Monday, November 24, 2008

Let The Right One In

Thanks to my man Igor, who made the above Swedish cinema primer possible. It's not like I can run the trailer twice now, is it?

I tend to associate with women much smarter than me, and therefore I've seen a lot of foreign films. I think I was as prepared as anyone to check out Let The Right One In, the nifty vampire film currently making the art-house circuit. Let The Right One In is gonna be a hard sell for the average fan raised on the American style of horror cinema. For one, it's the close-uppiest movie you will ever see. Director Tomas Alfredson seems to believe that the best place for a camera is four inches from a character's face. It's also edited in a rough, jarring way that bats the viewer's focus so hard it makes the teeth rattle.

It's also really, really, friggin' good. It's a story about an isolated, angry young tweener who befriends a vampire and it absolutely works.

I was planning on my next post being about Twilight and the neutering of the vampire archetype, but Let The Right One In renewed my faith in this type of story. Ever since Buffy The Vampire Slayer (or, arguably, the Anne Rice vampire novels) vampires have become the bad boy archetype, basically human but with unusual diets and skin deficiencies who have a dark, conflicted, sexy edge but who can be redeemed with the love of a good, strong, pure girl. Eli, the conflicted vampire of LTROI, is cut from the same cloth as the classic vampire stories. She's a creature with barely controlled appetites, someone whose emotions and sensitivities may be human but whose impulses make her a constant threat.

She finds her perfect match in Oskar, the troubled and lonely boy she befriends. When we first meet Oskar, he is taking out imaginary revenge against the bullies who torment him at school, slashing at the air with a knife and practicing the things he'd say. He's well read and quiet, keeps a scrapbook of gruesome murders, and has a surprising knowledge in forensic pathology. When he's actually confronted by the school bullies he becomes timid and powerless, and this in turn makes his fantasy life darker and more violent. I've long held to my haunted house theory, namely that the best horror movies involve characters who are haunted even before they ever set foot into the realm of the supernatural, and Oskar makes a much better fit for the vampire tale than any goody-two-shoes flyover land blonde.

The story is focused almost purely as a tale between Eli and Oskar. Adults barely feature in the movie, and the parents and teachers who populate Oskar's world are mostly kept off-screen or filmed from behind like characters in a Charlie Brown special. There is a small cadre of locals who slowly become aware of what Eli is up to, but they're mostly used as victims, comedic relief, or targets of ridiculous CGI cat attacks.

My favorite part of the movie, the bit that I think other movies could learn from, is the slow way that Oskar and Eli become friends. In Hollywood movies, teen and tween characters toss out witty and insightful bon-mots, sprinkled with quickly outdated pop culture references. The characters in LTROI talk like kids. They're guarded and shy, insecure and awkward. They slowly up to each other, slowly offer their friendship, and it's tremendously realistic. These felt so natural and so perfectly captured that I dread the upcoming remake, which will no doubt make the kids older, prettier, and full of snappier dialogue and rock song. LTROI is a quiet sort of movie, and Hollywood doesn't do that well, not without being self-congratulating.

The horror in the movie is very well done and effective. The story's emphasis isn't really on the body count, but when the violence hits it's shocking and brutal. Eli is not a romantic seducer type, and she rips out people's throats with animalistic abandon. The gore is limited but effective, particularly the grisly scene where Eli demonstrates what happens when she enters a home uninvited. That scene stands out as one of my favorites in recent memory, along with the ghastly final sequence in the poolside, as Oskar's vampire buddy comes to his aid in the most shocking way, proving that it's probably not a good idea to make friends with monsters.

One of the big questions that I took away from the movie is about how honest the emotional connection is between Eli and Oskar. Eli, as portrayed in the movie, is clearly not bereft of humanity. When she is forced to find her own victims, she weeps after she kills people. She shows tremendous amounts of restraint around Oskar, and the connections they make are tender and very human. She is, however, very callow and heartless to Hakan, the older man who lives with her and kills people to feed her. We never learn the exact nature of Hakan and Eli's relationship, but I wonder if Hakan was once in Oskar's shoes. Did Eli strike up a friendship with someone her own age and then abandon him as he gets older. The story ends with the two of them leaving town, implying that Oskar has taken Hakan's place. Will Eli one day treat the older Oskar with the same contempt?

There are few horror flicks that I can think of where the setting is a perfect fit for the story. Blackeberg, the Stockholm suburb where the story takes place, is oppressively cold. The characters trudge through blank, lifeless landscapes, faces constantly bundled, struggling to move under the bindings of their heavy clothes. It conveys a sense of stillness that fits very well with vampire mythology. Frankly, Sweden is probably the best place to hide if you are a vampire. Everyone is already pale and gloomy.

Anyway, this movie isn't for everyone. I don't think anyone would accuse LTROI of being a particularly kinetic film, and I know that the cinematography turned some of my friends off, as did the particularly twisted nature of the kid's relationship. But it's still one of the best vampire movies I've ever seen. Check it out.


Kwame said...

Reason no.2 this would make a terrible Hollywood remake is the way the filmakers absolute refuse to explain any of the strange interesting things that happen throughout the movie.

Oskar's Dad's male "visitor". Eli saying she's not a girl and then later the fleeting shot of her mangled girly parts. Anything about Haskar. Can you imagine any of that surviving a focus group?

Good movie. It gets better the more I think of it.

Creature said...

I am a hundred percent in agreement with you. Hollywood movies tend to suffer from the "explain everything" syndrome, which makes movies less challenging. I don't need movies to be TOTALLY vague, but inferring stuff is always preferred. Most of that movie probably wouldn't survive a focus group, specifically the questions of Eli's actual gender identity, which as I understand was more detailed in the novel.

Culture Of None said...

Ebert wisely endorsed 'Let The Right One In' as an artfully and exceedingly more competent antidote to 'Twilight' and 'New Moon' (in his review footnotes). The final act of LTROI is sheer film magic. I've not yet read the novel (penned by the Director!), but I'm beside myself wondering how that pool scene would've been constructed in text - and the relationship between Hakan & Eli (from what I've read) is revealed more clearly in the book: it seems their co-habitation is dreadfully akin to our darkest interpretations.

Creature said...

While the old chestnut of movies not being as good as the novels their based on is usually 99% true, I'm almost inclined to believe LTROI works better as a movie. Novels give you full access to the characters. You get to know exactly what is going on in their heads, where their emotions lie, and what governs the way they behave. One of the things that struck me most while watching LTROI is the distance we're kept from the characters. Maybe it's the cold, maybe it's the silence, but the movie feels like we're watching the characters from afar and we have to interpret their behavior and personality because there aren't a lot of overly-direct clues given to us. I like that aspect of the movie.

Sooner or later I'll read the book. A good friend did and she hated it, so I'm a little leery.