Justin does Let The Right One In [plus retro review]

“Are you a vampire?”

The Scoop: 2008 R, directed by Tomas Alfredson and starring Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson and Per Ragnar

Tagline: Oscar, an overlooked and bullied boy, finds love and revenge through Eli, a beautiful but peculiar girl who turns out to be a vampire.

Summary Capsule: A young outcast boy gets a crush on the weird new girl and doesn’t seem to mind at all that she only gives him advice at night.

Justin’s Rating: For the record, Eli would break Edward Cullen in ten seconds flat.  With both hands tied behind her back.

Justin’s Review: I think that one of the big problems I’ve had with vampire movies is fairly simple: what used to be a terror, a creature of the night has been romanticized into either (a) a love interest, (b) a superhero-with-fangs, or (c) a stock villain with snappy one-liners.  It doesn’t help that the vampiric legend is seemingly wedded to mockable clichés, such as an aversion to garlic and crosses, the ability to turn into bats, and spending a good day’s sleep in coffins.  It’s been done, and done, and done some more so that by the 1970’s, they were doing goofy crap like Blackula and Deafula, by the 1980’s placing vampires in comedies like Love at First Bite, and finally turning the tables on vampires in the late 90’s by unleashing a Valley Girl named Buffy on them.  We’ve come full circle, but at too fast of a momentum to stop, and so that 2000’s have seen vampires running amok as action stars and sparkly romantic interests.

In letting vampires become a well-defined staple of pop culture, we’re slowly leeching anything interesting out of them (ironic, in a way, considering their feeding habits).  Where, I ask, is the vampire movie that horrifies?  That makes me shrink back from the screen, thanking my lucky stars that I haven’t bumped into one of those in the middle of the night?  Where are the storytellers that can see past Bram Stoker’s vampire = sexuality connection to the inherent creepiness of these creatures?  When you have someone moving who is technically dead, that should be creepy.  When they have to feed, constantly, on human blood, that should be creepy.  Vampires should be creepers — not teenie bop poster pin-ups — crawling under beds and in sewers, humanoid carrion killers and scavengers smelling of old dirt and bad breath.

This is why, I think, a lot of praise was heaped on the Swedish film Let The Right One In, because it takes a refreshingly honest look at vampirism, free of the assumed staples and clichés while still paying respect to the established folk lore.  It’s a slow movie, one fraught with pauses and background details, but rich in contemplation.  It asks the simple question: what if a bullied boy became best friends with a girl who turns out to be a blood-sucking vampire?

The boy in question is Oskar, a thin waif of a thing who is almost transparent if the light hits him the right way.  He’s a bit different in his ways, which singles him out for teasing and physical abuse from a few of his classmates.  Still, it’s not too bad, and one day he leaves his apartment and meets a quiet, shy girl who’s barefoot in the snow.

The girl in question is Eli, who’s been divorced from her humanity for quite some time.  As Oskar gradually discovers who and what Eli is – long after we do, of course – he has to come to grips with his growing affection for her and the brutal acts of savagery that she is capable of.

Let The Right One In was compared to Twilight, having been released in roughly the same time window and featuring human-vampire love stories.  But that’s really where their ties end; while Twilight’s story was more of a sickeningly idealized love poem of a girl to that “bad boy” in the cafeteria, Let The Right One In is a tale of first love, but also of a love that perhaps really should not happen.

While Eli is quite sympathetic – she is truly alone, inhabiting an eternal childlike form and cut off from the rest of the world that she preys upon – the movie never, ever lets us become all that comfortable with her.  It’s not as if she only kills and drinks the blood of convicted criminals or Bambi; innocent people die because of her.  She uses a human surrogate to go out and collect blood in her stead, perhaps to distance herself from the very act that makes her so alien.  But even this does not last, and she is forced to kill and eat, and eat, and eat some more.  At one point she accidentally creates a new vampire, who is appalled to discover the sickening drawbacks to joining the legion of the undead (one of these drawbacks is that every cat in the world will attack your sorry self).

Nevertheless, the connection between Eli and Oskar develops, becoming… something.  The film is vague on where this is going.  Part of it is sexual, part is childlike friendship, part is family, and part is two loners looking out for each other in a world of hurt.  The end scene is something that any other “horror” film would consider to be a shocking development, but it’s played as something so loving and caring as to make you flip flop between a smile and a grimace.

I’m not a big fan of vampire films, as I’m contractually obligated to say every time I review a movie of the genre, but I will heartily endorse LTROI for doing what Stephanie Meyer, Anne Rice and Count Chocula could not – to put vampires in their proper place once more.

Kyle’s Rating: With admittedly not a lot of competition, possibly the best vampire film ever made

Kyle’s Review: I have never seen Harold and Maude, though I’ve been told I should and I admittedly feel like I’m missing out a bit by not seeing it. I presume that the joy of that particular film lies in the wholly unlikely pairing of the titular characters, with their against-all-odds ‘relationship’ giving new meaning to life and love for both themselves and viewers, with the added uniqueness of the film’s successful and cult-defining blending of multiple genres. When I first heard about the plot from a friend, who went on to explain how “cool” it was to bring love and death and the allure of suicide together in one film, I wasn’t sure if it was a joke or a real movie. I guarantee a film like Wristcutters would never exist were it not for Harold and Maude.

In the back of my head, I knew while watching Let the Right One In that I was absorbing a film that deserves not only similar accolades as any cinematic pillar of cultishness we champion at Mutant Reviewers, but also medals and other professional awards. Fetishistic devotee blogs and tie-in toy lines. A chance to step in a metaphorical boxing ring with any Anne Rice film or book and win by knockout the Best Vampire Movie Ever title belt. It will surely receive the America remake treatment, but cultural differences would seem to ensure even a successful effort will be similar only in name and plot outline (a 12-year-old bullied boy showing signs of becoming a serial killer as hero won’t play too well to American audiences post-Columbine). So for all intents and purposes, Let the Right One In will stand alone, Bergman-esque slowness and subtitles keeping the dumb and impatient from bothering with it. Enjoyed and cherished only by those with the patience, taste, and moral flexibility to root for a young would-be murderer and a seemingly-young immortal vampire girl to find true happiness with each other.

Which is, arguably, exactly how it should be. Who needs mainstream success when the devoted few will give your film immortality? Hooray!

Believe me, I wish it weren’t so. Let the Right One In is such an accomplished film, utilizing practically every trick of cinema from past all the way to present (I’m certain a mix of both CGI and trainer tricks produced some of the angriest and aggressive cats I’ve ever seen) that it deserves so much attention than it’s getting. Which I suppose is the nature of the business: a week or so before I drove into Hollywood to see it, I was lucky enough to see [REC], the original foreign film that was turned into what I hear is the absolute piece of garbage Quarantine. That experience reaffirmed/resigned me to the idea that original foreign films face a steep uphill climb to wider acceptance here in the states. Like I said, cultural differences and shorter attention spans. But then again, hey: America rules!

Beyond all of its immense technical and acting accomplishments (there is not a single bad performance in here, not a one!), the simple fact that it kept my interest as a vampire movie is a startling achievement. I can handle vampires as flashy stand-ins for “cool” (see: The Lost Boys) and dumb action horror films can be tolerated and even enthusiastically enjoyed (see: Dracula 2000 and, um, maybe John Carpenter’s Vampires but then again not really). But it takes something special, like say Near Dark, to feel like there was actually a desire to tell an interesting story instead of adding window dressing to a stupid vampire-centric plot and hoping all the inherent and by now mightily played-out elements of vampires would carry the bulk of the storytelling. In case you hadn’t already guessed, I not only don’t care much for Anne Rice’s novels, but I’ve fallen asleep twice trying to watch Interview with a Vampire. And this from a guy whose first major looooo-ong novel (read in the fifth grade!) was the unabridged Dracula by Bram Stoker and favorite early teenage years book was Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. I love vampires, but give me something new, yeah?

Let the Right One In is something new. It’s simultaneously a horror film, a love story, a learning-to-stand-up-for-oneself tale of courage, and a tale of the power of friendship… all told with some of the darkest and absolutely perverse undertones I’ve ever seen in a film I walked out of feeling completely jubilant and entertained. When you start thinking about the movie, and what the past held for some of the characters and what exactly motivated and sustained others and what kind of future is possible for the characters left standing… whoa, heavy, dude! Who’s using who? How much consent is being given and is it knowingly so? At what point does unquenchable thirst warp motivation from being driven by the heart to being driven by ultimate survival? How the hell does anyone really expect a film with this kind of complex nuances to be remade for American audiences? No offense meant, but come on!

Of the film itself, in a perfect world I would urge you to see it without reading the book (soon to be published here in America, apparently) just so you can enjoy the film’s lighter side. And make no mistake, it is surprisingly light and breezy for a story driven by a main character’s thirst for blood. Although I laughed along with the bulk of the crowded theater, I was later struck by how effectively a scene where a surrogate father captures, strings up, and slits the throat of a passer-by to collect his blood in a well-used plastic receptacle for his “daughter” is presented humorously, with an inquisitive dog playing the role of ineffectual authority and the haplessness of the otherwise matter-of-fact accomplished murderer displayed through a sight gag and his vaudevillian antics when he notices he’s left behind a rather crucial item at the scene of his crime. Be prepared to run through a whole range of emotions, as abhorrently violent and bloody scenes test your gag reflex and others rekindle that inner spark inside yourself as you see and recall what it is to find a soulmate who would gladly and without question stand beside you, the two of you against the world.

But some of you may seek out the book, and from what I’ve researched the book goes into finer and darker detail about the relationships and delivers with absolute certainly on horrible implications the film at best hints at, or allows the existence of. I think the film is ultimately spectacularly successful because you can interpret it in so many ways. It can either support every dark thought you have about what you’re seeing on the screen, or validate your wish that everything is as it appears to be and rather than a story of subtle and practiced manipulations it’s a story of destined soulmates. After all, even though I wish the film would not get run through the Hollywood system, within the film all she’d have to do is move here to America and find a nice cheap house near a blood bank with shabby locks and live happily ever after, right? Sure, why not!

In a perfect, cohesive world, Kåre Hedebrant (who plays the shy yet tender Oskar) and Lina Leandersson (who plays the vampiric yet caring Eli) would become superstars based on their performances. And the film, which features incredible impetus against bullying culminating in one of the best scenes of righteous comeuppance I’ve ever seen, would slot comfortably and perfectly alongside the best of John Hughes and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as one of those universal-appeal films featuring kids but preaching to all the virtues of finding your own way in life and cherishing the ones you love as true found treasures. If you don’t think you’ll be able to connect emotionally with what is essentially a touching story of young love (rooted strongly in the idea of “love” being such a vast and mysterious concept that long-lived humans and centuries-old vampires could never fully grasp all its complexities) affirmed amongst scenes of bloody murders, vicious bullying, and a man melting his own face off with a jar of acid, I don’t blame you. If you’re willing to test out your cult sensibilities with a film that plays upon seemingly every emotion you’ve got, though, I can’t recommend Let the Right One In highly enough.

Sorry, Dark Knight. I just found my Best Film of 2008.

Vampire snugglies!

Intermission!

  • Cats are apparently the first and extremely enthusiastically aggressive line of defense against vampires
  • Swedish winters last FOREVER
  • Vampires don’t drink wine, nor can they eat any kind of candy, either. But they are very good at puzzles, since they tend to end up with a lot of time to kill
  • That is actually excellent advice for solving a Rubik’s Cube
  • That is a REALLY cool interpretation of what happens when a vampire enters a room they have not been invited into. Thank goodness, and she was obviously aware, that a invitation can still be given after the fact!
  • The bloody and instantly iconic image of Eli covered in blood got massively toned down for the theatrical poster… although it allows the ethereal beauty of Lina Leandersson to envelop you before you even see the film
  • (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!!!!) As stated in the review, the source novel goes deeper into the relationships and character traits, and it is all largely dark and disturbing stuff. The cinematic Eli’s insistence that she is “not a girl” and the vague insinuations of Leandersson’s brief and non-sexualized nude scene are developed more emphatically and speak to the ultimately androgynous nature of vampirism, while the literary relationship between Eli and her caretaker “father” is less vaguely touching and more creepily parasitic. Similarly, while the movie Oskar’s obsession with serial killers and knives is somehow more charming than alarming, in the book early warning signs make Oskar’s destiny obvious even before Eli enters his life. All in all, the novel sounds to be a high quality read that is devastatingly dark regarding all the characters and their lives. Whereas the film, perhaps brilliantly so, tweaks and smoothes out the source material so that it is possible for the story to be paradoxically sunny and hopeful. No, really. You won’t believe it until you see it for yourself, so I urge you to do so!
  • Johan Ajvide Lindqvist, author of the novel, is a massive fan of The Smiths and Morrissey, so you’re right: the title is directly inspired by the song “Let the Right One Slip In.”

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • The Lost Boys
  • Harold and Maude
  • The Girl Next Door
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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Louise does Let Me In « Mutant Reviewers From Hell

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