A Vampire Visits a Welfare State

I’ve watched my fair share of vampire films, ranging from the silent classic (Murnau’s Nosferatu and Dryer’s Vampyr) to the commercial (Tod Browning’s Dracula, with Bela Lugosi saying, “I don’t drink – wine”), from the comic (Mel Brooks’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It) to the camp (Andy Warhol Presents Dracula directed by Paul Morrisey), from the scary (David Slade’s 30 Days of Night) to the anodyne (Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight). These, as well as others too numerous to mention, all have one thing in common: a compelling figure of mystery who casts a spell on his victims.

Let the Right One In by the Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, lately released on DVD by Magnolia Home Entertainment, is a most unusual vampire picture. It looks more beautiful than almost any other recent movie and it has a first-class score (Johan Söderqvist is the composer). Among its other distinctions is that its vampire, Eli (Lina Leandersson), while certainly weird-looking in 1980s Sweden, is anything but a spellbinder. We first glimpse her as she’s moving into an apartment with an older man, perhaps her father. They’ll be right next door to Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a lovely, frail 12-year old with a fringe of long blond hair who lives there  with his mother (Karin Bergquist).

Oskar’s a lonely, sensitive boy, smarter than his classmates who of course bully him. The worst of these bullies is Conny (Patrik Rydmark). He likes pushing Oskar against the wall, calling him piggy and making him go oink, something he does every day. Oskar’s obsessed with paying him back. When Oskar first meets Eli, it’s in the courtyard of the housing development where they are now next-door neighbors. He’s angrily stabbing a hunting knife into a tree as if it was Conny saying to it, “Fuck off!… Are you scared? So, scream. Squeal!” He’s somewhat embarrassed by Eli’s sudden appearance at the top of a jungle gym. They begin by feeling each other, cautiously, out as teenagers will. “What’re you doing here?” “Nothing. What’re you doing?” “Nothing.” They’re both more or less the same age, although as Eli tells Oskar she’s been 12 for a long time, which is our first explicit hint (unless you guessed it from the title) that this is a vampire movie. Before going back home, she lets Oskar know that she can’t be his friend. “Are you so sure that I want to be your friend?” he yells after her, his face telling us there’s nothing he wants more. So begins this strange romance between a friendless, unhappy boy and his mysterious new neighbor in a soulless Stockholm suburb.

Alfredson and his cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, give this early scene a spectral quality, the light magically coming off the enveloping snow. Their canny way with the uncanny shows again in a scene where Eli’s companion or protector, or slave, Håkan (Per Ragnar), murders a passer-by and strings him up to drain his blood. Shot in a lovely grove of birch trees, this gruesome scene again uses snow to create a winter pastoral, even as Håkan slashes his victim’s carotid artery. Just as the blood starts its copious flow into a plastic bottle, his efforts are interrupted by a magnificent white poodle. Its owners call, “Ricky!… Ricky!… Stupid dog,” as the frustrated Håkan gathers up his equipment, forgetting the bottle, and goes home to Eli. His remorse is painful to watch as Eli exclaims, “Do I have to do everything myself?”  She then goes about her business with a gory efficiency.

Her romance with Oskar resumes in the very next scene when they’re both in the courtyard again. He tells her of his troubles at school and, embracing him, she encourages him to fight back. When they hit you, she says, hit back harder. And she says she can be there to help him, “I can do that,” she tells him. Odd words from a vampire. But then so was her compassionate embrace. The next time at school Oskar stays behind after class is dismissed to teach himself Morse code, the better to communicate with Eli. (His first message to her will be “Sweet dreams.”) What were you doing, Connie demands and when Oskar won’t tell him, in a vivid scene reminiscent of Truffaut’s 400 Blows,Oskar’s so brutally switched with a hazel rod that his pain is almost too much for one of Connie’s gang to bear. He actually weeps as he beats him.

With each of Oskar’s troubles, Eli’s bond with him grows stronger. So do their embraces. One night, moreover, naked, she crawls into bed with him. Her body is cold. She asks Oskar if it would bother him if it turned out she wasn’t a girl. Probably not, he answers. He already knows Eli isn’t a girl. In a scene that would have delighted Buñuel, he’s glimpsed between Eli’s legs. Just as in the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvuist (who also wrote the screenplay), Eli was castrated when he was 12. Director and writer remind us that no compact in life may be stronger than the furtive, platonic friendship between two 12-year old boys. The film grows curiouser and curiouser. Eli’s gone in the morning of course, leaving behind a note that reads, “If I linger, I die. To live I must flee,” beneath which she’s drawn a heart containing the words, “Your Eli.”

And the climax is still a ways off.

Meanwhile, Håkan seeks to redeem himself. In the gym, he strings up one of Oskar’s schoolmates, but before he can cut his throat, the boy screams out, his cries are heard and Håkan, finally realizing he’s too old for job of this kind, pours prussic acid over his face. This time there’s no poodle to mitigate the horror of the scene. Håkan’s taken to hospital where, in a comic scene typical of Alfredson, Eli climbs the wall to his room and, with a kind of mercy presumably peculiar to vampires, puts him puts of his misery by draining the blood from his body.

Connie, together with his gang and his older brother, premeditate revenge on Oskar by luring him to the swimming pool. Here they nearly drown him. Just as he’s about to die, in a surreally beautiful scene, body parts start floating in the water behind him. Eli’s hand pulls Oskar up and he sees the dismembered bodies of Connie, his brother and his gang – all but the boy who wept while beating him. It’s a sight of such spectacular sanguinity, I swear I could hear Montgomery Burns of The Simpsons whispering, “Excellent!” in my ear.

Newly resolute, Oskar packs up his belongings and leaves home. The screen blacks out for a three-bar musical measure of time, after which we’re given the beautiful coda to this film. We find Oskar in a private room on an old-fashioned Swedish railway car, heading who knows where. Next to him is a box containing Eli. She thumbs and he answers in Morse code, “Puss,” which means “kiss” in Swedish.

As I said at the start, Let the Right One In is a most beautiful and unusual film. I recommend it with no reservations whatever.

Released on March 10, 2009
1 Disc SRP: $26.98
Sweden; 2008; in Swedish with English and Spanish subtitles; 114 minutes; Color; 2.35:1
Format: Dolby, Dubbed, DVD-Video, NTSC, Widescreen
Region 1; Rating

BEN SONNENBERG is the author of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy, and the founder/editor of the original Grand Street. He can be reached at harapos@panix.com.

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BEN SONNENBERG is the author of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy, and the founder/editor of Grand Street. He can be reached at harapos@panix.com.

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