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Friday, 31 May 2013

The costumes of Stoker: A vampire movie without the vampires.

I've been watching a lot of Hannibal recently, and I've come to realise that Stoker could be the origin story for a female analogue to Hannibal Lecter. While there are plenty of psychotic male antiheroes out there, India Stoker is a rare breed: an ambiguously amoral female character who isn't depicted as a bitch, a slut, or a straight-up villain. Like Hannibal, Stoker is a vampire story without the vampires.
Stoker GIFs from here.
Stoker begins with the kind of premise that I generally find depressing: a mother/daughter love triangle, with the mother envying her daughter's youth. In this case it's Evelyn Stoker competing with her daughter India, who in true cliche spirit is "on the cusp of womanhood". Following the death of India's father Richard, long-lost uncle Charlie shows up at the funeral. Exploiting Evelyn's loneliness and India's sulky passivity, he moves into the Stokers' huge country house where he begins seduce both mother and daughter -- in very different ways.

Until we see her go to school, India's age isn't immediately clear. Mia Wasikowska's clean-faced appearance allows her to seem anywhere from mid-teens to late twenties, and India's living situation fails to provide many clues: one can easily imagine her and Evelyn growing old together in the Stoker house, Grey Gardens style. Her costumes are consciously frumpy and virginal: loose-fitting, Alice In Wonderland pinafore dresses and the flat-heeled saddle shoes that take on such important meaning later on in the film.
Clothes On Film has a great post about those shoes as a symbol of Charlie's obsessive desire to control India. He sends her a new pair every year, and thinking they were a gift from her beloved father, they're the only shoes India ever wears. In one scene she lies in bed, surrounded by seventeen years' worth of shoeboxes, and it's never quite clear whether she feels betrayed or intrigued when she finally discovers that they came from Charlie all along. India's shoes may also be a reference to Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks, whose transition from black-and-white saddle shoes to red high heels symbolises her journey from schoolgirl to seductive adult woman.
A lot of thought went into the costumes of Stoker. India is a Wednesday Addams figure, dressing like a child from another era while her mother wears a series of vampy, feminine designer outfits. One of my favourite scenes is when we finally see India leave the grounds of the Stoker house and go to highschool. Until then the film seems like it exists in an arthouse cinema bubble of stylised costumes and mannered colour palettes, but in fact it's only the Stokers who live there. As soon as India arrives at school, we realise that the movie is taking place in the "real" world after all, as the stubbornly bizarre (and now by comparison, utterly bizarre-looking) India goes to class alongside stereotypical 21st century jocks and teen girls.
Charlie's appearance is particularly disturbing because of its Stepford Husbandish attention to conventional detail. All of his clothes are a parody of preppy, all-American style, to the extent that subconsciously, you just know that it's a costume rather than being his "real" appearance. A wolf in WASP's clothing -- or a vampire in disguise. This feeling is exacerbated by the overt hints that despite his charm, he doesn't fit in with normal society -- for example, arriving at his brother's funeral without mourning clothes or even a black tie. Plus, because Charlie is meant to be an object of both fear (India) and desire (Evelyn), Matthew Goode is filmed in a way that mesmerisingly combines "horror movie monster" with "look at this hottie".
One of the reasons why I wrote this review (so long after the movie came out, that is) is the number of questions I've received about Stoker's costumes, particularly the colour-scheme. Charlie's yellow v-neck sweater is a far less noticeable costuming detail than India's shoes or her mother's luxurious formalwear, but it's still ripe for analysis. Charlie is an intriguing combination of two movie psycho stereotypes: charming, virile killers (Hannibal Lecter) and childish or sexually ambiguous weirdos (Norman Bates). As he charms Evelyn and lurks vampirically over India while she plays the piano, we can only interpret him as being in the first category. But as the film progresses, we learn that he also has a great deal in common with the less glamourous breed of onscreen serial killers -- the ones who sleep with a body-pillow of their mother, or collect creepy china dolls.
Charlie's monstrous nature is rooted in his childhood, and once we see the flashback scenes between him and Richard, it's easy to see him as being a partly childlike figure beneath that veneer of seductive American charm. The yellow sweater fits in with this characterisation: the colour of baby blankets, fluffy ducklings, or the kind of pastel shade associated with the implicitly queer villains of media from the mid-20th century. And as this post points out, the recurring colours of red and yellow are a noticeable theme in Stoker. From Charlie's yellow umbrella to India's bloodstained yellow pencil, both colours are in the foreground throughout.
In true vampire movies, the virginal girl's transformation into a bloodthirsty monster is usually signalled by a sudden fondness for corsets and sultry makeup -- a link to the vampire's metaphorical role as an experienced older man who inspires her sexual awakening. Stoker subverts this trope, with Charlie entering into a murderous pact with India before trying to seal the deal with a pair of crocodile skin stiletto heels. In his mind, the shoes are a symbol of him finally bringing India into the fold as his adult lover/fellow "vampire", but India rejects this in favour of going her own way. Rather than transforming into the sexy, aggressively stylish lady those crocodile heels represent, she ends up putting on her mother's blouse, her father's belt, and the shoes as an afterthought. A fitting finale, considering the fact that her style and personality are both a product of the incestuous nature of her family.
Related: Movie costumes I have loved: Hanna.

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