Saturday, October 24, 2009

“To flee is life; To linger is death."

Young vampires in love. What could be more…heartwarming than that? Contrary to a certain bestselling series of disposable novels written in purple prose that shall remain unnamed, its like opening a really, really, really, really, really, really big can of bad things, and people die. 2008’s Låt den rätte komma in (Let The Right One In for us non Swedes) is just such a tender love story of twelve year old boy meets more or less twelve year old vampire girl. Then it gets…messy.

Oskar is a shy, retiring little twelve year old living in a suburb of Stockholm. His parents are separated and he’s the frequent target of bullies. One winter night, he meets a new neighbor, Eli, a young girl about his age with a few eccentric traits who’s moved in next door. They bond over a Rubic’s Cube and he hangs out with her a couple of nights. Meanwhile, her “legal guardian” (well, henchman) is murdering people in the park and draining them of blood for Eli, but he messes up when he almost gets caught one night and leaves the blood behind as he makes a break for it. Starving, Eli personally assaults someone one night, killing them, and some people start getting worried about the deaths. Things keep building up as Oskar & Eli start developing something a little deeper than a friendship.

Oskar: Kåre Hedebrant is our young protagonist. Shy and bullied, its easy to feel sympathy for him, but as the movie goes on, you also realize that there’s just something not right about that boy. He’s got a knife that he likes to stab trees with in a way of working out his frustrations, and he’s also an obsessive collector of news stories about murders and serial killers. And he’s twelve. After he meets Eli, the relationship that develops is quite tender, or rather, it would be if she wasn’t a vampire. He even starts up a Morse Code way of talking with her through the walls of their apartments. At Eli’s urging, Oskar eventually does stand up to the bullies one day, cracking one of them upside the head with a really long fiberglass-looking stick when they try to throw him in a frozen pond. It’s a cool moment of development for him as he makes the bully cry like a little baby, but its also rather disturbing watching the ecstatic look of glee that comes over him after he’s finally had a taste of causing actual pain to someone else. That boy just ain’t right, I tell ya.

Eli: Lina Leandersson is our vampire, a little girl who’s been twelve for a very long time. She’s not exactly happy about murdering people to survive, but she persists. Considering the actress is about twelve in this, she does an outstanding job of being both sympathetic, rather innocent and CREEPY AS ALL HELL. Seriously, Eli the vampire is just so damn creepy, especially if you start thinking about how a twelve year old girl was turned into a vampire long ago in the first place…well, there’s a lot of potential for squick here and the movie doesn’t discourage you. Hell, there are some scenes that fall into the “too much information” camp. Easily the badass of the film.

Håkan: Per Ragnar is Eli’s guardian and henchman, masquerading as her father. A rather creepy older guy, he’s been her Renfield for a long time apparently, but he’s starting to slip up, forgetting the blood from a victim one night, then getting caught before he can get started on another one. He gets points for commitment when he pours hydrochloric acid onto his face before getting caught to disfigure his identity to protect Eli. It messes up one side of his face royally and also makes him mute too. Then he goes the final mile by offering his own throat to Eli when she visits him in the hospital. The guy’s seriously messed up.

Jocke: Mikael Rahm plays one of the townsfolk who happens to be Eli’s midnight snack one night. However, a neighbor sees the attack (but not the details of the attacker) and that sets up a pretty fatal subplot for a few people.

Gösta: Karl-Robert Lindgren is one of Jocke’s friends and the guy who sees the attack from his window. He’s also the owner of rather a lot of cats, and cats, it turns out, really, really don’t like vampires.

Lacke: Peter Carlberg plays the, for lack of a better word, “hero” of the Jocke subplot. Jocke was his best friend and drinking buddy, so when he turns up murdered, he takes it personally, and as things go on, it really sucks to be Lacke as he tries to put a stop to the murders.

Virginia: Ika Nord is Lacke’s girlfriend who, after having an argument with Lacke, storms off to be jumped by a starving Eli. Lacke rushes to her aid and drives off the vampire (who’s identity he still doesn’t know), but surviving the attack only means that yes Virginia, there is a Dracula. Its actually pretty tragic how Virginia discovers that she’s become a vampire.
The direction by Tomas Alfredson really showcases a stark and desolate portrait of Sweden in winter. Colors are generally muted (except for blood of course) and shots are usually wide and feature only a few characters. The overall effect is one of unsettling loneliness and a bit of dread. Being a vampire movie, most of the action takes place at night, but its very well lit. Special effects are generally restrained. CGI is used when necessary, but sparingly. The scene where the cats attack Virginia when she enters Gösta’s apartment just comes out of nowhere to floor you with how violent it is. Hilarious, yes, but there’s no warning whatsoever of what’s coming. Most of the violence in the movie is like that. Sudden, brutal and brief, leaving you blinking in surprise after the fact and going “did that just fucking happen?” I mean, that climactic scene in the pool. That’s whole shot at the end is just…God damn.

John Ajvide Lindqvist adapted his own bestselling novel (well, in Sweden, at least, I don’t know about how well it sold here in the States) into the screenplay. Apparently, the novel is even more disturbing in its details than this movie. As it is, the movie balances the love story between Oskar and Eli on that incredibly narrow wire between “tender” and “thoroughly disturbing.” The way the movie ends, it really makes you question whether it was a good thing for Oskar & Eli to fall in love.

Of added note is how the movie handles the vampire tropes that we’ve all grown to know this month. A strictly supernatural state doesn’t seem to be the case here. Eli’s not undead. She breathes, and her condition is handled more like a sickness or condition instead of a mystical curse. However, most every other limitation on vampires is played brutally straight and we see just why they’re limitations. Sunlight? Yeah, first it starts to burn a vampire’s skin, then they go “FWOOM!” in a moment of sudden combustion. The Thirst? We see vampires go into severe hunger pangs, start to feel weak and basically begin to shrivel up. The old idea of a vampire being unable to enter a place without being invited is even shown in a truly sick scene as Oskar teasingly refuses to give Eli permission to enter his apartment asking what could happen. She does and after a few moments of her being silent, she starts bleeding. From EVERYWHERE. Then there’s the whole “animals can sense the unnatural nature of the, er, (not)undead.” Cats don’t like vampires. They VIOLENTLY don’t like vampires.

The original score by Johan Söderqvist is generally as sparse as the movie’s visual style, but at times a very lonely and haunting piano tune plays that is, again, both tender and creepy at the same time.

Let The Right One In is really, really good at what it does, and what it does is creep you out with a tender love story of two seriously messed up pre-adolescents. Hauntingly tender and completely messed up at the same time, it delivers a “less is more” element to the horror, leaving your imagination with the task of fleshing out various missing pieces. I can say right now that this is really not a movie for everyone, but for those who bring enough Vaseline for a thorough mindfuck by the end will find one really ballsy and experimental vampire movie. Naturally, there’s an American version on the way, but I just don’t know how it could compare to the bleak Swedish winter setting that is so unique to this film.

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