"Stoker" begins and ends with an 18-year-old girl. That is the film's allure - and not just for audiences. It's what drew Korean director Chan-wook Park ("Oldboy") to make this his Hollywood debut.
"My daughter is 18 years old," Park deadpans, as if that was explanation enough. A thriller about a poker-faced girl named India whose mourning for her dead father is interrupted by the arrival of her beguiling Uncle Charlie, "Stoker" is a movie of mysteries.
Who and what is this Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode)? What's so creepy about him? How will his relationship with his late brother's widow (Nicole Kidman) play out? And is he a mentor, or a threat, to the creepily quiet India (Mia Wasikowska)?
"It's hard to guess whether India is a heroine about to slay a dragon or a beast being born," John DeFore wrote in The Hollywood Reporter. India, an outsider at school, not close to her mother and wary of this uncle interloper, seems equally capable of violence or victimhood. And that's how Wasikowska plays her.
Wasikowska, 23, says she "was fascinated by this person who seems very in control for somebody her age. She doesn't give away any cues as to who she is, even in ways we're not aware we're thinking about. Her intonation, her facial expressions, all very stripped down."
And that made the "Alice in Wonderland" star Park's ideal choice for India.
"Whenever you see teenage girls, you know there is something about them you cannot quite figure out - a mystery," Park explains through an interpreter. "You sense that she's troubled, but you cannot figure out what it is. You ask, 'What's bugging you?' because you can't work it out. But she won't tell you. That's a teenage girl. Mia still has that quality about her."
Wasikowska looked at "Stoker" as her chance to say goodbye to teen roles, and sees the cryptic India as the perfect way to go out with a flourish.
"This is her coming of age, her sexual awakening," she says. "Everything in her life has accumulated, come to a boil at once, and that creates this climactic moment in her life. She wants to free herself from her home, her mother, her childhood." Uncle Charlie's arrival is the spark for that volatile mix.
"Stoker," scripted by the actor-turned-screenwriter Wentworth Miller, has nods to an earlier master of the genre, Alfred Hitchcock. "How Hitch did it" was never discussed on set, "but he seemed to follow the production around," Wasikowska says. "I have seen a lot of his films, and there is plenty going on here that is reminiscent of his work," especially Hitchcock's 1940s film, "Shadow of a Doubt," which has a naive niece hanging out with an Uncle Charlie who isn't at all what he seems.
"You could see ?what was on Wentworth Miller's mind," Park says. "The connection wasn't a big part of the script, and I didn't want to make the movie even more of a Hitchcock homage than it already was. I was striving to bring out the hunter/predator theme. But in doing that, I decorated India's father's room with stuffed birds that he had shot. It was only later that I realized that I was doing something Hitchcock did (in "Psycho", for instance). Invariably, if you make a thriller, you are paying tribute to Hitchcock."
And the filmmaker, best known for his "Vengeance Trilogy," which includes the controversial and much-discussed "Oldboy," doesn't want to narrow down the possible interpretations of his first American movie to "another exploration of vengeance" or "a Hitchcock homage," Park says.
"One of the joys of cinema is when the audience has options, the chance to make their own interpretations," Park says. "That is the mystery I want to maintain in this movie."