[A NOTE ON SPOILERS: Everyone but Ishmael is dead at the end of Moby-Dick; Snape kills Dumbledore. Since this is a critical blog, not a fansite or a paid review site, I’m going to ruin the endings of pretty much everything I write about if you haven’t already read or seen them. Read on at your peril.]
I watched Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredsson’s exquisite little masterpiece Let The Right One In a couple of weeks ago and have been putting off re-watching it (or writing about it) in part because it didn’t want to lose the frisson of my first experience with the film, and dilute my excitement and affection for the film by looking at it critically. The film has stuck with me. I find myself thinking about it at weird moments, chilled by the memory of its claustrophobic intimacy, the vastness of its silences. It created for me the same sort of moral dread that I find in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, or Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Based on the 2004 novel Låt den rätte komma in by John Ajvide Lindqvist (available in English translation as a tie-in for the American release of the film), Alfredsson’s adaptation pulls you unsuspecting into its cool embrace as ineluctably as the killer at the center of the story.
Set in Sweden in 1982, the film centers on 12-year old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a fragile boy tormented by bullies who seems to exist slightly apart from the world of school, his estranged parents, and the Stockholm suburb where he lives in a bleak apartment block with his mother. The boy fantasizes violence: in the opening sequence we see him in his underpants, stabbing an imagined victim repeatedly with a knife while repeating his bullys’ favorite taunt, “Squeal, squeal like a pig.” For literature fans and cinephiles, this chant recalls both The Lord of the Flies and the rape scene in Deliverance, and watching the mostly naked pre-teen absorbed in his violent fantasy is as queasy-making as if the film had opened with an unflinching shot of him masturbating. With his obsessively-kept scrapbook full of news of death and horror, kept hidden the way other boys might hide porn, Oskar has sublimated his emergent sexuality into repressed aggression. But Oskar’s violent fantasies are the only aspect of his life in which he is not submerged in a terrible passivity. He is inert before the viciousness of his school assailants, shuttles idly between his affectionate but distant parents, and seems as muffled from outside stimuli as the snow-bound suburb where he lives.
Until, that is, he meets his neighbor, the enigmatic Eli (Lina Leandersson). Eli is physically about the same age as Oskar, but doesn’t know when her birthday is and cannot remember how to feel cold. A tentative friendship begins between the two lonely children that is galvanized when Eli confronts Oskar about an cut on his face from a willow switch wielded by his playground nemesis. “Hit them back, harder than you dare,” Eli urges Oskar. And Oskar responds to her urges, fighting back, albeit awkwardly and with disastrous results, and attempting to grow stronger, both physically and psychically.
Eli, in her way, is as arrested in her development as Oskar. Dependent on a human helper for blood, she is filthy and unkempt, trapped in a squalid apartment, and curiously static and directionless. Oskar stirs her out of this stasis, but not in the way one might expect.
The figure of the child vampire – the ancient soul trapped in the unaging and, more importantly, unmaturing body of a child – is a preoccupation of vampire genre fiction from Anne Rice’s magnificent Claudia in Interview with a Vampire to the young vamps of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. Perhaps the most thoughtful and compelling representation of the teen vampire is the troubled but courageous Simon in Cassandra Clare’s City of Glass, which I hope to discuss in a future post. The problematic relationship between the ancient child vampire and the actual child makes for a compelling plot line (“How many times have you been 17?” asks Meyer’s Bella), that is made more complex in Let The Right One In because the focus is not on the threat the ancient child poses to the human child, but on how the relationship compromises the strength of the vampire. Eli, when confronting Håkan, her doomed Renfield, is an adult, cool and uncompromising, but with Oskar she becomes more childlike and playful, regressing to his level in order to facilitate the connection that becomes more and more crucial to both their identities and, indeed, their survival.
The physical intimacy between the characters is, if not pre-sexual, certainly only liminally sexual – both Oskar and Eli long for non-violent, non-exploitative touch and both find it in their awkward embraces. When Eli declares that she is “not a girl,” we assume she’s referring to the aged soul in her 12-year old body and, in a departure from the novel, the film doesn’t elaborate on what she means by this, excluding any reference to the horrific violence and mutilation of her origin story. It’s fine with Oskar, though that she’s isn’t a girl in the ordinary sense becuase his boyhood is in its way as compromised and incomplete as Eli’s girlhood. The two come together rather as sundered halves, complementing and completing each other is a way that is more disturbing than satisfying. Their union produces greater and greater anxiety in the viewer, rather than permitting any sense of safety or comfortable resolution.
This union comes to fruition in Oskar’s final confrontation with his tormentors. Eli disrupts his capitulation with her own spectacular capacity for violent action, tearing him from the clutches of the by then murderous bullies and out of the stasis in which the frozen suburb had trapped them both. The end, in which Oskar has either become her partner in predation or taken the place of the hapless Håkan, leaves us uncomfortable and anxious, unsure whether this is a blackly happy ending or the re-beginning of a cycle of dependence that will end in disaster for Oskar.
Let The Right One In, with its provocative and original representation of the child vampire and her human companion is an important contribution to vampire genre films and to the cinema of preadolescence, and the novel is equally compelling. Watch the trailer below and then go out and rent or buy it. There’s already an American re-adaptation in the works, so see the original before Hollywood drains all the blood out of it.