‘Stoker” is Korean cult director Park Chan-wook’s first Hollywood movie, and if you haven’t seen his work before, you’re in for a jolt. His celebrated “Vengeance” trilogy — “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002), “Oldboy” (2003), and “Lady Vengeance” (2005) — inhabit a zone triangulated by crime films, psychological suspense, and hair-raising horror, but they also have a rarefied chill that renders them fit for the art house. There may be no one since early Roman Polanski so adept at tightening the screws on audiences in clinically beautiful ways.
Now Park wants to do it in English, even though he doesn’t speak the language. But that’s all right, because he’s a control freak and a visionary, and his movies leave nothing to chance. There’s a shot in “Stoker” of a bloodied bird’s egg that dissolves into a close-up of Mia Wasikowska’s eye, and while I couldn’t tell you what it means, I can say it imparts a rapturous sense of threat.
Written by Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson, “Stoker” concerns a young woman, India Stoker (Wasikowska, with pale skin and long black tresses), whose Uncle Charles (Matthew Goode) comes to stay in the decaying mansion she shares with her mother on the edge of a fairy-tale forest. He’s young, he’s handsome — where has he been hiding all these years? India’s father (Dermot Mulroney, briefly seen) has just died in a car accident and Mummy (Nicole Kidman) is mourning in hot-to-trot red. India is drawn to the newcomer but wary, too: Something about him doesn’t add up . . .
Well, all right, Hitchcock had his way with this story in 1943’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” right down to the Uncle Charlie, but Park takes Hitch’s subtext — that there are no innocents in life — and slides it elegantly onto the surface. India, who’s a loner and a brooder, is drawn to the study of funerary practices and terrified of being touched. She suggests a Jane Austen heroine gone discreetly psycho.
Goode’s Uncle Charles seems to be India’s opposite — buoyant on the surface and seething within — and, while he plays at getting poor, silly Mummy hot and bothered, his approach to his niece is that of a spider to a fly. Except that it’s increasingly hard to tell who’s the spider and who’s the fly.
Other characters wander through the drama — Phyllis Somerville as an aged housekeeper, Jacki Weaver as a worried aunt, Alden Ehrenreich as a local teen not as nice as he is in the current “Beautiful Creatures” — but “Stoker” is transfixed with the central three, and mostly with India as she wonders how far on the wild side she’s willing to walk. (As we find out in a genuinely startling shower scene: awfully far.)
The performances are excellent, but it’s the direction that lifts the movie up and spins it around. Like Hitchcock, Park storyboards everything ahead of time, and while that level of control might seem claustrophobic in theory, it ends up freeing “Stoker” to sail into zones of malevolent visual sensuality. You feel you’re in the hands of a master without scruples, and the thrill comes from wondering whether he’ll release you or suddenly clench his fist.
Sadly, there’s a greater power than Park Chan-wook, and that’s Hollywood. The last 20 minutes of “Stoker” deflate with explanation — with the back story of how Uncle Charles became who he is, and what happened to dad, and all that necessary flashback booshwah. This director plays in fields where dreams give way to nightmares, but American audiences need logic, or so we’re told. It doesn’t kill the movie, but it hobbles it in the home stretch, and it leaves the final scene stranded halfway between Park’s pitch-black nihilism and lesser Tinseltown snark.
Still, the movie’s something to see if you have the nerve — a gorgeous flower we realize too late is drenched in blood.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.