Sunday, November 15, 2009

Let the Right One In

Of all the various niches of cinematic genres and cross-genres, perhaps the most tragically underutilized is the realm of children's horror. By that I do not mean films that place children in horrifying situations (though these films certainly do that); no, I'm referring to that special sort of movie that is as much a child's imagination and the stress of growing up as it is the monsters that they perceive, be they real or illusion. When Guillermo Del Toro released Pan's Labyrinth in 2006, he put forward the greatest depiction of fantasy/horror as filtered through the eyes of a child since Charles Laughton's masterpiece Night of the Hunter, a film released over 50 years earlier. Happily, we didn't have to wait very long for the next classic to roll around, as only two years later we got Let the Right One In.

John Ajvide Lindqvist adapted his own novel for the screenplay, which is all the more surprising given how much of his material he was willing to omit. Lindqvist's novel is full of gory bits and extraneous themes, but his screenplay is refined, culling from his story the best elements and leaving out the gratuitous pulp and some themes director Tomas Alfredson felt wouldn't work in a film, such as the story's pedophilia subplot. Here, Alfredson cares only about the relationship between Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a shy, morbid tween and Eli (Lina Leandersson), a 200-year-old vampire forever trapped in the body of a child Oskar's age.

The most important aspect, really the foundation, of children's horror is atmosphere, and Let the Right One In has it in spades. Compared Night of the Hunter and Pan's Labyrinth, Alfredson's film has the most blatantly horrific feel. Set and shot in Sweden, the movie had half its work done before it even started; the blanketing white of the omnipresent snow and ice in some ways recalls the Coens' Fargo, and indeed the sight of spilled blood in this movie has largely the same jarring effect as it did in the Coens' first masterpiece. Yet Let the Right One In is also a claustrophobic affair, boxing in the vast sense of hopelessness and unsettling blankness of Fargo into places like a cramped apartment complex courtyard, or a school that manages somehow to be bleaker even than the endless snow outside. Alfredson maintains a touch of realism where Laughton and Del Toro delved deeply into fantasy, and the results are infinitely more unsettling.

Appropriately, for an atmosphere such as this, Alfredson does not move from one point to the next in a hurry; in the opening shots, the rail-thin Oskar brandishes a knife, ordering some unseen, likely nonexistent object to "squeal like a pig." He looks out his window to see a man and a young girl move into the complex, and the first thing the man days upon getting to his new room is cover the window. The next day, Oskar reveals a surprising knowledge of forensics when a police officer comes to his class, and a large kid sits beside him tapping menacingly. That night, the old man who just moved into the complex heads into the woods, finds and kills a loner, then attempts to drain his victim's blood into a bottle before he is discovered and must flee.

All of this leads up to Oskar meeting Eli in their courtyard one night, a moment as enigmatic as everything that came before it. These first 12 minutes are so are fascinating; Alfredson sets up almost everything we need to know about these characters and overtly points toward the vampire route to the point that even some schmuck who randomly wandered into the theater could see it coming, yet he manages to take the time to linger on each of these shots, suggesting and prodding with tiny nuances.

Upon meeting Oskar, Eli flatly states that they cannot be friends, yet a bond soon forms anyway. The boy asks his new friend how old she is. "Twelve. More or less." He gives her a Rubik's cube, which she solves easily, and they learn Morse code so they can tap messages to each other through their shared wall. Oskar, who collects newspaper clippings of various crimes, monitors the growing number of murders around the town, and he links them to Eli. When he fits the pieces together and asks her if she's a vampire, he does so with a matter-of-fact pragmatism; her responses are equally casual. Oskar does not judge her, and Eli is just happy that it doesn't seem to affect their friendship.

I see that Let the Right One In is generally billed as a romantic horror film, a classification that is spot on but also misleading; the relationship between these two kids certainly touches upon the idea of first love, but at its core, Let the Right One In is about two lonely children finding their only solace in each other. Oskar, feeble and weird, is incessantly bullied at school and reserved at home as he's still adjusting to his parents' divorce. Eli, forever trapped in a child's body, detests having to kill to stay alive and knows that even if she could form some sort of friendship with a person, there would always be the risk that she'd be so hungry she couldn't contain herself.

Alfredon's visual choices reflect the isolation of these characters against the stark backgrounds. He routinely places his characters in frames and windows, and he even separates them within the same shot: one of the film's most chilling images shows Håkan on the far left, hiding in a gym shower, as a group breaks into the room displayed on the right where his would-be victim is screaming for help. Aside from this touch, Alfredson's take on the source material succeeds because he mainly alludes to the novel's graphic violence. Eli's vampiric attacks are largely shadowed, and even when she dismembers a poor soul we see only the peripheral effect. In fact, the film's only weak moments directly depict overt violence: one of Eli's victims survives and slowly morphs into a vampire. Alfredson communicates this to us with a scene in which obviously computer animated cats swarm her in a frenzy as well as a sunlit suicide. These scenes are, in comparison to the rest of the film, too conventional (or, in the case of the cats, too unintentionally funny).

Yet these are small quibbles. Alfredson took a great risk with the project, as the entire weight of the story rests on the shoulder of two 11-year-olds. It's a recipe for disaster, but Hedebrant Leandersson give commanding performances. Perhaps concerned with exposing the children to such a serious story, Alfredson never let them read a full script, instead reciting their lines to them before each scene. I suppose, then, that one could assign him the credit, but no amount of instruction behind the camera can fully create the character in front of it. Both Hedebrant and Leandersson work with somewhat clichéd character types -- the reserved child shuffled between two awful parents, the self-loathing vampire who views her existence as a curse -- yet each brings layers and emotion to this story without ever lapsing into the sort of facile, borderline campy vampire fiction of late( even Buffy and Angel had their questionable moments). Leandersson in particular gives an award-worthy performance, and it's no mean feat that I preferred her to both of Kate Winslet's '08 performances combined. The young girl paints a heartbreaking portrait of a child vampire who finds her first connection in God knows how long, and it's interesting to note that the only violence that Eli engages in with outright hostility is in defense of her new friend.

This is the third time I've sat down with the feature, but only the second that I've seen it all the way through. You see, the last time I watched it I rented the DVD, only to discover that the subtitles had been altered severely. The wit and grace of the original dialogue (or at least translation) was wholly gone, replaced by what I would describe as dialogue summaries, terse, sub-prosaic descriptions of the action. I've been waiting for months for Magnolia to put out a Blu-Ray with corrected subtitles (regular DVDs seem to be fixed now). Of course, they don't exactly give a damn about this issue; when intrepid bloggers brought it to their attention, their PR rep essentially blasted them as nerds with too much time on their hands and that nothing was wrong, agreed to correct it nevertheless, then refused to do so before their current stocks emptied and refused to exchange jilted buyers. It's one of the most stunning examples of a lack of business acumen I've ever seen. Magnolia trades primarily in smaller features, so their only demographic to speak of is the cinephile community; broadly insulting them for caring so much about a product that they protest its mishandling is about as intelligent as lighting a sack of dog feces on someone's porch and leaving some form of identification nearby to link you to it. Now I hear that some of the audio tracks on the Blu-Rays are messed up. Maybe the fact that Magnolia must replace those could put the proper subtitles in the next batch, but then that would be sensible. Those who wish to see the version with the correct subtitles can look for a DVD that lists the subtitles as "English (Theatrical)" or Netflix users can stream the proper version (unless they've updated their DVD stock, though, physical copies are still flawed).

But, as it so often happens, I digress. Let the Right One In is ethereal, heartbreaking, romantic, shocking and all sorts of catchwords that don't do any justice to the final product. The title refers to the piece of vampire lore that states no vampire may enter a residence without the owner's invitation, but it also outlines the core of the film. These two children, or at least two people in children's bodies, are cut off from others, distant from their caretakers and without anyone to discuss their real feelings and thoughts. Yet each lets the other in, a bond of trust that strengthens the two but comes with a certain sense of foreboding. By erasing Håkan's backstory, Lindqvist and Alfredson subtly cast the middle-aged man as "the previous Oskar," someone so driven to be with Eli and protect her that he would even disfigure his face to prevent captors from tracing their way back to her and offer his own blood when he fails to procure it from someone else. This tale of the blurred line between childhood friendship and romance reminded me of Miyazaki Hayao's recent Ponyo, but this aspect of the story, one that suggests that the cycle, however sweet and innocent now, might simply be the first stage of a new cycle recalls Charlie Kaufman's equally unsure conclusion to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.


  1. I thought you weren't going to mention it, but in the last line you touched on the open nature of the film and one of the many reasons I love this film. It can be viewed as a tale of friendship, but it can also be read as Eli manipulating Oskar so that he is her new slave. Like it's setting and characters, the ending is both warm and cold at the same time.

  2. I agree. Being of the pessimistic persuasion, I read the film as a very bleak vision of love: parasitic, vampiric, bloodsucking -- the first blooms being quickly crushed under the cold snows of repetition, dependence, poverty. And then the girl moves on to ensnare another younger victim.

    Then again, the filmmakers say that it's not really about that at all. They wanted to use vampires to talk about teenage rage and violence. So who knows...