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Oskar is understandably traumatized by all this and shows it by simply becoming more withdrawn.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. The most telling scene comes after he's been knocked down in a lavatory, and his torturers stroll away calling him names. Oskar slowly stands, catches his breath and re-composes himself. 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!
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".
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 suppose that Tomas Alfredson's producers probably earned much more money just selling the English remake rights than they got distributing the original!
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