- CounterPunch.org - https://www.counterpunch.org -

Finally, a Vampire Movie You Can Sink Your Teeth Into

Let The Right One In, otherwise known as “the Swedish vampire movie,” is a gorgeous, dark, tender, and intelligent film that not only delivers a classic vampire romance narrative but also serves as a subtle critique of the pressures of heteronormativity on adolescent sexual development. Being a vampire story, the movie is in essence a horror movie, and it certainly is not without its ghastly moments. But like the best of horror movies, Let The Right One In uses the horror of the body to explore issues of sexuality and social conformity.

The film uses the vampire narrative to tell a coming of age story and a romance between two adolescent children – a boy, Oskar and a girl, Eli. Eli just happens to be a vampire, and Oskar a feminized boy who is terrorized by the heteronormative dominating bullies of his school. These kinds of tales are no strangers to cinema. Let The Right One In isn’t the first film to use violence and the horror of the female body to depict a coming of age narrative . Think of two classic Stephen King inspired movies — Stand By Me, in which a group of adolescent boys’ pilgrimage to see the dead girl’s body serves as their rite of passage and Carrie in which the beginning of menstruation triggers a cavalcade of horror and violence. And there is always The Exorcist for the classic Puberty Brings Horror narrative. Let The Right One In is definitely coming from this tradition of the inherent violence of adolescence and sexual coming of age, but in so doing it doesn’t terrify as much as reveal an innocent tenderness that is threatened by the real monsters outside – the social dominance of heteronormative masculinity. Like the best of horror movies, the monster in this movie is not the problem.  The real monster isn’t the vampire, but unreasonable social pressure to conform to the “norm” and submit to male dominance and the narrowly defined terms of what is sexually acceptable. Anything outside the status quo (an effeminate quiet boy or a vampire girl) becomes a “monster” and suffers a kind of social castration. Some of the best horror films show the monster (think Frankenstein) suffering social castration at the hands of the violent masses.  What makes this movie so exceptional is that it is incredibly gorgeously filmed and is more art than horror, and it doesn’t wear its message on its sleeve but weaves it beautifully into the subtext of the film.

The cinematography is gorgeous in its beautiful bleak minimalist realism. From the moment the film opened with a quietly abstract shot of snow falling against the night sky, I was hypnotized by its dark and blurry beauty. It is perpetually night, dusk or dawn. Everything is washed out with a layer of cold haze. The dim atmosphere combined with the film’s focus on bleak winter landscapes, nondescript architecture and the banal things that occupy interior spaces reminds me of the look of recent Romanian films such as Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days. Of course, Romania is the home of the original vampire – Dracul, or Vlad the Impaler, and in fact I cited one of the female leads in Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days as being vampiristic and her name, Dragut, as a derivation of Dracul. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the Swedish vampire movie bears the look and feel of recent Romanian cinema, but given Romania’s vampire history, I like to think it’s more than a coincidence. It is this exquisite use of the ordinary non-descript landscape of a working class town and the details of the space (a torn poster hanging from a kitchen wall, an empty room with blanket thrown on the floor, the ugly institutionalized space of a boy’s locker room) that makes the story so much more tender for all its gore. The fact that the vampire girl Eli lives in massive Eastern Bloc style apartment building and that her apartment is as rundown and ugly as any non-descript housing space makes her character so much more vulnerable and believable. She is not just a girl vampire, but she is an adolescent girl coming to age in the confines of this socially and economically limited environment.  She is a lower class child struggling for a source of food, which happens to be blood. And she bears none of the aristocratic trappings of some vampire narratives. Eli doesn’t sleep in a coffin or any kind of romantically gothic space. She sleeps in the bathtub covered with cheap blankets. She has too much connection to real people with real struggles to be taken simply as a monster. So even when she leaps on unsuspecting victims, attaches herself to their necks, and sucks their blood, she very quickly retreats back to her vulnerable girl self. She is committing heinous violent crimes out of the necessity of life, not because she particularly enjoys it.
Given that the movie is a coming of age movie, it is no surprise that the tale includes a lot of blood in relation to the girl character Eli. But this isn’t just another Menstruating Girl as Horror movie. In fact, it uses the classic tropes of girl body horror – adolescence and blood – to move beyond gender. Eli is inextricably linked to the boy character, and they reflect off of each other into a gender neutral zone, and their complex relationship to each other is what fuels the movie. What this movie does that most coming of age films fail to do is represent both sides – the male and female. Coming of age stories tend to be one-sided – the female (Carrie) or the male (Standy By Me). Let the Right One In beautifully integrates the male and the female, and by doing so deconstructs the social confines of gender and sexuality. The film first focuses on Oskar who in the opening shot is not only feminized but also uncomfortably sexualized as we see him lying in bed in his underwear. Seen through a blurry focus that presents him like some kind of dream, Oskar’s nearly naked beauty makes the audience hesitate for a moment in its blatant sexuality. Of course, we are not supposed to recognize a 12 year old boy as sexual, but the truth of the matter is that twelve is the threshold into sexual life, and that is the threshold that this movie occupies. The film then reveals the trials and tribulations of Oskar, who turns out not only to be feminized in his looks but also in the social place he occupies as a victimized boy who is terrorized by the random violence of heterosexual boys in his small town. The adult town itself is represented by a series of men who drink in the pub and socialize, the grown up versions of the boys who terrorize Oskar. In one scene, the bully boys attack Oskar after school and slash him with a whip, giving Oskar a bleeding vaginal gash on his face, further feminizing his character. Also, Oskar lives alone with his mother and therefore occupies the feminine space in his home life. When Oskar does go visit his father, there is an odd homosexual undercurrent in his father’s character (a character that lives outside the claustrophobic confines of the town), and the homosexual subtext is brought further to the surface when one of Oskar’s father’s male friends shows up and there is an odd tension between them and Oskar.

As Oskar struggles with his sexual coming of age and his social castration at the hands of the aggressive hetero male community in which he lives, it makes complete sense that the Female Other would appear in his building. He first encounters the mysterious Eli while he is stabbing aggressively at a tree with his knife. He is engaging in a kind of substitute fucking with his artificial phallus (the knife) to replace the penis he has lost by being bullied by the bad boys. Eli becomes the physical manifestation of Oskar’s sexual otherness, his female mirror image. When we learn of Eli’s proclivity for drinking blood (her mouth frequently smeared with red dripping warm fresh blood or at least crusted with scabby traces of her bloody tendency), the first interpretation is menstruation, the bodily manifestation of sexual maturity. Whereas Oskar is the sexually confused boy, Eli is menstruating girl, the gateway to sexual awakening. Of course, being a sexually maturing young girl, social pressures say that she must be controlled, so it is no surprise that Eli’s father tries to control her “appetite” by acquiring the blood for her to drink and to keep her primal tendencies in check. But of course, the young girl cannot be controlled by the father, so even though he attempts to slaughter adolescent boys (those who prey on young girls’ sexuality) so he can feed Eli their blood, he botches every single job. His ineffectual impotence reigns over his desire to control the female sexuality under his roof. The botch job “murder” scenes are portrayed with such ludicrous humor (a poodle licking the fresh blood from the snow, a young boy screaming and swinging from rafters in the locker room), that we not only laugh at the father’s impotence but we realize, through humor, how ludicrous his attempt to control female sexuality is. He tries to control Eli’s “thirst,” but in the end she still jumps on unsuspecting victims and sucks the blood right out of their necks. And in fact, after her father’s final failed attempt to control her desires by unsuccessfully killing a boy in the gym (hetero male central), he sacrifices himself to Eli, and she kills her father because the father must be killed for the female sexuality to have freedom.

There is more to the father’s character than just the “father” figure. In a way, the father can be read as the “sickness” of socially controlled sexuality. He represents a society that preys on adolescence and sexual development by trying to control it. He is a kind of generic sexual predator who resorts to violence as a sexual outlet, and he is a stand-in for the hideous underside of hetero-male domination. There is an odd tension between him and Eli that hints at an unhealthy sexual connection. It seems that he wants to possess her sexually by controlling her blood and therefore her sexuality. But his obsessive desire to control her means that ultimately she has the control over him because he’ll do anything to keep her in his reign. His final attempt to maintain control, he avails his own life blood to her. As she descends on his neck and penetrates his flesh, we can read the as a taboo sex scene involving incest and pedophilia. In addition, during the first murder scene when the father gasses the teen boy, hangs him from the tree and slits his throat, the father appears more as sexual predator, the classic repressed homosexual serial killer using violence as a sexual outlet narrative. Of course, the father preys on teen boys because they are the sexual threat to Eli and they are also what he ultimately desires. All of his attempts to control (kill boys and get their blood, keep Eli in his power) fail because sexuality cannot be controlled. In essence, the father is the sickness and corruption of social heteronormative conformity.

Most movies would leave the story with Eli and assume that this tale of female blood thirst and its relation to the father good enough. But Let The Right One In brings the story of the girl back to the realm of the masculine by using it to show that social confines that restrict male sexual identity as much as they do female. When Oskar and Eli develop a close friendship, and Oskar begins to “fall in love” with Eli, she keeps reminding him that she resides in a place that is not “normal,” and that is outside of socially acceptable norms. “What if I wasn’t a girl?” she asks Oskar in one scene. “Why should that matter?” Oskar responds. In another scene, Eli climbs naked into Oskar’s bed. Oskar asks if she will be his girlfriend, and she says, “But I’m not a girl.” In a later scene, Oskar peeks in on Eli as she’s changing her clothes, and we get a quick glimpse of her mutilated genital area. She is stitched up and sealed shut with no indication of any remaining genitals. No vagina, no penis, Eli possesses a stitched up botch-job where her sexual organs should be. Indeed, Eli is truly the mutated sexual Other. She is the melding of male and female reduced to a gender-neutral creature. Eli may not be a girl, but she is the feminine, and her role in Oskar’s life is to free him from the stranglehold of masculine domination (the bullies at school) and to let him embrace his “otherness.” In the final scene of the movie, when Eli rescues Oskar from a brutal scene in which one of the boys nearly drowns Oskar in the pool, we see the dismembered parts of masculine dominance (their literal legs and arms) floating in the pool of water (the feminine). This is a movie where The Other wins, and Oskar and Eli leave to embrace a life of otherness outside of the strangulating pressures of dominant heterosexual aggression and conformity.

The tenderness of Eli and Oskar’s story comes from both characters’ ability to embrace each others’ flaws or otherness. Oskar doesn’t hesitate for a second to put his arms around Eli, even though her face and eyes are dripping blood. Her blood doesn’t matter to him. Likewise, Eli loves Oskar’s vulnerability, the fact that he is not “one of those other boys.” But as tender as the story is, it is not without its horrors and its humors. As Eli pounces on victims and sucks their blood or as frozen bodies are pulled from the ice, as Eli’s father slices the throat of a young man and drains his blood into a plastic jug, certainly we are given an ample dose of horror. But each one of these scenes is also laced with humor, and the movie is not without its share of classic Horror Camp moments, such as when one woman victim who is turning into a vampire is suddenly attacked by dozens of cats. Her screaming body covered with ferocious felines is hilarious and reminds us of some of the funnier Beasts Versus Human horror narratives. Also, when the same woman commits suicide by sunshine and her body burns in a hospital bed, we leave the sincerity of the love story for a moment of flaming excess. And also, for all their tender love for each other, we have to remember that Eli and Oskar also stroke violence. Eli really does kill people and drink their blood. Oskar quietly fetishizes murder. He keeps scrapbooks of newspaper clippings from heinous violent crimes, and he carries and fondles his knife with the desire to someday really use it. As tender as the love story is, coming of age as seen in this movie is a an act of violence, but if you meet the right people in the right places (sissy boys and vampire girls) tenderness and love can be found within the frame of violence.

Dripping blood, flaming bodies, and ferocicous felines aside, the real star of the movie is the atmosphere. The dark barren frigid claustrophobia of the small town is delivered through gorgeous photography and intersected with an eerily atmospheric soundtrack.

For all its horror, mystery, violence, and romance, the movie is art above all else. And cinematically beautiful horror films are hard to come by. The movie functions exquisitely as a fresh vampire tale, but also, like most good monster films do, it serves as a critique of socially imposed sexual repression. Perhaps, we should all embrace our inner-vampire and enjoy the taste of the interior body instead of running from it.  The film is quite a piece of work. An American remake is already planned, but of course it will lack all the beauty and subtext of the original, so go see the Swedish version while you still can.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her partner, daughter, and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn and Berkeley Review. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.