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Let the Right One In Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Let the Right One In Review

    It is hard to imagine a foreign, independent sleeper hit arriving with more critical adulation than Tomas Alfredson's Let The Right One In. Although, at the time of writing, this astonishing Swedish vampire story has yet to play theatres in the UK, advance word has been abundantly enthusiastic and hard to ignore, making the movie's arrival on US Blu-ray a release that just couldn't be allowed to slip by.

    It is Stockholm during the Winter of 1982. Soviet Russia is ominously close and the oppressive lack of daylight is taking its toll on the inhabitants of a drab suburban estate. But for twelve-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) there are much more pressing matters to contend with. Living with his single-parent mother in a dreary apartment block, he spends his school-days being harassed and bullied by a trio of other boys, and his nights in lonely contemplation of escape and retribution. When new neighbours arrive - a girl about the same age as Oskar and a middle-aged man who could be her father - he finds an unlikely nocturnal companion as he and the girl, Eli, strike up a strange and tentative friendship. Eli (an amazing performance from Lina Leandersson), never wears a coat and walks barefoot in the snow, but doesn't feel the cold. Oskar also notices that she has a curious odour, discoloured teeth and that she only ever appears to come out at night. Indeed, the windows of their apartment have been covered, as well, as if to block out the scant sunshine. Their arrival has also coincided with a series of horrible killings in the area, which have left their young victims drained of blood. Oskar, already something of a ghoul, adds press-cuttings about them to his scrapbook collection of atrocities and outrages. You get the feeling long before he knows for sure that he wants Eli to be a vampire, his own problems nudging him into darker areas of craving. But, despite all this pressing and rather damning evidence pointing towards Eli being something really quite sinister, their feelings for one another steadily grow into something much stronger, something unbreakable.

    Eli, a primal creature who understands intimately the necessity of strength and resilience encourages Oskar to fight back against the bullies who prey on him and, bolstered by her deadly serious words of wisdom, the boy enroles in the school gym and prepares to make a stand. All the while, the locals grow suspicious of the newcomers and, when one of their own is slain, and another badly injured, decide to take matters into their own hands. Both Oskar and Eli will have to face their own particular demons and, only with the love and support that they have for each other, will they stand a chance of survival. But when Eli's prophetic adage of “To flee is life, to linger death,” seems like coming true, a terrible choice will have to be made.

    “I don't kill people.”

    “No, but you'd like to. If you could... to get revenge. Right?”

    “Yes.”

    The film is deliberately and meticulously paced. Some would call it slow, others, who are more attuned to its languid, dream-like style, will find this a very rewarding approach, and one that, like the silent, snow-smothered Stockholm setting, itself, is starkly pale and chilling, yet shot through with brilliant flashes of abrupt blood-letting and emotional turbulence. Numerous set-pieces provide regular punctuation to the steady narrative climb. The murders, themselves, are supremely well staged - even when they go wrong - and the curiously enigmatic, yet touching relationship that develops between Oskar and Eli mark Alfredson as a director who is totally aware of the power of simple expressions and the intuitive use of unspoken sentiment. A playful bonding session over the era's favourite brain-tease - Rubik's infernal Cube - becomes a flirtatious delight, the two's uneasy feelings for one another slotting into place just as smoothly as the coloured squares in Eli's skilful hands. The pair use Morse Code to communicate through the apartment wall - hands pressed or knocking against unyielding surfaces being a motif that Alfredson likes to repeat - and, once again, this ties in with the theme of unuttered emotional connection. A fantastic sequence takes place out on a frozen lake during a school field-trip. With our attention pushed and pulled between two points of strong physical shock, Alfredson creates an incredible amount of tension as we await the galvanising effect of both. Something of Hitchcock's lurking presence bleeds through this scene, and I, personally, think that it is one of the film's strongest moments - and this film has many such instances. Another fabulous sequence sees Ika Nord's Virginia, a very unfortunate survivor of one of Eli's midnight snacks, attacked by cats who can detect the ungodly infection coursing through her veins. Although obviously CG, the ferocious felines look pretty spectacular and their sheer nastiness recalling a similar attack in Dario Argento's Inferno. The balance between such vivid depictions of horror as the killings, and their actually quite matter-of-fact yet still jaw-dropping violence, and the softer, more sensitive moments between the two lost young souls is perfectly judged, with neither element detracting from the other. In fact, both extremes seem to complement one another - a poetic yin and yang of love and death, devotion and obsession.

    As Alfredson has said, the vampire may as well be the externalisation of Oskar's suppressed, but seething anger - the eye of his own internal storm. Whereas, vampirism has been a metaphor for a vast number of things - from sexual domination to corporate leaching - the keenest, sharpest angle is that it is simply the animal inside us all being unleashed and given free reign, and Eli's instinct-driven survival quest is surely the most powerful force being displayed here. But Oskar needs Eli if he is to cope with his lot in life. Already an outsider, he is being edged further into emotional desolation with a distant father (geographically as well relationship-wise) whose seemingly idyllic home-life out in the country is not quite the set-up that a twelve-year-old boy needs, and a mother who has simply lost that essential connection with a son who is on the verge of manhood. Funnily enough, this is where the story runs in-tandem with the personal projects of a certain Guillermo Del Toro who, with the likes of The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, explored disenfranchised innocence via the supernatural with similar sincerity. Alfredson's film is based on the best-selling novel from John Ajvide Lindqvist (who, incidentally, adapted his own work for the screen and claims that the original story was influenced by Morrissey's weirdly wonderful song, Let The Right One Slip In, yet I think you'll find The Icicle Works' Hollow Horse also sums up the forbidden love motif of Oskar and Eli just as well) and this difficult combination of darkness, depravity and unsettling sexual overtones with strong young actors and adults who can't be trusted is in markedly the same vein as Del Toro's tragic fables. Like them, Alfredson's movie is heavily evocative of time and place, character and society, yet seems to glide through a celluloid environment that is slightly out-of-synch with reality and exists one step removed from ourselves. Perhaps the film would not work without this fairytale quality, but even shorn of its vampiric element, there would still be an engrossing coming-of-age story here, and the characters are strong enough to stand up on their own, no matter what genre they are housed in.

    “Are you ... dead?”

    “No.”

    The film does a lot that is familiar and time-served by the genre, but it never does these things in the usual way. It plays with the legends we all know, Lindqvist's screenplay taking a sideways look at the whole bloody mythology and offering us glimpses of a side to it that is not often viewed. Eli's discreet loneliness, for instance, hints at sex, romance and the requisite carnal appetites, but it hinges completely upon her desperate craving for friendship more than anything else. She supplies vague titbits about her existence and how it all came about - her undisclosed real age, the intriguing treasures secreted in her apartment - and it is worth mentioning that Lindqvist's book goes into much detail about such things whilst the film opts to leave it all to your own conjecture, and even though we can easily assume that she isn't exactly what she appears to be, the sepulchral mystery that surrounds her is provocatively taunting. Think Interview With The Vampire's doomed Claudia crossed with a decidedly alternative Peter Pan. The famed, but really rather silly tradition of having to allow the undead into your home before they can enter - something that Bram Stoker cunningly reversed for his own myth-creating epic, Dracula, to allow Jonathan Harker into that dreaded Carpathian castle - is stunningly depicted here when Oskar chooses to flaunt the legend in an attempt to free Eli from her own netherworld religion, and the results are distressing to say the least. The use of a human slave to perform caretaker duties is the most wonderfully twisted device in Let The Right One In, however. Per Ragnar's quiet, underplayed Hakan is, arguably, the most controversial and thought-provoking piece in Alfredson's jugular jigsaw. Obviously smitten and beholden to his diminutive host for as long as he draws breath, Haken's true identity, like Eli's, is never divulged. A paedophile in the original book, the film contorts him into the most sympathetic and fragile serial killer conceivable. His love for Eli is confounding. Who is he? Where did he come from? Alfredson and Lindqvist don't want to tell you anything. They want you to come to your own conclusions. I know what I choose to think - and it is utterly heartbreaking, but one supreme shock vision, glimpsed by Oskar early in the third act couldn't help but nudge my thoughts in one touching, but upsetting direction. It is worth mentioning, however, that the film does not make clear - and I'm certain that this is intentional - Eli's revelation from the book. Although the tone of the movie does adhere very closely to that of the source novel, I think this ambiguity is a wise development. But, either way, Haken is not your usual occult familiar, and there is none of that Renfield-style promise of the vampire's gift being offered to him. The ambiguity surrounding him and his total loyalty to Eli - there is no doubt that he could effect more semblance of normality around other people if he actually wanted to so as not to arouse suspicions - is just another layer in a finely textured story that refuses to explain itself away and, instead, asks something of us in return.

    “I'm ... trapped ...”

    Perhaps the most surprising thing about this desolate vampire tale is that it remains coolly touching in the face of such trauma rather than punctuated by spells of out and out despair. Oskar could well resort to crying fits and weeping his torments away into the night. A typical bullying victim, as depicted by film and TV drama, wears their anguish and terror on their sleeves for all to see. But, in a stunningly mature performance, Hedebrant ensures that Oskar is not at all so stereotypical. In fact, with his almost becalming acceptance of his sorry situation, Oskar becomes a much more convincing and authentic victim of bullying than many you will have seen. This mistreatment happens to him all the time and, as grim and upsetting as his plight might be, he is actually used to it. This is normal life for him. Obviously he is being affected inside by such systematic abuse - his vengeful night-time re-enactments of his daily torments reveal a dark desire within him to turn the tables or, worse yet, to perpetrate such denigrations upon somebody else (the psychologist's dream come true that violence only begets violence) - but the film does not show him breaking down and descending into the clichéd aspects of such enforced misery. Rather, he remains quietly, cautiously individualistic and, thus, able to face each new day, and its probable humiliations with almost beautific serenity. This, naturally, helps make such scenes as him being whipped and threatened by the cruel Conny (Patrik Rydmark - yes, that's Ryd-mark, not Widmark) and his stooges far easier for us to take. No less harrowing, but not bogged down with any surplus sentiment or wasted emotion on our part. Alfredson doesn't want to distract us from the main focus of this curiously romantic tale. Indeed, in adapting the novel, he and Lindvqist jettison almost all the back-stories of the bullies, themselves, as this would veer our attention too far away from the intimate saga of such a dark friendship and the trauma that it, inevitably, brings to those within its poisonous reach.

    “You've never hit back, have you? Start hitting back now ... hard.”

    “There are three of them.”

    “Then you have to hit back even harder. Harder than you dare ...”

    Sage advice, folks.

    The film is gory, but not in the way that you would expect. It is also incredibly violent, but, once again, in an odd, dislocated manner that may not lessen the gruelling effect of the killings, but moves into a more abstract depiction of them than the genre usually presents. For Alfredson, the violence is not the key. When Eli does her thing, it is more akin to a Special Forces operative calmly going about some covert mission - impersonal and clinically precise, a dirty job that simply has to be done. Neck-breaking and limb-severing are simple, by-the-book manoeuvres for her - unfussy and quick. By contrast, the violence and intimidation committed by the gang of young thugs is actually more acute, because theirs' is inherently targeted and more personal. When Conny's older, more sadistic brother, Jimmy (Rasmus Luthander), appears on the scene, you just know that the bullying campaign will step up a notch or two in severity. Having said this, however, the sight of a young victim hanging upside down from a tree, a plastic bucket conveniently catching the gushing blood from his sliced throat, is certainly a gruesome enough image and one that, perhaps deliberately, recalls something similar in Hammer's Dracula: Prince Of Darkness. And the awesome swimming pool sequence is sure to go down as one of the most offbeat massacres ever committed in the genre.

    The film has a low-key score from Johan (Things We Lost In The Fire) Soderqvist that fits its sombre tone perfectly. Elegantly composed with an emphasis on poignant strings and piano, there are times when it has a sound of Howard (Lord Of The Rings) Shore's early work about it - think of his Cronenberg horrors and even his foreboding score for The Silence Of The Lambs. Eli's predatory theme is suitably thick, dark and ugly, but Soderqvist is perfectly attuned to the soft and fragile romance of it all, as well. The cinematography, from Hoyte Van Hoytema, is absolutely ravishing. He creates fantastic vistas from the frigid landscape - which is hardly surprising considering how photogenic they are - but also frames the two leads in some simply beautiful compositions, whether initially getting to know one another outside on the climbing frame, or simply lying close in an experimental embrace. Hakan's stalk-and-kill in the forest is terrifically eerie perhaps because it seems so well-lit as opposed to the more accepted inky shadows of such an, otherwise, familiar scene - the bright white snow and the tall trees creating a coldly alien, spectral setting. A tracking shot that follows Virginia up some steps is also highly kinetic and immersive, and the unconventional swimming-pool finale is as eye-catching in its depiction of the action as it is provocative. Alfredson also likes to have his vampire employ some supernatural agility, meaning that we get a couple of great shots and angles of her scaling high walls and trees, a spider-like climb up the side of the hospital is quietly spectacular. Let The Right One In, therefore, is quite a technical and visual feast, the spells of tentative talk lulling you before the film then flashes inventive and stimulating tricks in your face with almost predatory abruptness.

    Lots of the advertising blurb carries the line about this being the best vampire film ever. Well, you don't need me to tell you that it isn't. But Let The Right One In is certainly one of the most captivating and engrossing, and also one of the genre's most left-field, which, in a densely-packed and often lacklustre corner of Horror Cinema, is extremely refreshing. The setting is unique, the atmosphere even more so. With performances that beguile and mesmerise and some terrific jolts along the way, Alfredson's streamlined yet airy adaptation of a novel that many are now sure to seek out has cult classic stamped all over it. The Americans, typically, know a good thing when they see it and, even more typically, absorb, regurgitate and then re-package it with their own banal branding. Let The Right One In, Yank-style, which is already under way, is sure to be yet another in a long, long line of bowdlerised, wretched knee-jerk remakes that aren't worth spit. If you are even halfway interested in this haunting tale, you know that this original version is the one to see. So, as the title so aptly suggests - let the right one in.

    Highly impressive and a bold take on a controversial and troubling novel. Wholly recommended for a macabre and yet strangely romantic experience.