NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
Park Chan-wook’s first English-language feature is based on a script by actor Wentworth Miller – and plays the reference game to keep the mystery going. The title naturally suggests that Park is following Thirst with another vampire movie, and the film keeps hinting that the streak of murderous crazy in the title family is more than just a psychological condition … while making the film revolve around the relationship between a mixed-up teenage heroine, India (Mia Wasikowska, looking much younger than she did in Alice in Wonderland and Jane Eyre) and her serial-killing Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) can’t help but evoke Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. The film does go its own way, defying some expectations but fulfilling others, and suffers slightly because when the backstory/explanation finally gets trotted out in a bunch of flashbacks, it seems reductive: these Stokers are just monied nutcases, not vampires, not demons … But, until the tipping point, it’s stylish, sexily perverse, sometimes shocking, always beautiful.
India, whose cleverness and withdrawn nature make her seem either autistic or psychic but also infuriating, has just lost her father (Dermot Mulroney) in mysterious circumstances, and wonders how she’ll cope with her wraith-like mother (Nicole Kidman, whose ghostliness looks CGI-assisted) until her uncle shows up, in a tan suit amid so many black mourning jackets and dresses, and moves into the mansion (this is one of those inexplicably wealthy families that still send their child to a hellhole regular school). A housekeeper (Phyllis Somerville) and an aunt (Jacki Weaver) know more than they’re saying about the handsome word-traveller, whose existence has never been mentioned, and Charlie kills them both – leaving the housekeeper in the freezer for India to find, burying auntie under an ornamental stone sphere in the garden. India has mixed feelings about this, but Charlie helps her when a seemingly nice kid (Lucas Till) turns would-be rapist – India is turned on by the way Charlie snaps the kid’s neck while he’s on top of her, and acquiesces as he buries the body. This menage has to end badly, and there’s a touch of Pretty Poison as the pupil becomes a fitter sociopath than the uncle, adding a little more cunning and less neediness to the mix.
Park is a great director, and the film is full of fine, creepy, subtle moments that convey untold horrors – a child sitting in a hole in the sand at the bottom of a slide, a collection of finely-calligraphed letters from exotic places all stamped with the name of the institution they actually come from, India sharpening a pencil she has used as a weapon with close-ups of the bloody shavings, the aunt’s disgust at checking into a cheap motel rather than the hotel she has claimed she’s staying at (and her Psycho-like fate in a phone box) and many well-chosen uh-oh lines (‘fast enough to get your attention’). The three leads are excellent, if undemonstrative – Goode does a lot with his somehow-weak charming smile, while Kidman makes a fine emotional zombie and Wasikowska finally shows why she’s been getting such plum roles. With Judith Godreche and Ralph Brown as a psychiatrist and a sheriff. This is Miller’s first produced script; Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) gets an odd, buried ‘additional writing’ credit.