Friday, November 07, 2008

“Let the Right One In”: Cold Swedish Vampire Movie


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Let the Right One In is a peculiar movie indeed. It’s Swedish — though the English-language title is merely a direct translation of the Swedish one, Låt den rätte komma in — and it’s a surprisingly cold movie. Maybe not so surprisingly at that, given that it takes place in one of the world’s coldest countries, where at the height of winter it’s nighttime virtually 24 hours a day, but still it’s a bit weird that a movie about two unlikely people coming together and closing the emotional gap between them should seem so chilly dramatically as well as psychologically.

Basically, it’s the story of a puppy-love affair between two 12-year-olds. Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a pre-pubescent blond of almost unearthly beauty, introduced by director Tomas Alfredson clad in nothing but white jockey briefs, in tight close-ups that make him look like a NAMBLA member’s wet dream. He’s also the classic schoolyard victim, put upon by bullies led by Conny (Patrik Rydmark) and left to his own devices much of the time by a working mother who’s raising him as a single parent, dad (whom he seems to have more fun with on the rare times they do see each other) having moved out of town.

His proverbial girl-next-door is Eli (Lina Leandersson), a raven-haired, pale-faced creature who lives with a foster father, never goes out during the daytime and has a penchant for appearing in the oddest and most physically inaccessible places. At first Eli rebuffs Oskar’s approaches — “Don’t try to be my friend,” she says — but eventually the two of them start palling around together and develop an emotional connection of sorts. When Oskar returns home bloodied and scarred from a confrontation with Conny and his gang, Eli tells him that next time he should fight them back — and he does.

What both he and we gradually suspect is that Eli isn’t an ordinary 12-year-old girl; she’s a vampire, and her foster dad’s role in her life is to murder young men, string them up upside-down and drain their blood with a butcher knife to give her the only food she can handle. Like the vampires in Len Wiseman’s Underworld movies, she gets violently ill when she tries to eat normal food — as when Oskar offers her a piece of candy and at first she turns it down with the same solemnity with which Bela Lugosi, in the 1931 Dracula, announced, “I never drink … wine,” but Oskar talks her into trying one piece and she retches against the nearest wall.

Let the Right One In is a frustrating movie because there’s really nothing in it that’s actively dislikable — but there’s not much to like about it, either. It’s scripted by John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on his own novel (which apparently was a best-seller in Sweden), and it’s the sort of story that doesn’t set audience expectations — literally anything can happen — and therefore can’t achieve any legitimate surprise either. Through much of the movie you’re wondering how on earth it can possibly end, as Lindqvist writes himself into corner after corner and then has to struggle to write himself out of them again.

Alfredson’s direction doesn’t help either. He gets some things right; aided by the dark Swedish nights and the general character of the light the country gets (the late cinematographer Conrad Hall once said that Swedish moviemakers had an advantage over others working in more temperate climes because Sweden’s position on the planet relative to the sun gave them naturally indirect light), he and director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema create a dramatic, almost black-and-white visual look. It’s a far cry from the steely grey tones of the Underworld movies or the murky green-and-brown tones of just about everything else being made today!

What shoots down Alfredson here is his inability to decide on a tone for his movie. At times he keeps it somber and slow, as if he were trying to demonstrate what might have happened if Sweden’s most famous director, the late Ingmar Bergman, had made a vampire movie. At times he goes for the Val Lewton effect, keeping the gore off-screen and using sound effects to scare. At other times he goes for the jugular — literally and figuratively — and splashes blood over the screen. The result is a movie that doesn’t contain enough splatter and gore for the slice-and-dice movie audience, but is also too explicit for those with a subtler taste in horror.

Let the Right One In has some powerful scenes, including the spectacular exit of one of Eli’s victims who prefers death to vampire-dom and Eli’s darkly comic revenge against Oskar’s tormentors. But its main entertainment value lies in the two marvelous performances Alfredson gets from his juvenile leads. Like Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire (in which she virtually stole the movie out from under the nominal stars), Lina Leandersson gives a tough, subtle performance that marks her for future stardom; her on-a-dime transitions from nice little girl to blood-lusting animal (including one that’s a visual quote from Carl Dreyer’s 1931 masterpiece ˆVampyr) have to be seen to be believed. And in a less blatantly showy role, Kåre Hedebrant is convincing both as put-upon kid and man-in-the-making whose discovery of adult emotions is coming from a pretty unusual source.

It’s difficult to recommend this film because so much of it seems clunky and unformed, as if Alfredson and Lindqvist were actively shying away from the implications of their basic story. If you want a film that uses the horror conventions to get inside the mind of a lonely, alienated child, you’re probably better off renting Val Lewton’s 1944 classic The Curse of the Cat People. But enough does work well in Let the Right One In that it can’t be dismissed completely either.

Let the Right One In is now playing at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas, 3965 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. Please call (619) 299-2103 for showtimes and other information.