother, waking only at noon from a sulfite-addled slumber to slink around the house in a bathrobe, purring half-hearted entreaties at her estranged daughter.
Into their midst arrives the deceased Papa Stoker’s erstwhile younger brother, Uncle Charlie. Matthew Goode strikes a difficult balance between worldly and debonair savior and wide-eyed innocence and incredulity. Both the Stoker women become helpless in his gaze, unable to extricate themselves from his well-laid web of destruction. India is particularly subject to his charms, vulnerable from losing her only friend, her father, but finding a man at the precipice of her sexual awakening who intuits her exceptional mind’s ability to communicate with nature. The violent undercurrents that permeates every corner of the Stoker homestead is expertly directed by Park Chan-Wook, the Korean director behind the cult-favorite Vengeance trilogy.
The film was so good I saw it twice, and was amazed to see how initial perception of the film’s unfolding of events differed so greatly from reality. Like one of those tea leaf blossoms unfurling in a glass mug, the best twists and turns come in the last third of the film in rapid succession, sometimes so shocking that a mental spacing out of the revelations is necessary to comprehend everything Park wants us to take in. The shock-and-gore standards of most modern thrillers wouldn’t hold up in this story. There is blood of course, but it is given context: not so much expected as welcomed, as if Park knew just what we wanted all along.