Double Feature: Shadow of a Doubt and Stoker

Tolstoy’s most famous sentence asserts that every unhappy family is unique. That may be true, technically, but there’s plenty of room for eerie similarities. I present the Newtons and the Stokers, two profoundly different nuclear families who share the same problem: a relative with a big, dark secret who insinuates his way into their home and brings violence with him. Both interlopers even go by the same name, Uncle Charlie. Shadow of a Doubt and its descendant Stoker examine these men through the eyes of their nieces — intelligent young women who are too intrigued by their uncles to leave any stone unturned.

Shadow of a Stoker 1Shadow of a Doubt, the film of which director Alfred Hitchcock was most proud, is the story of two Charlies. Teresa Wright plays Charlotte, and Joseph Cotten is her admired but seldom seen uncle. The two share a deep connection despite the distance between them. Hitchcock introduces both in the same way: lying on a bed and staring at the ceiling. Only one of them calls Dracula to mind, though. Uncle Charlie literally brings darkness into the quirky Newton home. Proto-noir shadows splash across the walls and ceilings, accentuated by the carefully modulated use of Dutch angles. Joseph Valentine’s camera tracks relentlessly, a free-floating specter to cast a pall over even the most innocent scenes. The funereal air is thickest when young Charlie, ushered by the forlorn bells of Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, begs her way into the just-closed library at night to find an incriminating newspaper article. She has encroached on a sanctum and will not leave with her innocence intact.

If I don’t see Shadow of a Doubt as quite the masterpiece its reputation would suggest, my issues aren’t with Hitchcock — either his filmmaking skill or his psychological curiosity. My problems are with the story and characters, which seem secondary to the film’s ideas when they should be essential. The insipid romance between young Charlie and one of the detectives hunting her uncle jumps to mind. Narratively, it’s superfluous. Thematically, it pairs a teenager with a man probably twice her age (although the actors were born only five years apart), thus raising the possibility of Charlie becoming one day herself a victim of the Merry Widow Murderer. There’s something sticky there, but it’s imposed on the story rather than arising from it.

Shadow of a Stoker 2Also notable is the fact that Uncle Charlie never kills anyone during the movie itself. This isn’t just Production Code-era coyness; it makes the character less dangerous, belying the unblinking menace of Cotten’s performance. In the first half of the film, Charlie seems to be playing a game of “How Suspicious Can I Look.” He cuts out the newspaper article about the Merry Widow Murderer even though, obviously, it doesn’t mention him by name. When the detectives, posing as survey-takers, start asking questions, he escapes down the back stairs and then comes back. Having taken a ring from one of his victims, he makes the chilling but incredibly reckless decision to give it to young Charlie. Then, in the second half, when she learns the truth, he makes several ham-fisted attempts to murder her and Make It Look Like An Accident. In the final analysis, Uncle Charlie is all attitude and no accomplishment. He’s Hitchcock’s Boba Fett.

Nevertheless, the two Charlies inspired another movie released seventy years later. Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut, Stoker, brings Hitchcock’s serial killer into the realm of gothic horror, with a healthy dose of Hamlet thrown in. The vaguely incestuous undertones of the earlier film become explicit here — as, of course, does the violence. Matthew Goode plays this Uncle Charlie, a degenerate but mild-mannered psycho whose existence is kept secret from his niece, India (Mia Wasikowska), until the death of her father, at which time he moves in with her and her mother (Nicole Kidman). India starts to wonder: Who is this man? What really happened to her father? and Why is everybody else who tries to get close to her family disappearing?

Shadow of a Stoker 3Stoker is still closer to the genre of suspense thriller than a horror movie, but Park imbues the story with both shocks and the uncanny. The style flirts with garishness on occasion, but the cinematography and sound design sharpen the smallest details into extreme focus. It isn’t just for show either, as the film slowly reveals its observant nature to be a function of character. India Stoker (a name that should be applied to all brooding, bookish goth girls from now on) learned from her father how to hunt, and those skills play a major role in her development over the course of the film. The same kind of psychic connection is in evidence here, mostly conveyed through Nicolas De Toth’s editing. Three bravura crosscutting sequences surround the most shocking acts of violence. The first one erases gaps of space; the other two, gaps of time. In visceral fashion, these sequences fill in the details of the characters’ histories and inner lives. India is frightened and repulsed by her uncle, but she’s also excited in ways that Charlotte Newton could never admit.

When it comes to subjective points of view on film, Park strides through the door that Hitchcock opened. Shadow of a Doubt features an unforgettable extreme close-up in which Uncle Charlie lays out his misogyny and contempt. The film never suggests that his words are only heard by young Charlie, but the unnatural perspective shows that she’s filling in blanks no one else is. At that point, the camera is inside her head. Similarly, Stoker‘s best scene is entirely subjective. India and Charlie pound out a piano duet/duel (composed by Philip Glass) to symbolize their psychological conflict. Visually and thematically, the scene is as tense and intimate as any violent confrontation. Then, a cut seems to reveal that Uncle Charlie was never physically there. India’s morbid side certainly leaves room for the supernatural. (Wasikowska’s performance sometimes recalls Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice.) But Charlie’s hold on her is of a much more carnal, and ultimately nihilistic, variety.

Shadow of a Stoker 4These are stories of an adolescent’s peek behind the curtain at some of the horrors of the world. Home invasion stories in which the artificial safety of either clean-cut suburbia or a gated estate gets chewed up from the inside. The endings of the two films are just as superficially similar as anything else. The same people live (mostly), and the same people die. Even so, Stoker‘s ending is disturbing and disheartening, vengeance taken to its darkest corners. Shadow of a Doubt ends the way Hollywood movies were supposed to in the 1940s. That doesn’t make it wrong. It’s just a reminder that the subversion was only beginning.

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