Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My 100 Favorite Films Volume 7: Let The Right One In

Occasionally you’ll know right off the bat that what you’re looking at is a work of art; sometimes it takes a while, sometimes it’s during a backward glance appraisal. Let The Right One In, a Swedish vampire film I read a tiny review of in some magazine or other, was quite clearly an overwhelming artistic achievement from the word go. I was made totally aware of this fact at one moment in particular: our hero, a 12 year old boy, is hit in the cheek with a stick by a bully and for a split second the sound goes in favor of the high-pitched ringing that accompanies unexpected bursts of pain. No one had ever done that before so boldly and clearly and from then on I knew unquestionably that this was bound to be one of the best films I'd ever seen. With all the mishigas being raised over Twilight and the disappointing sting of 30 Days of Night still fresh in my mind, I’d like to choose my words carefully so that readers will understand that this movie is special in ways few horror films ever manage to be; I’d also like to sit the makers of both Twilight and 30 Days of Night down and make them watch this and then smack their noses with a newspaper. I will say though that rather than read my analysis and take my word for it, you should stop now, drive the two hours to the nearest arthouse that’s showing it and see for yourself that there are still brilliant movies being made, and for the most part, if this and Joachim Von Trier's Reprise are any indication, they're being made in Scandinavia. Would you believe me if I told you it was about a cute 12 year old girl who was also a vampire?

Let The Right One In
by Tomas Alfredson
Open on a hopelessly beautiful, hopelessly middle class tenement building in a village outside Stockholm, Sweden. As 12-year-old child of divorce Oskar stands in his underwear practices his tough guy speech to a window, an old man and his young daughter unpack their belongings from a taxi cab and move into the apartment next door. Oskar is the victim of bullying and it’s not hard to see what makes him easy prey: he is pale, gangly even for a 12 year old, has long blonde hair his mother has clearly not looked at in sometime, he walks as if one leg were longer than the other, and his social weirdness manifests itself whenever he’s called on to talk in class. Clean cut bully Conny and his two not-so-brave cohorts Martin and Andreas make Oskar’s life as miserable as possible whenever they can fit it in. It isn’t until Oskar meets his new neighbor that things start to turn around for our young hero.

We know things aren’t right when, in what might be the most beautifully composed evisceration ever filmed, the elder of Oskar’s two neighbors drugs a passerby, strings him up on a lamppost and cuts his throat. This might be an ordinary killing save for one thing; he catches the blood in a plastic jug. The old man’s plan, whatever it may be, is ruined when a runaway dog brings its owners to the scene forcing him to flee. This doesn’t make his ‘daughter’ too happy, who after a stern talking to issues what sounds like a hypothetical warning “Do I have to do this myself?” Shortly after this botched incident, Oskar is outside after dark threatening a tree at knife point when he catches the young girl spying on him. It will take a lot of coaxing before he learns her name (Eli), but she wants to make one thing clear; she may be the same age as Oskar, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be friends. This changes after they meet a few times and Eli develops a soft spot for Oskar; perhaps because she has a very adult secret that youthful playtime helps her forget. One night one of the neighborhood drunks stumbles home and Eli lures him under a bridge and savagely murders him with her teeth. Two significant developments then unfold; firstly is that after Eli does her victim in fully, she cries, clearly unhappy about her fate; secondly an old eccentric with a house full of cats happens to witness the murder. Eli’s father hides the body, but clearly things are about to change for the family.

Oskar starts seeing more and more of Eli; she teaches him to stand up for himself and soon he has a crush on her that takes up most of his attention whenever they’re apart. Eli is initially reluctant until the night her dad slips up and gets himself caught while trying to milk a neighborhood boy of his life essence; the old man chooses an incredibly painful method of concealing his identity and covering his tracks so that Eli is left unmolested by authorities. When she visits him in the hospital that night, he says farewell to her and gives her what he was unable to provide while they lived together. Eli visits Oskar that night and agrees to ‘go steady’ as he puts it. Because Eli has to do her own hunting and as she isn’t be as careful as her dad was, she leaves behind a calling card one night when she doesn’t finish off one of her victims; the poor woman’s drunkard boyfriend is understandably a little shocked when she becomes sensitive to daylight, is nearly eaten alive by cats and won’t shut up about a little girl infecting her with something. Time to do some investigating, eh? This guy isn’t any Van Helsing, but he has a pretty good idea who’s behind the whole mess. As if that weren’t enough problems for our heroes, Oskar manages to make yet another enemy. When Oskar takes Eli’s advice about not letting kids bully him anymore and lashes out at Conny with a stick at recess, the little terror’s older brother gets involved; I guess exceedingly stupid and violent behavior runs in the family.

If this movie has one clear precedent, it wouldn’t be Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu or its excellent remake, any of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee’s takes on the subject, nor that oft-referenced teenage vampire trainwreck The Lost Boys. It wouldn’t even be some of the more recent child-horror films: your 6th Senses, The Rings, or any of Guillermo Del Toro’s three elegiac fairy tales, The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos, or Pan’s Labyrinth. No, if I could point to one film most likely to have been an influence on this film, I’d guess it would be Lasse Hallström’s My Life As A Dog. Another famous Swedish export (in fact perhaps the most famous non-Bergman Swedish film yet made; notice I didn’t say infamous; that honor would go to Alf Sjoberg’s I Am Curious) My Life As A Dog has many thematic similarities including a weak-willed boy infatuated with a much stronger female, pubescent growing pains, a lovely romantic story between two youths of starkly different types, a town full of characters on the fringe of the lead's lives who play important roles in the story proper, parents incapable of understanding their children, and adults in general being powerless to put themselves in the mindset of that thing they’re now least like and most afraid of in the world – a child. The film's theme of childhood being as mysterious as supernatural behavior reminds one of Robert Wise's great Curse of the Cat People, only with roles reversed and modernized. The same shimmering innocence pervades both films and Alfredson has Wise's respect for the extraordinary power of the imagination.

Let me digress for a moment and say that if I had an inner child, she would look and act something like Lina Leandersson does here; this 12 year old first-time actress is my hero. Her Eli, on top of scoring points for being an unrelentingly cute murderer, is one of the greatest characters in film history. Oskar and Eli spend most of their time together asking questions typical of 12 year olds, and its clear that they both suffer from arrested development, albeit for two different reasons. Oskar has his absent parents to thank for his naivete (Oskar has ten times more fun with his dad, but dad still hasn’t come clean about his homosexuality and is clearly ashamed of it, which puts a strain on their relationship), Eli has the fact that her life stopped being that of 12 year old years ago. Between Eli’s lack of friends her own age or any other relationships beyond her male caregiver, she is just as clueless about socialization as Oskar. This is most whimsically demonstrated when Oskar buys Eli a bag of candy in a misguided attempt to be kind. Eli, not wanting to seem rude, eats one and promptly vomits behind the vender’s stand; Oskar panics and hugs Eli, something, I gather from her ridged posture, that no one has done in quite some time. Both Oskar's frightened expectations and Eli's confused detachment ring as true as anything I've ever seen on film. Moments like this are what separates Let The Right One In from all of its contemporaries. Alfredson proves himself capable of providing every facet of John Ajvide Lindqvist‘s source novel and screenplay with equal amounts of care and grace. Incidentally, Lindqvist should receive accolade for both staying remarkably true to vampire lore, while still delivering a unique scenario in which to play with it (for every Martin there's a Dracula 2000 waiting to make it irrelevant). I knew that this movie was not simply good but transcendent just after Eli says goodbye to her father. She comes back to Oskar’s room, her mouth still coated in her guardian’s dried blood, disrobes and climbs into bed with him (Maria Strid's costumes really make Eli's malaise all the more palpable). She has never known loss before and thus her turning to Oskar for comfort in her time of greatest need is beyond touching. They never face each other and Oskar is clearly out of his depth, but the two are completely in the moment and this scene’s tenderness is nearly unparalleled; rarely have child actors seemed so unapologetically, wonderfully childish. When Eli slowly takes Oskar’s hand, I thought I was going to cry.

Oh, and those of you who’re reading this going “it’s a love story, pfft! I’ll just see Saw V, thank you very much. We don’t need another Twilight!” shame on you. Please don’t misunderstand me, the movie works just as well as a horror film; Alfredson is just as at home melting a heart as he ripping one out. And oh, the horror! Let The Right One In is like the There Will Be Blood of horror films. It is quiet, unpredictable, wildly visual, gut-wrenchingly tense, and absolutely mesmerizing. So little actually happens, and what does is so masterfully understated that you can’t help but wait with bated breath from scene to scene. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography makes for one of the moodiest portrayals of cold weather in recent memory. As enthralled as I was by the awesomely beautiful story of pre-adolescent love and the search for understanding, I was absolutely spellbound by the scenes where the horror elements come into play. Watching Conny observe Oskar and plan his downfall internally is ten times as frightening because this is a film completely unafraid to put its heroes in danger. His classmates put Oskar in very real peril and it almost rivals the gruesome murders committed by his sunlight-fearing dream girl. Another point Let has in common with There Will Be Blood is it’s truly awesome and orgasmically violent climax. This and 28 Days Later now share the prize for greatest conclusion in any film. No other filmmaker has yet been brave enough to make its romantic peak coincide with harm to children under 12 without losing any of his or the movie's integrity.
It’s funny to note how effortlessly a country enters a discourse and makes the homogenized major players seem like the big, monomaniacal teenagers they truly are. Go to netflix and look at their foreign horror; they have two categories: Italian and Japanese. You’ll find a French film and the odd Spanish production, but the point is that America’s scope is so narrow that it’s a wonder Let The Right One In got…well, let in (to use [rec] as an example, that film’s remake is currently making the rounds of multiplexes across the country, but it’s superior source film has yet to find an American distributor [note: it found a barebones DVD release mid-2009]). Seeing as how Let The Right One In has exactly one historical precedent (Ingmar Bergman’s haunting and hallucinogenic Hour Of The Wolf), it could have been anything less than perfect and I would have been satisfied. In fact I probably would have sung its praises anyway seeing as how America’s idea of a good independent horror film is Teeth and its idea of a revisionist vampire movie ranges from the bad (Underworld, Interview With A Vampire, Lost Boys) to the absolutely unwatchable (Van Helsing, Bordello of Blood, From Dusk Till Dawn). However, not since Near Dark has there been so brilliant a vampire film; not ever has there been a better film about childhood. Let The Right One In is nothing short of perfect and will remain one of my favorite films for a long time.

7 comments:

Eric said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eric said...

Oops I spelled scene wrong

Scout said...

I haven't yet had the time to read the book, so you'll forgive my unfamiliarity with Lindqvist's specifics. I don't mean to be at all facetious, I just haven't read it yet.

Cherelleski said...

Awesome post.
This is one of my favourite films in a long time. About the high-pitched noise of pain, I've only ever seen/heard it used once before, in "Devil's Backbone".
I love that both directors chose such a subjective yet almost universal experience to draw the audience into empathy. Most directors use more objective techniques, encouraging the audience to be merely the audience, rather than a participant. It was a subtle and absolutely wonderful film.

Scout said...

Incidentally, thank you for reading.

Scout said...

In case you were wondering I deleted your comment because anyone who hadn't read the book or seen the film would have a significant portion of it ruined for them and I just want to make sure everyone has the same opportunity that you had.

Beccah said...

I'm wondering how you feel about this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjavOLdPk1c

Saw a commercial for it tonight and potentially freaked out my roommates with my concerned outrage