Let the Right One In

Friday, July 03, 2009

I’m sure that every kid that has been bullied at school has had some sort of revenge fantasy in their head. Most of the time I imagine it’s quite banal. You know, wouldn’t it be nice to punch my tormenter in the face or wouldn’t it be nice to kick them in the shins. However, with Let the Right One In, the childhood revenge fantasy turns into something a lot darker.

It begins routinely enough. A young Boris Becker look-a-like called Oskar plays out scenarios where he stands up to the bullies that torment him. In one scene reminiscent of Taxi Driver he talks to a tree and then stabs it with a knife. Pretty standard stuff. But then a strange girl moves in next door to him.

We immediately know there’s something wrong with the girl. First of all, despite the sub-zero temperatures, she wears little clothing outside. Secondly, when she meets Oskar, she’s standing on top of a climbing frame. And then when she goes to greet him, she doesn’t climb down. She jumps down. But the jump is done in a very subtle way – it looks like she floats. Yep, this girl ain’t normal.

Long story short. The girl is a vampire.

One of the great things about Let the Right One In is that it’s a vampire film that doesn’t feel overly familiar. Sure we’ve seen child vampires and sure we’ve seen humans seduced by them, but because of the setting (suburban Sweden in perhaps the 70s or 80s) it feels somewhat different.

Another thing that helps is the relationship between Eli (the vampire girl) and her adult helper Hakan. It’s this man’s duty to feed her fresh blood. He does this by capturing teens, stringing them up and slitting their throats. He then collects the blood and gives it to the girl. It’s never made clear what the exact relationship is between the girl and man but again it’s an element that feels suitably unique (even though I’m sure someone has already explored the ‘feeder’ element before).

One thing that seems quite clear is that Hakan isn’t Eli’s father. He seems more like a devoted lover. He literally does anything for the girl. This includes, killing, hiding bodies and committing suicide. But it seems like the relationship between them has gone sour. When, one day, Hakan fails to get blood for the girl, she screams at him. He can only apologise. It’s clear that he adores her but it doesn’t look like his feelings are reciprocated.

Hakan’s demise occurs when he tries to take blood from another boy. They’re in the dressing room of a gym and the boy’s friends suddenly appear outside. Hakan is trapped and decides to pour a corrosive chemical over his face in a bid to kill himself. However, it doesn’t work and he ends up in hospital.

The make-up for Hakan’s face shows what a missed opportunity Two-Face was in The Dark Knight. In that film there was an unconvincing mixture of make-up and CGI. It just looked wrong. But Hakan’s face, which is burnt through so that you can see his teeth and muscle, looks a lot better. It really is pretty horrific.

And in the hospital Hakan performs a final act of devotion. He removes his breathing apparatus and lets Eli, who has climbed the exterior of the building to get to the room, feed on him. She then lets his body fall to the ground below.

The shot of Eli climbing the outside of the hospital is fantastic. If it were done in a close-up, it would look ridiculous. Instead, it’s done in a long shot. And as such it’s simply done and suitably creepy. There’s no need for flashy special effects.

The only scene in the film that really fails is the single one that rejects the film’s pleasingly down to earth sensibility. There’s a scene where a woman, who was bitten by Eli but not killed, gets attacked by a load of cats. But the cats are mainly CGI. And as such it just looks stupid. The cats never look convincing and the whole attack itself is rather ridiculous.

Compare this to one of the film’s best moments. The woman who was attacked by cats lies in the hospital. What with her sudden aversion to light, the feline attack and the strange noises she hears, she realises that she’s become a vampire. But rather than accept her new life and feast off blood, she decides to commit suicide. And she does it by asking a hospital orderly to open the window for her. He happily does this and she bursts into flames. The temptation for modern filmmakers would be to use CGI, but this film decides to go for a real burn. And unsurprisingly, it looks great.

And the film as a whole looks wonderful. The photography is never flashy, but it manages to make dull Swedish suburbia look interesting and full of menace.

The real menace in Oskar’s mind, though, is the bully who constantly attacks him. However, the kid in question doesn’t look really tough. He looks like a young version of Mathieu Amalric. You know, the main bad guy in Quantum of Solace. He has a kind of poppy-eyed, toady-faced vibe going on. But despite his unintimidating appearance, he makes Oskar’s life a living hell by having him whipped with a switch, by putting his trousers in a toilet and by generally being a prick.

The answer for Oskar is to embrace his inner killer. He has to hit back. And hit back he does. He smashes the kid with a stick. The look Oskar has on his face when he does this is incredibly convincing. He has that orgasmic, almost hyperventilating look that people get when they finally lash out. You can tell that this feels really good and that Oskar is almost overwhelmed by the pleasure it gives him.

But while the bully is a wanker, Eli is perhaps an even more insidious influence. Some people see their relationship as sweet, but I don’t really see it that way. All the time she’s training Oskar to become used to violence – to try and find his inner killer. Yes she gives him courage and yes she may even like him, but he’s really being groomed to become Hakan’s replacement. Therefore a dark destiny lies in store for Oskar. He gets to grow old and live a nomadic life with an immortal girl. If he stays with her, he’ll never live a normal life, never have a wife and never have kids. He’ll just have to go around and kill folk so that his little girl is okay. And eventually, like Hakan he’ll become an obsolete annoyance. Then someone else will take Oskar’s place.

Therefore I can’t really see anything sweet about the relationship. It seems more sad than anything.

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