Killtoberfest 2 – #27: Stoker / The Ring (2002)

In All, Movies by Kyu

The last double feature in Killtoberfest 2: Kill Me Twice, Shame On Me is a pair of movies that have absolutely nothing to do with one another… except maybe that both are about what happens when families go wrong.

First up, Chan-Wook Park’s Stoker (2013).

It’s a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme, beauty and Uncle Charlie.

Park, of course, is the director responsible for Oldboy and the rest of his “Vengeance” trilogy, three stylish, entertaining, violent thrillers. Stoker is his first English language feature, with Park directing a Black List script by actor Wentworth Miller. Like other thrillers and dramas in the art house mode (Drive, Days of Heaven, etc), the script is almost incidental. The power of this movie is all in the performances, the cinematography, the editing, and (especially) the sound design.

The story is an uncredited update of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. In both films, a young teenaged girl is visited by her mysterious Uncle Charlie, who is portrayed as sinister through the use of horror movie tropes; it is revealed that Uncle Charlie may be a murderer; the young girl, confronting adult values for the first time, is forced to grow up; and the story culminates in violence.

In Hitchcock’s version–one of his darkest films–the story suggests that Uncle Charlie may have killed the rich widows he marries, but the filmmaking uses the language of vampire stories to give him an air of danger and mystery. In Park’s, we learn that Charlie may have killed to secure his position in the family home, and more standard thriller techniques emphasize Charlie’s hyperawareness and suggestive propensity for digging and cutting in the garden. In both films, the most intense bit of violence is utterly bloodless, the blow Charlie strikes at the protagonist’s childhood innocence. In Shadow of a Doubt, the key moment is a shockingly bitter, cynical monologue:

You think you know something, don’t you? You think you’re the clever little girl who knows something. There’s so much you don’t know, so much. What do you know, really? You’re just an ordinary little girl, living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there’s nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares. Or did I? Or was it a silly, inexpert little lie? You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.

In Stoker, it’s a birthday gift: a pair of dark high heeled shoes to replace the white flats India’s father has given her every year of her childhood. The film opens after her father has died in a car accident; India searches for her hidden present and finds… an empty box. This is the first note of wrongness, long before Uncle Charlie arrives. Stoker may be a thriller at heart, but it acts like a horror film: a society is established (the three-down-to-two little family of India and her mother), into which enters an interloper (Uncle Charlie) whose presence causes a breakdown of the social order (Charlie begins romancing India’s mother almost before her father is in the ground). In most horror films, there is one of two results: the society repels the intruder, thereby surviving, or succumbs to it and is destroyed. If you’ve seen Stoker, I think you’ll agree with me that both results happen here.

The contrast between a monologue on the one hand and an image of shoes on the other is indicative; where Shadow of a Doubt is a very talky picture, Stoker is a very visual one. Both, however, rely on performance for their effect. In Stoker, Park sets three very different acting styles against one another, a subliminal conflict in mannerisms that presages the emotional tensions in the trio which will inevitably explode. Mia Wasikowska as India is quiet and observant in a behind-the-beat performance that has her reacting, often with silent surprise or fear, to not only what’s happening around her but the emotional changes she’s going through internally. As the mother, Nicole Kidman acts with a florid, self-centered intensity, always seeking to dominate conversations and enforce gentility, always squirming inside like a cat in heat whenever Uncle Charlie is near. Matthew Goode, as the third leg of the triangle, is almost totally reserved; scrape the surface of his smooth, double-entendre charm and underneath you’ll find a stone statue carved by ancients unknown.

These phenomenal performances exist in a movie filled with a marvel of techniques supporting an intense, humid subjectivity. The editing weaves scenes together across time, revealing new information at the moment of maximum impact or metaphorical relevance; the production design fills the Stoker family home with gloomy shadows and oppressive set dressing (the highlight being India’s mother’s lush, tropical bedroom, red walls and green plants just oozing sex); the sound design emphasizes India’s unique point of view, privileging her information over everyone else’s (but also potentially shading it as unreliable). The movie is a master class in how to build emotional connections and tensions between characters without dialogue–particularly in the extraordinary scene of India and her uncle playing a duet together on the piano, a frantic piece that’s part seduction, part chase. Here, take a look (no spoilers, I promise):

Stoker is a triumph of style over content, a sumptuous fall from grace to grown-up life, an entry point into a world far larger than can be contained by a childhood home or a plain pair of shoes. Before he died, India’s father taught her how to hunt. By the end of the movie, she may have found the life she’s been hunting for.

And the last movie of this year’s ‘fest, one of the greatest and scariest horror films ever made, Gore Verbinski’s masterpiece and one of my personal favorites: The Ring (2002).

The Ring is both about, and proof of, the fact that images can hurt you. The first time I watched it, I was up all night, trying not to think about what I’d seen and, at the same time, trying to keep an eye on the big, dark television screen on the other side of the room. The horror on display in this movie is so impactful, so perfectly set up by the engrossing, tense, sad movie around it, that it infects your mind, grabs onto you and stays forever. At least with Jaws, you could avoid the water. But there are screens everywhere.

Do I even have to recap the plot? After Rachel Keller’s niece dies under mysterious circumstances, she finds herself investigating an urban myth–a videotape that kills you exactly seven days after you watch it. The story is part of a large franchise comprising at least 3 novels, 10 movies, a TV movie, two TV series, a manga series, and a video game. The original novels by Koji Suzuki are strange and excellent in their own right, moving from straight horror to full-on science fiction over the course of the trilogy. Hideo Nakata (who also adapted Suzuki’s Dark Water into a film I reviewed earlier this month) directed the second and definitive Japanese adaptation, Ringu; his main addition to the franchise was to change the novel’s original protagonists, journalist Asakawa and his eccentric college friend Ryuji, into an estranged couple.

It’s a choice that Verbinski’s American remake of Ringu follows, and one which reverberates throughout the film. At heart, the movie is really about presenting a series of broken families; by investigating one on behalf of a second, the protagonists may end up healing their own. This prospect leads to one of the best and cruelest twists in all of cinema, a phenomenal fake-out ending that works so perfectly because all involved are committed to the idea that this ghost story is one which will end peacefully–that the past can be healed. But in the world of The Ring, even those who study the past are doomed to fulfill it.

How can a mystery story, which relies upon mountains of information and revelation, be scary, let alone as scary as The Ring is, when horror typically relies on the unseen and the unknown? There are really two ways to deal with this: either the things you find are things you wish you hadn’t (Oldboy, for instance) or, and this is what The Ring does, you end up “solving” the jigsaw only to realize you still have a bunch of pieces left over, and holes in your puzzle that don’t fit them. Nakata’s version explains very little, letting mood and atmosphere tell the story (down to throwing in psychic powers with no discernable explanation); Verbinski’s, on the other hand, has been criticized for making a fetish of explaining every last detail. But it really isn’t doing that (except in service to the false ending, where it parodies the way cheesier horror movies do this). What’s it’s doing is answer all the least important questions while leaving the source of the horror very opaque. We never understand why Samara is the way she is, although there are hints–patient records in Chinese, the second videotape, Brian Cox thundering, “My wife was not supposed to have a child!” We never understand how she can do the things she does, or how Aiden is connected to her; what Anna Morgan was thinking, or why Rachel’s nose keeps bleeding, or what the photographs mean, or what that one missing line of dialogue is (“But he doesn’t know.” “Know what?” …). The film presents over and over again phenomena which are outside the standard when it comes to ghost stories and supernatural influence, and glosses over any explanation. Likewise, it presents a secret family tragedy so cryptically that Rachel herself gets it entirely wrong, not once but twice. The movie is constantly blasting you with information and images that you assume will become rationalized later, but which never are–a slight of hand trick rivaling any other.

I could go on about how pitch-perfect The Ring is on a technical level, how it represents a full and superlative orchestration of cinematography, editing, writing, scoring, pacing, and performance into one smooth work that progresses like a freight train (or a stone down a well). But I won’t, aside from pointing out what a staggering achievement the “cursed video” itself really is, a tight package of symbols, motifs, unsettling sound design, and narrative clues and foreshadowing that really does live up to the warnings and reactions of the film around it. If the TV next to me turned on and started playing that, I’d be out the fuckin’ door like a shot. In many ways, the entire remainder of the film is dedicated to deconstructing those 85 seconds of video, a process that mirrors the back and forth play between the taped images themselves: abstractions becoming concrete (blood churning in water, a chair), concrete details becoming abstracted (the ring).

This is how images affect us. What we see is taken in as emotion; what we feel is expressed out through action. We’ve all seen something on TV that changed what we did that day; we’ve all been forwarded a Youtube video that altered the way we thought. It’s staggering what we thoughtlessly let into our minds on a daily basis, sometimes even seeking out things which are bad for us–images of violence, depravity, videos we watch just so we have something to hate. And we go to horror movies, looking to be scared. More often than not we get what we asked for: cheap thrills that fade faster than we can finish our popcorn. But every so often a movie comes along that sucks us in, engrosses us in a story, and then uses that connection to hurt us, scar us for life, infect us with a memetic virus that can’t be killed or escaped, only spread. Go to the nearest TV to you, turn it off, look at the screen. Stare at it for a minute. Look into it, at the dark reflections there. Think about something moving, not in the center but right in the corner of your eye. Turn your head slowly. All the way left. All the way right. Did you see it? Something’s there. You’re infected. And the worst part is, you did this to yourself.

Hungry for more Killtoberfest? Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews.