The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Stoker

Written by Owen Weetch.

Photo from the article In my short review of Stoker, I called the film a stylish “cartoon” that traded in black and white at the expense of grey. I accused it of lacking the depth of its progenitor, Shadow of a Doubt, with the implication that Park Chan-Wook’s homage was little more than a slice of silliness. Thinking back over the film and watching it again, though, I realise it might be time to serve myself some humble pie. There is no doubt that Stoker is a stylistic fairground, a symphony of malicious sheen, but the dark lure of that showiness distracted me from what I now take the film to be doing. This glossily grotesque piece shouldn’t be attacked as all surface, but rather appreciated for its play of surfaces. It doesn’t lack the depth of Shadow of a Doubt - it just uses a different, and possibly more interesting, depth model. I noted that the film was loaded with a “glib Gothicism”, when in fact it was my criticism that was glib. Stoker can in fact be read as a unique and subversive Gothic text, respectful of its heritage but deploying it to peculiarly twisted, anarchic ends.

The Gothic, then, is a mode of fiction that began with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764, and includes such diverse works as The Mysteries of Udolpho, Jane Eyre, and Rebecca. Its predominant topos of a tangled past’s return has frequently challenged the status quo, exposing that, as Walpole put it, “the sins of the fathers are visited on their children.” This was a doomy gloomy realm littered with creaky old mansions on desolate moors, brooding souls in torment, and ghosts that haunted all with that most terrifying of secrets: the truth. As the centuries progressed, the genre took on a more interior bent; for Rosemary Jackson, Gothic “progressively turned inward to concern itself with psychological problems, used to dramatise uncertainty and conflicts of the individual subject in relation to a different social situation.”


The ‘Female Gothic’ - a term coined by Ellen Moers in her Literary Women - is a subset of the Gothic that has continuously explored the ambivalences of contemporary women’s experience. Female Gothic concerns the troubles that come with negotiating a patriarchal society rife with, as Moers put it, “unjust accusations and uncaused severities … feminine malice and masculine cruelty… restraints on her freedom, all the way to actual imprisonment… mysterious, unexplained rituals [and] the terrible danger of slippage from the respectable to the unrespectable.” As Moers observes, “the terrors, the restraints, the dangers of the Gothic novel were not the fantasies but the realities of a woman’s life” - the sins of the fathers continue to rear their ugly heads, their ghosts articulating the ambivalences of living in patriarchy’s shadow.

The ghost of patriarchy haunts Stoker as it details the fallout of a patriarch’s death. India Stoker mourns the death of her father, Richard, who used to take her hunting and with whom she was much closer than she is with her mother, Evelyn. Evelyn’s mourning is somewhat less conventional than India’s is initially: she slaps on some makeup, wriggles into her best dress, and dives into a sexual relationship with her deceased husband’s little brother, Charlie. As far as psychopaths go, Charlie’s quite the charmer, and his spell begins to weave its spell over his niece as well. But the large, cavernous house still bespeaks the lack it grieves, and Richard Stoker’s office is kept pristine and untouched - a tomb for and a shrine to a kindly Bluebeard.


The patriarch’s death throws the childishness of the other Stokers into relief. Evelyn is constructed throughout the film as someone who has never grown up, or at the least has not learnt to conform to matriarchal norms (which the film seems to take to be the same thing). She is unable to cook, dependent on Charlie for meals as she was once to Richard. She sleeps in late, the implication being that she has being up late doing things she wouldn’t want discovered by the person who gets up before her and brews the coffee - who just happens to be her young daughter. Her closing words to India acknowledge this sense of failure:

“You know I’ve often wondered why it is that we have children, and the conclusion I’ve come to is: We want someone to get it right this time. But not me - personally speaking I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart.”

India’s mother admits that she hasn’t succeeding at growing up “right” and her uncle Charlie’s been incarcerated in a mental hospital after murdering his younger brother as a child, his development arrested. So Stoker is a film that lacks adults - we don’t even see any teachers at India’s school. Whenever one does appear, such as Mrs. McGarrick or Aunt Gwendolyn, they’re promptly dispatched and buried down deep. For these kids, it’s not time to go home yet - they’re too busy playing house.


The film details India’s journey towards adulthood, and her navigation of a world where she will find the new contender to the patriarchal throne undeserving. It uses certain representational strategies to represent this maturation that are in keeping with the aesthetics of Female Gothic cinema of the 1940s - films such as Rebecca (1940), Gaslight (1944) and The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947). Theory by such writers as Mary Ann Doane, Helen Hanson, and Helen Wheatley has noted that the Female Gothic cinema was made not by women as its literary sources often were, but by men. These theorists examine the resultant discord of subversion and conservatism that runs throughout these cinematic texts, to which I argue Stoker is indebted. This approach uncovers the subversive potential of Gothic, which arises from what Wheatley sees as a “worrying at” cultural norms. “In tracing the heritage of the female gothic, and examining the processes of female gothic narration through detailed attention the films’ audio-visual styles”, Hanson has it that the Female Gothic cinema “offer[s] a narrative trajectory as a female journey to subjectivity” in a patriarchal world, highlighting the ambivalences of this journey.

India’s “female journey to subjectivity”, then, is also based on a navigation of choppy patriarchal waters. Stoker’s main process of “worrying at” comes from its understanding of the pernicious powers of paternal influence, and how those can be used for ill when the patriarch in question’s a particularly crappy one. Like the narrator India and the house she occupies, the film seems to miss Richard, lamenting its lost and benevolent patriarch - as we have seen, the household’s matriarch is indicted as pretty much useless. While Richard’s influence seems to have kept India out of trouble’s way - he teaches to hunt, telling her that “Sometimes you have to do something bad to keep you from doing something worse” - his younger brother brings it right to her doorstep. India goes through Charlie’s luggage and finds not only his identification papers and the shoes meant as birthday presents to her - but also revelation, murder, and incest. Charlie doesn’t travel light and he weighs India’s subjectivity down with his darkness. It is how this weighing down is represented visually that is particularly interesting, and wholly Gothic.


Mary Ann Doane’s work notes that Female Gothic cinema evinces a “hyperbolisation of certain signifying strategies.” The genre, for Doane, can be read as moving towards “the very limits of filmic representation of female subjectivity”. These texts investigate the role images and representations play in influencing subjectivity. For Doane, Female Gothic films “literally enact the repression of the feminine, the woman’s relegation to the status of signifier within the male discourse” by demonstrating that “even as she spectates, the force of the tendency to reduce the woman to image is inexorable.” To affect this, Doane observes that “the films disarticulate the components of the apparatus which construct the woman as “imaged.”” As Hanson points out, these women are constantly faced with images, such as portraits, which are instrumental in shaping socially-acceptable feminine identity - consider Rebecca’s portrait in the Hitchcock film - and must attempt to reassert their independence in spite of that.


There is in the Gothic, then, a sense of doubt as to the authenticity of appearances, the implication being that modes of behaviour and identity are subject to the whims of social construction rather than any innate natural provenance. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes how the Gothic’s concern with the “difficulty of getting from the foreground to the background” to understandings of identity and subjectivity works in opposition to classical notions of the unified self. Instead, a person’s subjectivity is inherently structured through language: the words we use to label items in the world, to understand them, to interrelate them - these become the blueprint for our conception of both them and ourselves. The fact that a person can assert himself or herself as an “I” arises from the fact the word “I” exists in the first place, recalling the poststructuralist theories of Jacques Derrida, who once said that “there is nothing outside the text” and would probably have cackled had you offered up your soul as counterevidence. Sedgwick sees “language as live burial” within the self, with the result that “meaning is susceptible to infinite regress.” The worry is, the words and representations by which you understand reality and yourself might be fathers’ sins themselves, locking you in a repressive dungeon without you even being aware of it. For Julian E. Fleenor, the Gothic heroine’s fear that she is often “a reflection of patriarchal values” takes on a much more hopeless bent, the insinuation being that she might be nothing more.

Stoker is explicitly concerned with language, burial, and buried language - and with how all these contribute to the constitution of its Gothic heroine’s subjectivity. Charlie functions as a kind of chthonic gatekeeper, a burier of secrets but also a figure who prompts India’s rituals of digging up and discovery. He suggests India go down to the basement to get some ice cream in to reveal to her that he has stashed Mrs. McGarrick in the freezer. This associates the childishness of ice cream with the act of burial and secret keeping - a freezing of things they are, rather than a maturation. His act of burying his younger brother alive as a child and subsequent performance of a ‘dirt angel’ atop the burial mound also links live burial with a kind of innocence and reluctance to grow old. When Richard suggests that Charlie move away from the family home upon release it results in the latter’s death. Charlie begins to seem like a kind of murderous Peter Pan, refusing to grow old and preying on India with the intent of having her as his Wendy.


What Charlie doesn’t count on in demonstrating to India the freedom and benefits that burial brings is that he will simultaneously import upon her the power of digging things back up. India’s acts of unburying do not stop at finding the Garricksicle in the basement. Her main targets in her search for truth are linguistic ones, and through a process of reading and detection she comes to discover that something like Sedgwick’s “live burial” of language has taken part within herself and shaped her own subjectivity.

Once she has finally worked out that the key she has been given is the key to her father’s desk drawer, she ventures into his office. She proceeds to find a stack of letters that Charlie had written to her inside the mental institution, which she never received. These letters regale her with travels to faraway lands and assertions of his special kinship with her - they share the same blood, one letter tells her. She devours the letters and drawings in a kind of rapture. Her reading is presented as a kind of frenzied montage - we see these words and the images begin to overlay the image, the screen becoming composed by the words and images themselves. Charlie’s sentences and pictures fly around the frame and eventually overlay the image with these disparate surfaces to the point that, saturated with text, language and image, the screen resembles a pencil sketch, or a palimpsest, of India’s face - her understanding of events and subjectivity is now wholly shaped by this man’s utterly arbitrary understanding of what she means to him. That he never met her and she never got to write a letter back is an absurdly large elephant in the room.


This moment can be read as the most extreme example of a Gothically stylistic process of layering that manifests itself throughout the earlier portions of the film. Consider the moment where Charlie’s voice, whispering “India”, is superimposed over an image of her sitting before her father’s coffin, even though at this point she has ever seen or been introduced to her uncle. A sequence that shows India refusing a lift home from Charlie in preference of walking only to have his car become superimposed into the background, surrounding her, is also in keeping with this tendency to overlay the filmic image or soundtrack with a sense of Charlie’s overbearing influence. The moment showing India reading the letters, its image of her constructed entirely by the language and images provided by Charlie, can be read as a kind of victory on his terms - the end of a process that began with buying her all those shoes to wear as she grew older and which he hopes to confirm in presenting her with a pair of high heels. This can be read as a truly Gothic ‘disarticulation’ of what Doane sees to be “the components of the apparatus which construct the woman as “imaged”” in order to suggest that “even as she spectates, the force of the tendency to reduce the woman to image is inexorable.” Charlie seems intent on reducing India to the image of what he wants her to be. In the film’s opening narration, in beginning to describe how her sense of the world and perceiving it has been shaped by the hunting lessons her father once gave her, India seems to realise her own subjectivity’s construction by the aggregate influences around her:

“My ears hear what others cannot hear; small faraway things people cannot normally see are visible to me. These senses are the fruits of a lifetime of longing, longing to be rescued, to be completed. Just as the skirt needs the wind to billow, I'm not formed by things that are of myself alone. I wear my father's belt tied around my mother's blouse, and shoes which are from my uncle. This is me. Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be.”


This acknowledgement of the subject’s social composition is in keeping with that which Fred Botting, in his The Gothic Production of the Unconscious, takes to be the mode’s “model of the unconscious that eschews narrative depths in favour of narrative surfaces.” As is the case with any body of thought that undermines the notion of a willfully determining subject, this can all seem rather gloomy. Stoker, though, as dark and macabre as it is, is not a gloomy film - it’s devilishly gleeful, really, delighting as it rubs its transgressive, bloodstained sleeve in your face. India is no different, refusing to take this attack on her will and subjectivity lying down. She’s the one telling the story, after all. But what way out is there, when your identity is already set in stone?

Stoker is perversely optimistic enough to offer an escape, and it is one that is achieved through revelation, an understanding of the surface lie and its power to shape understanding. Walking down the stairs India drops some of Charlie’s letters and sees that the address of the institution from whence they came is printed on their underside. She understands then that all of those romantic words and images that swayed her were nothing but lies, constructs; Charlie never visited those places, even if he took some French lessons and his quarters sure are filled with a ton of books. India is prompted to ask for the truth, demanding to know what lies behind the patriarch’s smirk. This question of what lies beneath, or what lies behind, the surface - even if it's only another surface - is a Gothic one that runs throughout the film, and it becomes clear that India is really the only person willing to look there. By turning over the photograph of three children she finds in her father’s bureau and seeing its underside, India comes to understand that she has been lied to by both patriarchs - she has yet another uncle she didn’t know about (That her father provides her with the key as a parting gift could be read to suggest a kind of overarching patriarchal guilt, as if Richard wasn’t sure that he hadn’t done something bad and actually had done something worse).


Documentation in the film is often coded as potentially dangerous: the letters; the message that Aunt Gwendolyn scribbles to India and that seals her fate as the foundation of a garden ornament; the documents provided Charlie by his brother and that send the former into an apoplectic killspasm. India, though, is able to see through the text and understand its true import, its ability to construct how people understand her that she can turn to her advantage. In short, by seeing that a document might just as well be fake, she learns to lie and shape experience as she sees fit. It is notable that her encounter with what actually happened comes after the revelation of mendacity, and pointed that after this she is able to lie to the policeman about her actions on the night Whip ‘disappeared’ - she smirks superciliously as the enforcer of the status quo scrawls this recalibrated version of events down on his notepad.

I left a sentence off the end of the opening narration’s monologue because it’s indicative of the film’s complicity with India in her realisation of the power of language, of images, and of lies. She understands that she is a series of surfaces and rejects depth. After acknowledging her nature as a palimpsest, a series of inscriptions etched by those forces that have shaped her, India asserts, “Only once you realise this do you become free, and to become adult is to become free.”

In this, India affects choice, the ability to pick what inherited traits she wishes to deploy and which familial traces she wants to underline in order to, as Evelyn might have put it, “get it right this time”. She picks and chooses from what has come before her; she learns to murder, to seduce, to cover her tracks. She has learnt the powers of burial and unburial, been given the key and used it to open Bluebeard’s chamber. Evelyn doesn’t get her wish to see life tear her daughter apart because India learns to puts herself together. Her subjectivity is able to soar now that it has realised, or become self aware about, its social composition. As if understanding and complicit with what Botting sees to be Gothic’s “dissolution of all order, meaning and identity in a play of signs, images and texts”, India recalibrates her influences to suit her own ends. There’s even the suggestion that she might be constructing a new kind of relativistic morality: she saves her own mother from death but shoots down big bad wolf Charlie. Perhaps she’s offering Evelyn the opportunity to “get it right”, too, mowing down the men in this man’s world. There’s something Nietzchean about it, really: after undergoing something similar to what Jackson read as the Gothic’s “apprehension of plurality and relativity of meaning”, India becomes readable as a Gothic heroine-turned-ubermensch. She pointedly catches the policeman’s attention and then stabs him with her uncle’s pruning shears, violating the figure of law in the interest of ‘freedom’.

The freedom the film suggests, then, is a transgressive one. Whereas India was portrayed as composed of images and texts earlier in the film, now she points the barrel of her gun (it’s her gun, pointedly - we’re not told that it’s her father’s or anybody else’s) directly at the lens and the spectator, reclaiming agency through acknowledgement and confrontation. Yes, Doane noted that in the Gothic, “even as she spectates, the force of the tendency to reduce the woman to image is inexorable”, but now it is India who puts the image itself in her sights, circumscribes the mode of spectatorship, and pulls the trigger.


The film’s proffered mode of escape from ambivalence is a nasty one, and in some ways undermines its own Gothic project. The depth model it has suggested as a way of reading India’s subjectivity, as a play of surfaces rather than any essential self, is further complicated by an insidious whisper on the film's part that she might just be, essentially, beyond repair. There are two reasons for this - one that is in keeping with the Gothic conception of a subject as a play of influences, and one that isn’t. The first is due to the live burial of Jonathan Stoker, Richard and Charlie’s brother. If we put Charlie at the evil end of an ethical spectrum and the more relativistic Richard at the centre (you’ve got to do something bad to keep yourself from doing something worse, after all) then Jonathan, logically, emerges as what would have been India’s only hope for a wholly good influence. She never got to know him, though, because he was buried alive - which leaves her pretty screwed.


Does this imply that Charlie, the bad patriarch, has won in some way? Perhaps it does. Maybe he was on the right track all along, anyway, and he really did understand India better than anybody else did. This brings us to the film’s second complication of its own depth model, one that dismisses it completely and implies that, essentially, India is just completely rotten from the get-go. Earlier on in the film, she pricks a boil on her foot while running shoeless through the grounds. She sits on a tree stump next to a stone statue of a small, winged cherub. The sculpture is overgrown with lichen and mould and recalls the ‘dirt angel’ her uncle left on her other uncle’s burial mound. India squeezes the sore, and what happens next might be read as a validation of her evil uncle’s assertion that he and India share the same blood: all that comes out is pus.

This Alternate Take was published on April 30, 2013.

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