cinema, Film, Review

‘Stoker’ A Short Review

In the South Korean directors first English language film, Park Chan Wook intricately delves into the dark secrets behind the closed doors of high-society. From the title, one may suspect a modern take on the classic vampire story especially when considering Wook’s previous venture into this territory with 2009’s Thirst, but the only link appears to be an oppressive, gothic mood.
Instead Stoker offers a morbidly dark but beautifully realised coming-of-age tale from a director at the top of his game.

The script, penned by Wentworth Miller (Prison Break) introduces us to India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), wealthy daughter to Evie (Nicole Kidman) and her recently deceased father (Dermot Mulroney). At her father’s wake India is introduced to her uncle Charlie, portrayed with unsettlingly subdued charm by Matthew Goode, who insists upon temporarily moving in to help out. India and her strong acuteness to the senses is suspicious of uncle Charlie and his increasing affections towards Evie , yet her investigations into her family lead to a chilling journey of self discovery.
Every frame of Stoker has been expertly crafted to amplify India’s heightened perceptions of her world. The uncomfortable close-ups of a spider at her feet or the transitions between the brushing of hair to the swaying of grass give insight into the sensitivity of this young girl finding her place in the world. Stoker could arguably work as a silent masterpiece but this would be denying ourselves of the meticulous sound design of the film. As sublime and perfectly composed the imagery is, Chuck Michaels sound design in my opinion defines Stoker. The first lines we hear are “My ears hear what others cannot hear.” and this is tastefully elaborated throughout. Tiny sounds are amplified above typical foley giving a curious air to the film but also expanding upon the films themes of discovery and looking beneath the surface of things.

Whilst Stoker lacks the fury of Wook’s classic Oldboy, it retains the stylish depictions of dread and violence ultimately rendering the film a horror but not in the way you would expect. I suppose that makes it all the more horrifying.

Any comments regarding feedback or suggestions for future blogs will be greatly appreciated.

cinema, Film

German Expressionism and the Universal Horror Film

In the early 1930s Hollywood began producing a string of horror films with aims to simultaneously thrill, scare and provide a form of escapism for the Depression era American public. Whilst the horror genre was well received, critics often noted that the “rigid simplicity of the horror film’s conventions, deprives it of the resonances that inform and deepen, for example, the Western or Gangster film.” (Tudor, 1974). Due to this, analysis often focuses on the aesthetic details linking films together within the genre and the connotations that emerge through horror’s often stylised visuals. The visual and often thematic traits of horror’s early years were largely informed by German expressionism, and the output of Universal during the 1930s is a clear indicator of this.

Universal’s cycle of horror began with Tod Browning’s Dracula (1930) after Carl Laemmle junior gained charge of the studio at his father’s request. The following succession of horror films were Universal’s attempt at staying afloat during the Depression which had been taking its toll on the industry. ‘The studio’s output decreased substantially, and during an industry-wide strike the studio actually closed down for several months.” (Cook & Bernink, 1999, p. 31). Laemmle junior agreed to produce Frankenstein (1931) partly due to the success of the previous year’s Dracula. Universal was in need of a specific generic identity within their company to ensure future exhibition, and the popularity of what was to become a chain of Universal Monster movies aided the minor studio in deciding on horror as its reliable product. This decision was financially beneficial not only in terms of exhibition and potential audience sales but also by means of production. The recent adoption of sound by studios could have proved to be a difficult transition during Universal’s period of financial trouble but producers discovered that subtle use of sound proved significantly cheaper yet chilling. Dracula is a good example of this as “the film’s relative ‘silence’ served to increase the chilling atmosphere.” (Cook & Bernink, 1999, p. 32).

With Universal’s house style firmly cemented by their resourcefulness during the Depression, the mid 1930s saw further additions to their monster roster. Werewolf of London was released in 1935, but more significantly a sequel to James Whale’s hugely successful Frankenstein (1931) rose from the studio to become an unforgettable horror classic. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) director James Whale (albeit initially somewhat reluctantly) and the majority of the original’s cast to continue its gothic tale of science and morality. With both Dr. Frankenstein and his monster surviving the blaze at the windmill, mad scientist Dr. Pretorious sees an opportunity to fulfil his own desires to create human life. When his wife is held ransom, Dr. Frankenstein reluctantly agrees to assist Pretorious in constructing a bride for the monster.
“Frankenstein (1931) was both an outstanding and typical product of 1930s Hollywood, particularly in its confident assimilation of German expressionist aesthetics on which horror’s ‘golden age’ was founded.” (Worland, 2006, p. 158). Its sequel builds upon this German expressionist technique utilising “Germanic lighting, set design and camerawork…to evoke bizarre, otherworldly settings as well as to connote an artistically ambitious production.” (p. 160). Whale studied key films of the German expressionist era running from 1920 to 1927 including Robert Weiner’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), F.W Murnau’s take on the vampire tale. “The angular performances, heavy makeup, and distorted settings characteristic of German Expressionist cinema conveyed an ominous, supernatural atmosphere” (Bordwell & Thompson, 2008, p. 331) that transferred perfectly to Universal’s portrayals of gothic literary classics.

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Bride of Frankenstein largely displays its influences through its set design. “In much the same way as the German Expressionists did a decade earlier, whale creates a new world on the soundstage.” (Weaver, 1990, p. 126). Cemeteries with slanted graves, gothic towers and windmills are all complemented by chiaroscuro lighting, canted framings and a variety of unusually high or low angles. (Worland, 2006, p. 160). Pam Cook states that this extreme stylisation of mise-en-scene through chiaroscuro lighting and surrealistic settings are specific features of German expressionist cinema and are often accompanied by similar acting styles and macabre subject matter. (Cook & Bernink, 1999, p. 67). Direct examples of this can be clearly seen in Bride of Frankenstein. “In the spectacular, two-minute creation sequence, consisting of over 80 shots, she comes to life amid the blazing electrical apparatus of Frankenstein’s mountaintop laboratory.” (Weaver, 1990, p. 125). Throughout the scene, canted angle shots create a sense of unease through their purposeful departure from standard cinematography techniques. Extreme low angles reveal the scale and warped architecture of the laboratory with its clashing lines mirroring the abnormalities of the scene’s content. Expressionist chiaroscuro lighting shrouds the scene with mystery whilst amplifying the obscure nature of Pretorious and Frankenstein as the light casts disfiguring shadows across their faces. “The style of German Expressionism allowed the filmmakers to experiment with filmic technology and special effects and to explore the twisted realm of repressed desires, unconscious fears, and deranged fixations.” (Perry, 2006, p. 57). The German visual style confidently informs Universal’s horror output, lending its aesthetic peculiarities to shape themes of fear and madness. Barry Langford states that expressionism’s influence “perhaps lay in the establishment less of a specific stylistic model than of a generic vocabulary that expressed extreme psychological states.” (Langford, 2005, p. 161). German expressionism grew out of a desire to filter the horrors of post war Germany in to a coherent medium. It created an ‘other world’ in which people could view and process the everyday troubles inflicted upon them. “This ‘other world’ often functions as a criticism of bourgeois society.” (Cook & Bernink, 1999, p. 67). Transferred to an american audience, the expressionist style also had a societal effect. “Depression audiences wanted the escapist entertainment which horror provided.” (Pendo, 1975, p. 161).

Whilst German expressionism clearly informed the ‘golden age’ of horror by means of aesthetic similarities, it could also be said that the deeper meanings and messages projected through expressionism also succeeded in informing Universal’s approach to film production. German expressionism channelled through films such as Bride of Frankenstein reflected many aspects of society apparent during the Depression. “The monsters were actually creatures with souls and human longings, that underneath the formula plots, these characters represented society’s rejects who were trying to stake a claim in a world in which they had no place.” (Weaver, 1990, p. 4). Even the mob in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein could be likened to “an enraged populace lashing out in frustration against the Depression – and the man they perceived as indifferent to their plight, Herbert Hoover.” (Matthews, 2009, p. 33). Despite the aesthetic and thematic similarities, Universal succeeded in creating a series of unique cinema classics that whilst clearly informed by German expressionism, stand on their own as an advancement of Hollywood genre cinema and as a reflection of a nation emerging from financial struggle.


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Wiene, R. (Director). (1920). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [Motion picture]. Germany: Decla-Bioscop.