(2008) dir. Tomas Alfredson
“The Swedish vampire movie.” That’s not how this movie was marketed, nor exactly descriptive of its character or story, but that’s the short-hand word-of-mouth way to describe it. I mean, how many more Swedish vampire movies can you think of? I don’t doubt that there are many. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) is Danish. Anyways, I belabor the point.
A friend who had seen this film in the theater described it as “sweet”. And it is. It’s a love story between two pre-pubescent children (age 12). At once that sounds perhaps a little odd in a creepy way, and also perhaps a little too much like the Twilight (2008) book series and films about teenagers and vampires and love. In fact, it’s a little hard to describe the details of the film and still capture its je ne se quois.
Oskar is a nearly albino-blonde and pale-skinned 12 year old, living in an apartment building in suburban Stockholm in the early 1980’s (it was only after the fact that I understood the film’s placement in time). He’s tormented by bullies, lonely in living with his divorced/separated mother, and starting to fantasize about cutting up his tormentors with a knife. Late one night, a mysterious man and a young girl move into the complex, boarding up the windows. The girl makes an appearance to Oskar, a dark-haired waif of a girl dressed in thirft store clothes, inappropriately clad for the snow. She is Eli, and while initially holding Oskar at bay, she becomes his friend.
Eli is a vampire, we come to find out, and the man with her turns out to be her procurer of blood, murdering young men, then hanging them upside-down and collecting their blood in buckets for her. It must be said that he’s not particularly careful, and the murders start getting the locals up in arms. But eventually, Oskar and Eli start “going steady”. It’s a sweet, young romance, filling voids of loneliness that are very palpable.
Really, the film takes the vampire in some strange different territory. It’s funny, but I was reading an article in the New Yorker about vampire mythology, and Dracula fanaticism, and in all that is covered in that, somehow Let the Right One In manages to touch on themes and ideas through the vampire that feel fresh. There are themes of isolation, which aren’t so uncommon, but the vampires themselves live in squalor, and while Eli shows that they have money, her apartment makes Oskar wonder if they are very poor. But the isolation and Eli’s relationship with Håkan, her procurer, implies sexual abuse and slavery while at the same time potentially representing an example of the love that is shared by Eli and Oskar. I wondered whether Håkan was just like Oskar, just that he had aged in his time with Eli, while she had remained 12. Is there pedophilia?
Also, in a brief shot, Oskar sees that Eli has a wound where her genitals would be. In watching this sequence in the film, there is the queer feeling of taboo (the bodies of pre-pubescent children are not often displayed outside of Scandanavia) but the wound further reflects abuse, a scar marking previous pain and torture. Eli’s isolation and loneliness are imbued with the tragedy of child abuse. And of course, Oskar relates, from his familial isolation, an odd scene that suggests that his father left his mother for another man? Oskar runs from this, though it’s very subtle. And the abuse that he receives at the hands of his vicious bullies.
As it turns out, and I don’t want to spoil this for anyone, so don’t read this paragraph if you don’t want some foreknowledge of the film, but it turns out that when Eli is saying that she “is not a girl”, she doesn’t just mean that she is a vampire, but rather that she is a castrated boy…thus the wound. I only found this out through some web research, relating to details that are implied in the film but more explicit in the book from which is was adapted. While this is certainly an interesting inflection, the lack of this knowledge is still telling. The film does strike upon these dark issues of abuse and loneliness and resultant violence. Echoes of these tropes are effective.
That is to say that the film allows for subtlety in its points. Suggestions of plot points open channels of reaction without having to spell out the “facts” so much for the viewer. It’s part of why this film is so effective. The emotional connection between the two lonely children is powerful enough, but the sadness and positing of this vampire as a lost, longing abused child is very touching. And Oskar’s genuine affection, sweet and chaste in a sense, is quite compelling.
Now, I’ve also read, unsurprisingly, that there is an American version of this film getting into production for release next year. I am guessing that it’s going to be a whole lot more Twilight than this film.
But this is a good film, interesting, touching. It’s an odd thing, a film about Swedish pre-pubescent androgynous vampires, but there are those nuances that make it something that you just don’t see every day.