Saturday, January 24, 2009
A Vampire Movie With Blood, Brains and Heart
Is Let the Right One In a terrific vampire movie that involves adolescence, or is it a movie about adolescence that involves vampires? I've long had similar thoughts about Carrie; a classic horror movie and, in my opinion, one of the few that really gets that whole crass, cruel caste system known as high school down to a T.
Whatever it is, this Swedish gorefest from director Tomas Alfredson is a true delight in any number of ways: scary, sinister, deeply heart-felt, funny and very smartly directed.
Like a number of movies based on Stephen King novels -- such as the aforementioned Carrie as well as Christine -- the main character of Let the Right One In is a lonely boy gets his ass kicked a lot at school: 12-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), who unhappily lives in a small apartment with his mom, who spends most of her time on the phone yelling at Oskar's dad, whom Oskar likes a great deal more. Clearly a smart boy, although he gets little encouragement either at home or school, Oskar has no friends and lives very much in his own world. Life at school is a daily nightmare, where a gang of bullies routinely torture him and call him "piggy," safe in the knowledge that he'll never fight back; Oskar as a result often imagines he's the bully rather than the victim.
In the midst of one of these reveries, he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), a girl of the same age who has just moved in next door. Eli knows all about loneliness, too, and not just because she looks like Elijah Wood in drag. She Eli too lives with a single parent, her dad, and they are both vampires.
Interestingly, Alfredson and screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist, who based the story on his own novel, re-imagine just what it means to be a vampire in the modern era (or close to it, as the film is set in the late 1970s). No capes or castles, no Romanian accent or legacy -- just a constant desire for human blood, which the father has taken on ever more resourceful means to acquire.
While Oskar can't quite share Eli's diet, he develops genuine feelings for her, which are difficult for her to reciprocate. Like the Simone Simon character in the Val Lewton-Jacques Tourneur classic Cat People -- who is literally turned into a beast by sexual passion -- Eli both wants and fears a human relationship. One of the first things she says to Oskar is that she can't be his friend, which as we come to learn is because she knows that any relationship is bound to be lethal. Nonetheless, friendship and love blossom, as Oskar draws courage from Eli in facing up to his foes and Eli draws blood from the local populace.
There's another, perhaps unintended, homage to The Cat People in the final scene. The earlier film has a classic scene at an indoor swimming pool, where a woman swimming alone seems to find herself facing a leopard. (You never see the animal; it's purely, and brilliantly, atmospheric.) It's one of the most memorable scenes in American horror, and the setting is what does it, because it's so closed in, because the woman is alone, and because simply being in a body of water makes you vulnerable -- death by drowning is very close at hand.
Alfredson, likewise, uses an indoor pool in a superb final sequence in Let the Right One In, and he delivers a shock so beautiful I almost yelped for joy. There is nothing in this world like a movie that shows you something you haven't seen or that you didn't see coming, or ones like this that can jolt you in a fresh way.
Let the Right One In is a jolt from the blue, and one of the best, most imaginative horror films I've seen in a good while, or at least since The Orphanage.