The golden age of horror: Let the Right One In (2008)

Chris: Being the new kid in the neighborhood is tough. Will there be many kids in your neighborhood? Will they play the same games as you? How long will it take before you fit in? Just before Halloween in the late 1970s when I was 12, my own family moved into a new subdivision across town. New school, new friends, new everything. I vividly remember my first afternoon there, meeting the neighbor kids over a game of kickball. It was the kind of halting and stumbling interaction you might expect, stressful for all parties.

After the jump, and all of that without the complication of being undead

Chris: Let the Right One In has all the ingredients we’d expect to find in a sweet, nostalgic coming-of-age picture. Oskar is an outcast, with his weird clothes and mop of unruly hair. He’s picked on by bullies at school. Eli–an outcast herself–seems to recognize in him immediately a kindred spirit. Their first meetings are so fragile and disjointed and perfect. “Where do you live?” he asks. “In the jungle gym” she replies, a mix of both childish teasing and worldly sarcasm. “Just so you know, I can’t be your friend,” she says. There’s a clumsy directness to their conversation. Anyone who was ever in the same position of either meeting or being the new kid will feel a shock of recognition here.

Rob: You’re right, there are moments of adolescent awkwardness in this film that are so painful and true it reminded me of My Life as a Dog. I don’t know of any other horror movie that feels as “arthouse” as Let the Right One In. The pace is slow, the plot is low in the mix, and all that snowy, lyrical cinematography! Every shot that isn’t just Oskar’s perpetually runny nose is a thing of beauty. Even the lingering close-ups of Hakan’s gorgeously-lit, acid-burned face. This was my second time viewing the film after being mildly letdown the first time through. I enjoyed it more this time but I just don’t ever get emotionally invested in these characters. Maybe it’s the film’s cold, sterile bleakness but I find myself watching from a distance but never feeling it, either as scary or touching.

Chris: If there’s one sub-genre that truly suffered during what was an otherwise golden age in horror films, it’s the vampire movie. Thanks to Stephenie Meyer, the last decade or so has been filled with brooding, hunky vampires who sparkle. They’re not monsters, they’re idealized fantasy boyfriends for a generation of pubescent girls. Let the Right One In, for all its gentle edges, restores the monster to the vampire. For all her seeming waifishness, when Eli feeds it isn’t pretty. There’s blood. Lots of it. Bodies left behind that must be disposed of. For a while in the movie, she has Hakan, an older man who fetches her blood when needed, choosing his victims based only on opportunity. He may as well be a serial killer.

Rob: Eli is definitely a wild thing. I love it when her long tongue starts madly slurping up blood. This movie has a bunch of nice moments of visual horror. They’re usually brief but they all make a strong impression, like Eli dropping straight down on her victims or clambering up the hospital wall, Hakan’s ruined face and falling corpse, or Virginia burning alive in her hospital bed. So many stunning images. And that swimming pool climax!

LTROI

Chris: The awkwardness of Oskar’s feelings and poorly expressed affection for Eli fill one aspect of the movie, but on the other side is the monster. First Jocke goes missing, last seen with an unidentified “little kid” attacking him. We know that it’s Eli, her hunger having gotten the best of her. She took matters into her own hands after Hakan got flustered by a poodle and left his blood bucket behind in the park. Gradually the other villagers begin to put things together about the old man who’s just arrived in town and his “daughter”. The movie weaves together the threads of Oskar’s determination to not be bullied alongside his relationship with Eli…and oh yeah, there’s a vampire hunt of sorts underway.

Rob: I really enjoyed the central triangle of Oskar, Eli, and Hakan, but I don’t have much interest in any of the other characters. Especially bothersome to me is the unconvincing ways the script tries to dispense with Oskars’ parents. The sudden problem with his dad seems to be alcohol, cigarettes, and possible gayness (?) while his mom just packs up and disappears after vigorously brushing her teeth. The bully characters also felt one-dimensional.

Chris: Oh, Oskar’s father is definitely gay, and I agree that it’s weird that the mother just sort of conveniently is either sleeping or just isn’t around in the story for the last third of the movie. Even so, it didn’t bother me too much, as I’m far more fascinated by Eli and her relationships with humans and specifically Oskar. She’s 12, she says, but “I’ve been 12 for a long time.” At first I thought Hakan was her father, but when I saw his reaction to Eli becoming closer to Oskar, new suspicions dawned on me. One day many years ago, pehaps Hakan was a kid like Oskar, and fell in love with Eli even as he aged and she didn’t. Eli clearly controls their relationship; when Hakan comes home having forgotten the blood he’d drained for her, we hear her letting him have it. We also see later how tender her feelings are for him. She realizes what tremendous sacrifice he’s made to protect her…but that doesn’t stop her from digging in when he offers her some dinner. She’s a wonderfully complex character caught between so many worlds. She’s both child and adult, human and inhuman. Newcomer Lina Leandersson plays her with great beauty and sadness.

Rob: I love your read on that scene where Hakan tells Eli not to see Oskar. I took it as a fatherly warning but maybe there’s an edge of jealous lover there as well. Then again, there’s something about Eli’s life with Hakan that seems relatively new and tenuous. They’re not exactly a well-oiled machine of blending in quietly to a new community. Eli is out all night making friends and eating people while Hakan soon reveals himself to be woefully incompetent at the bloodletting trade. He seems to come off as more of a recent acquisition in Eli’s life. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating dynamic.

Chris: You bring up good points. On one hand, Hakan seems to have his blood-getting thing down to a routine. Look at how he packs his serial killer kit up (or that he even has such a kit), casually testing his halothane. The funnel and blood bucket seem well-used. Then he stupidly chooses victims on a well-lit path, or in a crowded gym. His nonchalance with the knife suggest he’s done this many times before, but why so clumsily here? It’s an intriguing thing that the movie leaves unanswered for us. We have questions about Eli as well. I surmise that she became a vampire when she was 12 and thus doesn’t age or mature physically, but beyond that, mysteries remain. How did she become a vampire? What’s Hakan to her? How long has she been at this? We’re offered a terrible glimpse of her past, but little else.

Rob: You’re right about Eli being a truly interesting character, especially her gender ambiguity. While growing closer to Oskar she repeatedly tells him she isn’t a girl, a denial which takes on a new, third meaning after Oskar peeks at her while she’s undressing and sees a castration scar. She acts sensitive and girlish at times, but their relationship feels a lot more like boyish competition as Oskar offers her candy and she tries to eat it. Or the great moment when he dares her to enter his home uninvited. When their relationship culminates in violence as Oskar saves Eli in the bathroom and Eli saves Oskar at the pool, this no longer felt like a love story to me.

Chris: Yeah, at some point we have to consider the two at the center of this story. Watching this movie again, it’s a bit striking how much Oskar isn’t like the strange gawky teenager I thought I’d originally recognized from the coming of age films in my youth. He’s not Ingmar. He’s certainly neither Rudy the Rabbit or Lucas. The central gentleness of those awkward misfits is missing from him. He seems frighteningly amoral at times. At one point, Eli asks him if he wants his tormentors dead, and Oskar nods. I think at that point Eli made a cold calculation, and acted based on her true, inhuman needs. On the train at the end, he seems joyfully remorseless about what happened to Virginia and Lacke, or to the kids at the swimming pool. The monster has found a new tousle-haired handler happily willing to serve it.

(Let the Right One In is available to stream via Netflix or for Amazon Prime members. It should also be noted that the English subtitles included in the original DVD and blu-ray releases of the film are notably terrible and incomplete. They were fixed in later editions, and are corrected in the streaming and online versions currently available.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)

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