Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

Because vampires need some love too, right?

…at least that’s one of the morals of the story that I got out of “Let the Right One In.”  That, and that it’s ok to rip apart bullies limb from limb if they’re picking on your friend.  Or that love knows no bounds, and can be felt by even the most extreme outcasts.  Or that one is justified in ensuring survival at all costs, even at the expense of others.  Or that a vampire develops a sudden case of the ebola virus upon entering a house without being invited.  “Let the Right One In” is really, really ambiguous like that, as one minute you’ll identify fully with young protagonists Oskar and Eli, and the next be repulsed by what goes on around them as a result of their relationship.  But thank god it’s that way, because “Let the Right One In” would be a damn boring movie if it went the route of just about every other vampire movie by demonizing the little bloodsucker.  For perhaps the first and only time, you’ll actually identify with the one who rips holes in peoples’ throats, drinks their blood, and will disintegrate if exposed to sunlight, and the awkward boy who’s dared to see past her grisly means of survival to find a kindred spirit.  Everyone else, to us and to these two, are imposing and distant, which is probably why many of the film’s death scenes are so blunt and matter-of-fact.  The morality of it all is incredibly up in the air: innocent blood is spilled, and yet that blood must be spilled for little Eli to survive.  Is she not entitled to the right to live? …are her victims not entitled?  I had a hell of a time thinking about those questions and more, which is why “Let the Right One In” is so much more than your typical vampire movie, or horror movie – it’s a full-on morality tale.

If your movie shows very adult concepts from a kid’s point of view, you’re probably asking for trouble at least a majority of the time.  “Let the Right One In” doesn’t have this problem.  These two leads are dynamite.  As the bullied and awkward outsider Oskar, Kåre Hedebrant starts out as your typical introverted child of divorce, talking to the imaginary pigs alone in his room, threatening and stabbing trees pretending they’re his tormenters at school.  Oskar ain’t exactly what you would call well-adjusted, and this could easily have descended into the cliched picked-on kid performance based on those first few scenes.  But then throw in the sympathetic bloodsucker next door, and Oskar becomes something much more complex.  He gains a backbone, dares to fight back against those bullies…some of the things he does through Eli’s influence are terrible, and turn him down a dangerous, vengeful path, but somehow we feel the sense of accomplishment he feels, breath that sigh of relief he breathes, as he looks up to the heavens while his tormenter writhes on the ground before him.  He’s a conflicted young character, no doubt, and it takes a mature as all hell performance to pull it off, and this kid pulls it off easily.

Speaking of mature performances, maturity is in the job description for the character of Eli, the vampire who looks twelve but is of course much older.  And what a job young Lina Liandersson does, in a performance way beyond her years.  It’s amazing, in this vampire film, bloodletting, bloodsucking, and body-hiding are particularly gruesome, and yet the vampire is not vilified in any way.  Eli laments her situation.  She weeps when she claims a victim, acts on pure instinct when Oskar’s hand bleeds onto the ground, and wants to experience the things humans like Oskar take for granted – going out in the daylight, eating genuine food without throwing up, aging.  Really, this movie did what David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” did, where Jeff Goldbum’s turning into a giant man-fly was a stand-in for love enduring in the face of cancer or some other terminal illness.  There’s little if any mystique about vampirism in “Let the Right One In.”  Eli’s not some mystical, supernatural terror.  Her vampirism is a disease, a nuisance that gets in the way of living a normal life.  Hell, if you looked at this pale, quiet girl who smells funny and is often doubled-over in starvation/pain, you’d think she just had leukemia.  And in a way, that’s just what it is, except instead of having overactive white blood cells, she instinctually sustains herself with blood.  And yet, she and Oskar, these two outsiders, form one hell of a bond.  Even when her secret is out, Oskar’s biggest worry has nothing to do with fangs or bloodsucking, but whether Eli will go steady with him, while Eli wonders if Oskar would still like her if she weren’t…a girl.  Eli may be an old woman trapped in a young girl’s body with a debilitating illness, but the movie focuses not on the supernatural issue that is vampirism, but the natural issue that is adolescence and first love, and these two young actors handle such heavy material with the utmost maturity.  These are two incredible performances.

Even putting aside the two lead performances, what a sensory experience this movie is, from the cinematography to the sound to even the most miniscule plot details.  Sweden in winter is shot gorgeously, with a camera that rarely moves so that every snowflake, every tree, every hanging body dripping blood is given room to breathe so the viewer can soak it in.  The snow-covered Swedish suburbs are beautiful, but also stifling – cold, barren, and utterly quiet.  It’s a manifestation of how alone Oskar feels in being his school’s outcast, and of Eli’s isolation, unable to see daylight or talk to anybody except Oskar.  There’s something eerily beautiful about all this – it’s pretty to look at, but this is no winter wonderland.  It’s emotionally barren, cooly dismissive and passive, which is why scenes of violence and other oddities are shot the way they are.  We see an establishing shot of a hospital, with Eli climbing the facade like an animal way off in the distance.  We see Eli, weak and desperate for nourishment, going after a hopeless sap under the bridge, but with the fixed camera remaining at a safe distance.  We see Eli’s guardian, or servant, or slave (it’s never made clear who this impish companion of hers really is) hanging a victim by his feet to collect his blood: the camera is still, with few cuts, showing the gruesome act from beginning to end, even as an inquisitive poodle shows up.  These acts are bizarre and gruesome, but the movie’s not passing judgment.  We just see it as is.  It’s not documentary-like, mind you (ironic since J.J. “Cloverfield” Abrams is allegedly spearheading a remake), because it is stylish and slow, but incredibly natural.  A girl’s gotta eat, after all.  And even if she must feed off the blood of the innocent to survive, ain’t she entitled to survival?  We’re left to judge for ourselves, and more likely than not we’re gonna side with the little creature of the night.

The cinematography’s excellent, but what great, great sound design!  It’s the sound design that brings “Let the Right One In” closest to your traditional horror film, whether that’s a good thing or not, and the sound is a truly unsettling experience.  It’s subtle, as when Oskar and Eli learn to communicate via morse code, every dot and dash emphasized with surreal clarity.  And then there’s Eli’s…darker side.  You sympathize with her when she befriends Oskar, a lonely girl befriending a lonely boy, but then you remember those otherworldly stomach grumbles when she’s starving for blood, or that animal-like breathing/swallowing noises when she slinks in the shadows or up a tree, or the dog-like slurping and grumbles when she eagerly laps up a puddle of blood, hunched over like a wolf.  One minute she’s holding Oskar’s hand and confiding in him, the next she’s on all fours and making the most instinctual, animalistic sounds you’ve ever heard.  You’ll probably never see such a “natural” vampire depiction as this one, as this girl tries to fight off a truly instinctual need to feed.  Along with that is a beautiful score that might be overbearing in a scene or two, but otherwise adds mood and gives this boy-meets-vampire tale a bit of an epic Shakespearean tilt.

There’s some odd scenes here and there that seem off-kilter.  There’s a scene involving lots of obviously cgi cats making a buffet out of a particular character that, intentionally or not, got a laugh out of me.  Maybe it wasn’t supposed to be that funny, but either way I got some much-needed comic relief out of it.  There’s a subplot involving a man investigating the attacks a la Van Helsing, including one on his girlfriend.  It’s an intriguing subplot featuring a scene in a hospital room that’s one of the movie’s most memorable, but it doesn’t really fit in.  You just want to get back to the sweeping narrative concerning Oskar and Eli, and the story and characters of this subplot aren’t fleshed out nearly as much, and feels more like a distraction.  But one thing it does well is contribute to the movie’s overall eeriness and suspense and conventional thriller aspects.  But boy, when we get back to Oskar and Eli, what an odd love story / unsettling thriller we’ve got on our hands.  “Vampirism” and its aftermath is shown in all its glory in select scenes, and yet in the context of these two kids, it retreats to the background.  We don’t worry about who Eli’s next victim is gonna be or how cool it’d be for a vampire to explode in flames in the sunlight or get a stake in the heart.  We worry about how Oskar will deal with the bullies, or if Eli will be his girlfriend, or if Oskar can look past Eli’s handicap.  That’s the kind of clichéd plot you’d find in any after-school special, but great performances and the clever and subtle (!) twist of that handicap being vampirism gives it the edge this age-old material needs.  And it’s such an unsettling and disturbing film when dealing with vampirism because of how naturally and non-judgmentally it’s portrayed.  For once, you believe that vampires can be real – and sympathetic.  And, perhaps most unsettling and thought-provoking, you believe that friendship and loyalty can survive such steep odds, and endure in a world with such horrors.  This shouldn’t be seen as a great horror / vampire film (which it is anyway), but as a pretty damn great coming-of-age film.


2 comments so far

  1. DG on

    Interesting, I might watch this tomorrow. Are all these vampire films a matter of coincidence or part of a grand plan?

  2. Simon M. on

    I had a horror movie theme going for the month of October for Halloween, but didn’t get too many chances to watch much, so the horror-fest spilled over into November.

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