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While Entertainment Tonight was clobbering us last fall with propaganda for the wildly popular, instantly forgettable teen vampire romance Twilight, a stealth vampire picture snuck into town. Savant has long since stopped keeping up with the glut of gore-driven theatrical horror fare, and the legion of made for video horror product. But a couple of discerning genre filmmakers I know -- who almost never recommend pictures to me -- pointed directly to Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In and said it was the best thing they'd seen in ages.
The movie played for a couple of months in several theaters across Los Angeles. Those curious enough to check the web found out that it won prizes in quite a few film festivals. A horror film from Sweden? Apparently they exist, but not in numbers large enough to attract much attention overseas. A look at director Alfredson's filmography reveals most of his previous work to be described as comedic in nature.
Let the Right One In is now hitting America in home video form, and what was a cult sleeper last fall may well turn into a DVD and Blu-ray success story. Horror is big business now, and this small Swedish film accomplishes the nearly impossible feat of simply being original.
The story takes place in a Stockholm suburb during a snowy winter. At first glance it's a familiar tale of a twelve year-old boy beset by bullies. Young Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a quiet kid; his classmates track him down just for the fun of intimidating and hitting him. Oskar's already resigned to his fate, or perhaps he hopes his stoic silence will eventually wear the bullies down. Unfortunately, the ringleader of the tormentors wants to prove something to his older brother, a confirmed hoodlum.
Oskar is understandably traumatized by all this and shows it by simply becoming more withdrawn. He fantasizes fighting back but is stuck in a grim svensk noir private trap. He's headed for severe self-esteem issues. That's when Eli (Lina Leandersson) shows up. Oskar plays by himself in the (freezing?) snow after dark, and is joined by a new neighbor, a dark-haired girl his age with large, soulful eyes. Eli seems to understand Oskar's bully problem. She also solves his Rubik's Cube puzzle, effortlessly. But she evades questions about her parents and refuses to say if she'll be able to see him again. It's the beginning of a touching pre-teen romance.
But Eli is no ordinary kid. She lives with Håkan (Per Ragnar), an older man that Oskar sees covering up the windows with cardboard. Håkan carries a box containing a plastic bottle, a knife, a funnel and other sinister tools; after his midnight strolls the news channels invariably report another murder. What Håkan is up to won't surprise horror fans familiar with the gory opening of Terence Fisher's Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Much of Let the Right One In plays out in a naturalistic vein (ahem). In spirit it's sort of a pre-teen version of George Romero's Martin, except the vampire element is very much real.
Let the Right One In is deliberately paced, and intense. Oskar's environment definitely creates sympathy. Oskar lives with his mother in a sterile-looking apartment building. He sometimes visits his father in the country; the family seems to have broken up over Dad's drinking. Many shots frame Oskar's mother and teachers with their heads out of frame, or facing away from the camera. The adults in Oskar's world are remote but the three bullies always seem to be close at hand. Oskar's friendship with the mysterious Eli brings him a much-needed sense of companionship.
Although director Alfredson says that the film's setting is unimportant (it's supposed to take place in the socialist 1980s). Other neighborhood adults do little more than sit all day hitting the sauce, in a dim little cafe and in their own homes. One resident is a loner who lives with a houseful of cats. These rather depressing living circumstances take center stage when the story delineates the fate of one of Eli's victims, who isn't killed outright.
This is the most refreshing vampire tale since the Hammer and Polanski days -- forget the bloodsucker-chic posing of Tom Cruise & Twilight. Eli is a secretive brand of blood fiend but she invests her trust in Oskar and seems sincere. "She" may be debatable, as Eli repeatedly tells Oskar that she's not a girl. We at first assume that this is her way of hinting at her identity as a vampire, but other interpretations are possible (especially if one has read John Ajvide Lindqvist's source book).
The movie's naturalistic dialogue explains very little; Oskar doesn't go to the library to look up the details of vampiric etiquette. It's not necessary. An average modern man can't name five practical things to do when his car won't start, but we all know the basic powers and limitations of vampires. Eli's brand of vampire follows many of the ground rules laid down in Bram Stoker's Dracula. The most important "rule" is related to the title and is frequently ignored in revisionist vampire tales: technically, a vampire cannot enter a room or building without first being invited. Just when we think that Eli may be a Martin-style non-supernatural psychopath, she purposely violates the rule to show Oskar what will happen. It's not pretty, and Oskar's deep concern proves to Eli that his feelings for her are true. It's love at first hemorrhage.
Let the Right One In has both tenderness and extreme savagery but tempers both with a Swedish sensibility. Oskar doesn't understand how Eli can wear light clothing in near-zero temperatures, or why she's ice cold when she snuggles into bed with him after creeping along the exterior of their building and asking to be let in through the window. Eli might be a dream girl for a pre-teen who needs a friend, but she's also an inhuman parasite that naturally gives her survival first priority. The "romance" between Eli and Oskar is a death pact far outside anything society would find acceptable, and we must wait in suspense to see if Eli will turn on her newfound friend. Let the Right One In is an absorbing horror tale, a true original.
Oh, and one last thing ... the blood in Let the Right One In is realistically thick and dark. The sight of it dripping down Eli's forehead is very, very disturbing! 3
Magnolia and Magnet's Blu-ray of Let the Right One In is great transfer of this literally icy vampire tale that features remarkable performances from its two young stars. I think director Alfredson has an instant horror classic on his hands. It's a Hansel and Gretel tale of vampire vengeance. The movie's fantastic scenes are extremely well directed; the finale plays out in a single ultra-violent master shot that will surely delight the horror crowd.
The show comes in Swedish with removable English subtitles, or an English dub track. This makes it all the more depressing to hear that the movie is being remade for the American audience. Instant American remakes of J-horror films diluted the impact of Japan's contribution to film horror, not to mention robbing it of its national / cultural identity. I can just see Let the Right One In relocated to North Dakota, with Oscar re-dubbed "Sean" and bullied by hockey-playing bad boys ...The Karate Kid with blood and demonic cats. Okay, that's totally unfair. But I can also see the American remake pruning the show's mildly disquieting content. Perhaps Let the Right One In didn't rate the American release mainstream because somebody thought it was child pornography? 1
The disc extras include four deleted scenes that are fairly forgettable and would have added little to the well-balanced show. Galleries of photos and poster artwork are present. A behind-the-scenes featurette shows director Tomas Alfredson to be a pleasant-looking fellow who speaks excellent English. We get glimpses of some interesting camera rigs, including the bravura final scene -- "So that's how they did that". 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Let the Right One In Blu-ray rates:
1. I also fear that instant American remakes will rob the original J-Horror pictures and the original Let the Right One In of their place in history. Julien Duvuvier's French thriller Pépé le moko was immediately remade for America as Algiers, with different stars. After its initial arthouse run the original disappeared from our screens for forty years or so, as if it never existed. The superior French original of Three Men and a Baby, Three Men and a Cradle is pretty much in the same boat.
Then again, I assume that Tomas Alfredson's producers probably earned much more money just selling the English remake rights than they got distributing the original!
2. From Jareth David, 4.01.09:
I first heard about the subtitles problem on Ebert's site in his announcement for his upcoming showing of it at Ebertfest, saying he'll have the theatrical subtitles there, not the awful ones from the DVD (by Magnolia/Magnet). Then I followed some links to read up on this issue and was thankful that I hadn't gone out to buy it the day it was released on DVD. Though it's probably more common than we think for DVDs to use a less than optimal translation on a foreign film, the subtitles on the DVD (and Blu-Ray) for LTROI really do seem to affect the feel/tone of the film rather noticeably in this case by dumbing things down considerably in a number of scenes. The company has tried to claim their translation was somehow more accurate that the theatrical subs, but when the subtitles say "I'm trapped" in place of a character audibly saying the name Eli, well it's pretty obvious that the company is either lying to cover up their failure or is run by people who are incredibly stupid or didn't even watch the film they're releasing. I feel it's easier to point you to the original articles than to attempt to explain it in my own words:
Apparently, a horror site called Icons of Fright were among the first to bring the problem to the public's attention with their article Let the Right Subtitles In.
I also found a little update in an short article from indieWIRE which echoes an update by Icons of Fright. And now Jim Emerson (connected to Ebert's site) has also posted about it on his blog article Take the Wrong One Back with further information (which apparently Icons of Fright also have in a newer posting):
Please update your review to point this out to potential buyers of the DVD that might want to wait for the corrected DVDs to be released. Thanks, Jareth David
Hi Glenn -- just saw Let the Right One In. Glad to see a Swedish movie getting such attention overseas. Even Robert A. Harris reviewed it over at HTF!
Is Eli a girl or what? I don't know. The Swedish print has a very short shot of Eli's naked lower torso (a dummy) with a scar on it. The director and screenwriter/novelist says on the commentary track that it just might be that Eli is a castrated boy. But it sounds like they don't know, haven't decided or don't want to decide. The source novel probably has more details on this, and surely on Håkan, who is apparently an outright pedophile in the novel. And also a Swedish language teacher, seen reading (in the novel) a famous Swedish 19th century novel, The Queen's Jewelry. Tintomara is an androgynous young girl, a very romantic figure. The novel has a famous saying, goes a bit like this: "All things are two -- innocence and arsenic". You're probably meant to think of Eli.
The commentary track is chatty but not extremely informative, so you're not missing out on much. The epilogue on the train is apparently not in the novel, which begins with the policeman in the classroom. In the novel version of the swimming pool scene, the tormentor is in the water with Oskar, and the events are depicted from Oskar's POV.
Lina Leandersson is dubbed by another girl, Elif Cetlan (or Cetan) who had the desired lower register in her voice. The end titles credits another actress as "Eli aged", which is mystifying.
The cats are real cats, stuffed cats, dolls and CGI cats. The cat victim, Virginia, is played by Ika Nord, a well-known mime artist. Per Ragnar (Håkan) is a major Swedish stage and screen star since the Sixties. One of his great successes is a one man show as Adolf Hitler, doing Hitlerian rants (based on relevant sources) sitting at a cafe table.
The film is shot in actual Stockholm suburbs. Locations are typical of Swedish suburbs built after 1960 or so. The period decor is true to the era, perhaps a bit stylized. Good subtitles should be quite naturalistic, sometimes idiomatic but not really slangy, and should not use too many words. The source music includes a song written and performed by one of the ABBA girls, two songs by and performed by the guy who later formed the Swedish pop band Roxette (one song written especially for the movie) and, in the hospital entrance scene, a Schubert tune with new Swedish lyrics, co-written by the director's father for a late Sixties Schubert-inspired musical revue. The song on the radio in the swimming pool scene features Eighties Swedish pop band Secret Service. When Oskar eats in front of the TV we hear snatches of audio from a Swedish children's TV programme.
The director's father, Hans Alfredson, is a director, writer, performer, novelist and designer who's been working steadily in radio, TV, movies, theatre and fiction since the late Fifties, often in tandem with his performing and writing partner Tage Danielsson. Together they made up the company Swedish Words (Svenska Ord), responsible for satirical comedy movies like To Go Ashore (1965), The Apple War (1970), The Man Who Quit Smoking (1972) and The Adventures of Picasso (1978), the last film apparently had a good NY run too. The work of these two resemble a sort of Swedish version of That Was the Week that Was and/or Dudley Moore/Peter Cook, with a dash of Monty Python, though not quite as absurd. The satire is apparent in most of their work, but good-natured and tempered by farcical comedy, caricature and wordplay in the style of what in Sweden is called skits performed in on-campus revues. I'm not sure what the correct US equivalent would be. Hans Alfredson solo directed movies like The Simple-Minded Murderer (1982), starring Stellan Skarsgard in his breakthrough movie part, and thru the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties he and the revues produced by Svenska Ord were beloved by many Swedes.
Tomas Alfredson has indeed directed primarily comedies and satires, one a satire on a famous Swedish film critic (one of the few ever to write for Variety) who played himself in the film! The writing, directing, photography and technical work on Let the Right One In is quite sophisticated for a Swedish horror film. There are other Swedish horror films, but they can't even begin to compete in quality.
There is also a Norwegian Nazi zombie movie that even got coverage in Film Comment! -- Stefan
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the 2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.