Monday, October 19, 2009

Love Bites


With the popularity of the teen movie Twilight and the cult TV series True Blood, vampires are one again in fashion, but at this stage in the game you would not expect to discover a truly original film in this genre, as just about every conceivable aspect of the vampire myth has been explored and exploited in the many years since Nosferatu first bared his fangs. However, last year a Swedish horror film came along that mined the legend for all sorts of insinuating variations and challenging new themes.

Although undeniably a scary movie, it could be argued that the vampire element in Let The Right One In is actually a sub-plot of the true story, which describes the unfolding relationship between a bullied 12 year-old called Oskar and his new best friend, tough girl Eli. Indeed, John Ajvide Lindqvist, the writer of the screenplay and the bestselling novel on which it was based, explained his idea “as an attempt to portray the area that I grew up in, and not as a vampire story”. One of the pleasures of Let The Right One In is that it takes a while to reveal what sort of film it is, that is to say, a mesmerising exploration of loneliness and alienation via a masterful transformation of the vampire movie into an innovative, touching, heartwarming story about friendship and love.

"The first cut is the deepest"

Yes, there are many horrifying, bloody moments, but the focus is on the harrowing coming-of-age of the isolated pre-teens. Theirs is an urgent friendship, conveying all the awkwardness and pain of growing up with a convincing naturalism, but it’s also under-stated in a way that demonstrates a great observation of how children behave on the brink of adolescence. There are elements of a blossoming boy-meets-girl romance, but these are tentative, thus avoiding any hint of a melodramatic love affair.

Oskar is a shy, studious boy living with his divorced mother in the depressing Stockholm suburbs. A loner, regularly tormented by his classmates, he spends his evenings stabbing a tree with a knife, imagining revenge, “Squeal like a pig. So, scream!” One night, he meets a kindred spirit, Eli, a pale, androgynous girl his own age and they bond over a Rubik’s Cube (this is the early 80s, after all). Together, Oskar and Eli form a union against the world with Eli encouraging Oskar to stand up to his aggressors, which he later does in an unforgettable escalation of violence. Slowly, but surely, Oskar realises that Eli is different from other girls:

Oskar: Are you a vampire?

Eli: I live off blood ... yes.

Oskar: Are you ... dead?

Eli: No. Can't you tell?

Rather than being frightened, Oskar is actually more intrigued, his desire for the friendship of someone his own age over-riding the fact that Eli is cold to the touch. She transforms his life – teaching him to defend himself, piercing his solitude – and there’s no turning back.

"Yes, I'm a big fan of Cubism"

Kåre Hedebrant, with his blond hair and translucent skin, is a fascinating choice to play Oskar, and he makes the character seem remote, withdrawn and a little creepy. Cursed with an unfortunate page-boy haircut and a permanently runny nose, he is a magnet for the school bullies and it is hard not to feel sorry for him. Even though Eli is a vampire, Oskar is at that age when he calmly accepts astonishing facts. Instinctively, he knows enough to leave certain questions well alone.

Eli, played by Lina Leandersson, is the (undead) girl next door, exhibiting all the signs of a classical vampire: never venturing out in daylight, leaving buildings without having to use the stairs and strangely impervious to the cold (even for a Scandinavian). However, this is one bloodsucker that will attract your sympathies. Although consumed by a desperate craving, she resembles a hunted animal, stricken with a terrible disease that means she has to kill other people and drink their blood to survive. This necessity makes her a breath of fresh air, even if she occasionally gives off the faint scent of a decaying corpse. Although recognizably a child, Eli’s dark, straggly hair and haunted appearance express all the loneliness of her condition and make her look as old as time itself. Indeed, Leandersson’s voice was over-dubbed with a less feminine one to provide the incongruity of a 200 year-old vampire in a young girl’s body – and make her all the more menacing.

Oskar: Are you really twelve?

Eli: Yes. It's just I've been twelve for a very long time.

"Just hanging around"

Oskar and Eli are clearly mirror images of each other, like two sides of the same coin. Dark, strong and brave, Eli is everything that the blond, fragile Oskar is not. However, it is a voyage of discovery for the two protagonists, as they realise that they are outsiders equally struggling to survive in an oppressive world, both thirsting for blood: he fantasises about stabbing his tormentors, while she needs the red stuff to stay alive.

Oskar: Who are you?

Eli: I'm like you.

Oskar: What do you mean?

Eli: What are you staring at? Well? Are you looking at me? So, scream! Squeal! Those were the first words I heard you say.

Oskar: I don't kill people.

Eli: No, but you'd like to, if you could. To get revenge. Right?

Oskar: Yes.

Eli: Oskar, I do it because I have to.

It becomes apparent that they need each other, as each offers what the other one lacks: he gets the strength to face down his bullies, while she gains acceptance. What they have in common is more important than what sets them apart and the reality that they share is that they are both achingly alone.

"How do we sleep when our beds are burning?"

In one of the movie’s principal ironies, Eli is the only person who treats Oskar with anything resembling humanity, so much so that Oskar thinks it’s time to go steady:

Oskar: Will you be my girlfriend?

Eli: Oskar, I’m not a girl.

It’s a heartbreaking moment, but shows that Oskar is unwilling to forsake Eli, even when he knows that she is a vampire, as he is aware of the tragic implications of her plight. She, in turn, comes to his aid when he needs it most in the extraordinary final confrontation. The central story is about accepting love when it comes to you, even if it comes from the strangest places. Young love is complicated, especially if you fall for a vampire, but when the options are limited, you allow anyone into your life. However, the film’s title sounds an alarm and there is a disquieting ambiguity over whether Eli’s motives for befriending Oskar are of a darker nature, possibly grooming him as the replacement for Håkan, her old protector, who has become increasingly ineffective at providing her with the blood she needs. Will Eli be a girlfriend “to die for” in more senses than one?

"Wall of silence"

The two young actors deliver astonishingly powerful performances in these emotionally draining roles, managing to combine the deeply moving innocence of childhood with a strange kind of grown-up weariness. Amid the ice-cold landscape, there is such warmth in their gauche, unconventional relationship that we care more for them than they appear to care about themselves. Hedebrand infects Oskar with a quiet vulnerability, even as he slowly regains his self respect, while Leandersson manages to convey a timeless resignation in her blank expression.

In contrast to the children’s evolving worldliness, the adults are portrayed as being generally useless, so that Oskar and Eli are forced to grow up quickly and take matters into their own hands. Oskar’s parents are divorced and pay him only as much attention as they can fit into their busy schedules. Eli’s “guardian” attempts to find victims to provide blood for his charge, but he is staggeringly incompetent and slow, picking the most unsuitable locations, forcing Eli to stake out (see what I did there?) her own targets. Then, there is the town’s collection of sad alcoholics, who do not allow the growing list of bodies to impinge upon their drab lives, until one actually witnesses a murder from his balcony – though they’re not above mocking themselves, “Thank you again for another evening steeped in merriment and friendship”.

"Once bitten, twice shy"

The sexual aspect of vampire mythology has been deliberately downplayed, given the extreme youth of the main characters. For this reason, Eli’s adult helper, Håkan, who is a paedophile in the novel, becomes a submissive acolyte in the movie, as this theme would have distracted from the story of the two young soulmates. The film also handles the issue of Eli’s gender more ambiguously than the book, which presents her/him as a boy castrated by a sadistic nobleman. In the film, we are offered a glimpse of a suggestive scar, when Eli changes into a dress and, of course, she does inform Oskar that she’s not a girl. However, I still think that the best interpretation is to consider Eli a female, as this works best for her relationship with Oskar in the movie.

Directed by Tomas Alfredson, the story unravels with subtlety and restraint, allowing the violent moments to speak for themselves rather than artificially boosting them with cinematic trickery and sound effects. Paced with the meticulous deliberation of a killer stalking his prey, Alfredson’s unhurried, matter-of-fact style draws the viewer into the film, allowing you to learn about Eli exactly as Oskar does. He infuses the film with a low key, unsentimental naturalism that produces maximum believability. The dialogue is sparse, though every spoken word feels important, and characters communicate just as much through occasional glances and meaningful stares.

"Bully for you"

There are some truly memorable scenes, especially the jaw-dropping finale in a swimming pool when Oskar’s bullies come to an untimely end, with their demise uniquely witnessed from his underwater perspective. When Oskar suggests to Eli that they should cement their relationship with a blood bond, he cuts his hand, provoking Eli to savagely lap up the spilt blood from her floor. We freeze in anticipation of what she might do to him, but she is able to hold back just enough to beg Oskar to leave. Further evidence of Eli’s vampire abilities comes with a spectacular, rapid ascent up the side of a building, followed by Oskar’s puzzlement when she leaves his room through the window. Supporting our heroes are numerous offbeat characters, including a woman bitten by Eli who bursts into flames when sunlight streams through her blinds in the morning; a bully who bursts into tears every time he attacks Oskar; and a neighbour who lives in a cramped apartment over-run by cats.

The film realistically depicts an early 80s Stockholm suburbia that is unremittingly hostile, complete with Cold War tensions over the discovery of a Russian submarine in Swedish waters (and I should know, for I lived there during this period). It captures the desolate, snowy landscape so well that you can really feel the cold. There is a remarkable stillness to many of the film’s indelible images, so that the exterior looks almost frozen. Everything is bathed in the chilly glare of grayish sunlight reflecting on the snow with this muted colour palette only occasionally lifted by splashes of red. Most of the violent scenes are shot in the distance, which somehow only serves to make them more disturbing. In contrast, Alfredson’s camera lingers on the midnight snowflakes that fall on the children’s hands, as their fingers gently intertwine for the first time.

"Blondes have more fun?"

The soundscape also helps establish the captivating mood. Eschewing Hollywood’s standard reliance on blood-curdling special effects and dramatic music to announce a murder, the audacious sound design focuses on the intimate: the morse code tapped on the walls of the children’s adjoining bedrooms; Oskar’s wintry breaths; and blood slowly dripping into a plastic funnel. It’s as if the thick snow deadens the sound with the first few moments of the film virtually silent. The musical score sounds hopeful and romantic, in contrast to the horrific events taking place, and was described by the Ain’t It Cool News website as “scrupulously weaving together strains of bone-chillingly cold horror with the encompassing warmth of newly acquired love”.

Like all the best horror movies, it takes vampire mythology very seriously, though don’t expect overwrought conventions like crosses, garlic, trembling bosoms or bloody fangs here. As the title, from a song by professional miserabilist Morrissey, implies, a vampire can only enter a home if invited, and one of the key questions posed by the film is what happens if you don’t invite a vampire in, but they cross the threshold anyway? In this case, Eli slowly begins to bleed from her eyes, ears and every pore, as she comes to the aid of Oskar. Yet, this is far from a gore fest with the sporadic moments of bloodshed making them all the more startling. Although not a truly frightening film, it belongs to the school of movies that are genuinely unsettling in their ambiguity, like Don’t Look Now and The Shining.

"There will be blood"

You can imagine the marketing men flinching at the prospect of funding a movie with no specific target market, but thankfully the writers had the courage of their convictions, producing a gripping reshaping of the vampire myth and a fiercely intelligent arthouse movie. Let The Right One In is a remarkably moving evocation of the loneliness and terrors of childhood; a truly original and inspirational film that pumps new blood into a well-trodden genre.

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