April 2009

Arts & Letters

Snow falling on vampires

By Luke Davies
Tomas Alfredson’s ‘Let the Right One In’

"Just so you know: I can't be your friend," says Eli (Lina Leandersson), an ethereal, bedraggled girl, to Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a lonely, curious boy desperate to connect with someone kinder and less frightening than the school bullies who constitute his only apparent social contact. Eli is the newcomer to Oskar's stark apartment complex, in a small, snow-filled suburb of Stockholm. Her statement, coming as if out of nowhere, might be simply another perplexing moment in the litany of bewilderment that makes up Oskar's life. "What do you mean?" he asks. "Does there have to be a reason?" she snaps. "That's just the way it is." We're close on Oskar as he contemplates this abrupt withdrawal of something he never asked for; suddenly, he seems to come up with a good retort. "Are you sure that I want to be your friend?" he says. But Eli's already gone; she has a habit of making unusually fast entrances and exits. Oskar's triumph and his cleverness, as with almost everything in his frustrated life, are witnessed only by himself.

Exchanges of teenage inarticulateness are always loaded with an angst far beyond the words that are spoken: for teenagers carry the weight of the world, and there is no greater weight. In Let the Right One In (released last month), a gloriously strange and haunted poem of a film that is as austere and serene as it is luridly baroque and kitsch, the director Tomas Alfredson allows these dynamics of adolescent awkwardness to play out again and again. This is all the more effective since Eli, it turns out, is a vampire, and vampire stories, infused as they are with thinly veiled anxiety about loss of sexual innocence, aren't so far from teenage tales of first love.

The corporatisation of the vampire in American film and TV sanitises all that. Buffy the Vampire Slayer enjoyed a long cult run, and its fans thought it edgy, but this only proves that fans can be deluded. Buffy was loaded with hip pop-cultural references, yet ultimately it wanted its portrayal of teen love to remain as wholesome as Archie comics, only with a New Age twist. Alfredson, on the other hand, working from the novel and screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist, welcomes the discomfort with open arms. I doubt the American system would touch the scene where Eli climbs naked into Oskar's bed, snuggles against him from behind and strokes his bare shoulder, her mouth covered in blood. (She has just feasted on her "father" - it's a long story - before killing him.) We're certainly not in Kansas anymore.

"Do you want to be my girlfriend?" asks Oskar, wide-eyed with fearful excitement, as Eli lies touching him. "Oskar," she says tenderly, "I'm not a girl." If it wasn't a vampire tale, the film could play out as something far more literal, about innocence versus all-too-familiar and painful experience: a young girl, harbouring the dark secret of ongoing sexual abuse, attempts a relationship with someone pure and unsullied.

It is a vampire tale, but its undercurrents are powerful, and powerfully ambiguous, and that ambiguity is at the heart of the folk tradition that Bram Stoker synthesised from centuries-old oral mythologies. The awakening of sexuality, the use of sexual power, the fear of blood: loss of innocence comes clothed in many forms. The second time I watched the film, I was struck by how mournful it is. "Are you old?" asks Oskar, fearing the answer. "I'm 12," says Eli. "But I've been 12 for a long time." The depth of sadness in her delivery is heart-wrenching. The two actors are tremendous, but Lina Leandersson is more in control of her task, and of the film's layers. He's a 12-year-old boy who looks nine; she's a 12-year-old girl who looks, at times, like a 16-year-old street kid. It creates an odd but effective dissonance. (Then again, at other times, she seems nothing but 12, and miserable and vulnerable, at that: Alfredson is at pains to show that Eli may be a vampire, but she's just a snotty-nosed kid, too.)

It is 20 minutes into the film before we finally see Eli properly, in close-up - this strange pale girl with bags under her eyes. In Darren Aronofsky's recent The Wrestler, where the camera follows Mickey Rourke for several scenes without allowing us to see his face, this felt more like a gimmick, and something outside the story itself, more to do with revealing - drum roll - the great and fallen Mickey Rourke in his comeback moment. Here, though, it really packs a punch, and feels earned. Alfredson is a better modulator of mood than Aronofsky, who is very good at making style look like substance. In Let the Right One In, the stillness - of framing, of pacing - catches us unawares, in the sense that, as in all good ghost stories, we are lulled unsuspecting into that place where the real and the surreal become interchangeable. David Lynch, who tends to view the fabric of existence itself as a supernatural hallucination, is the master of this. Lars von Trier's compellingly strange masterpiece, the Danish TV mini-series The Kingdom (1994), is also a stylistic precursor to Let the Right One In.

The film is filled with extraordinary images: a white poodle bounding, almost camouflaged, like some ghost wolf through a snow-filled forest; a woman spontaneously combusting; a chainsaw cutting through lake ice, seen from underwater. It's hard to tell whether the special effects are indeed that, or extremely clever choreographies of camera movement with stunt doubles. Whatever they are, they are used sparingly, and they are wonderfully effective. In one scene, her bloodlust aroused, Eli climbs a tree at inhuman speed: perched up there, panting, terrified, her pupils dilated, she seems an utterly primeval creature loosed from the bonds of darkness. Elsewhere, in the cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema's spare palette - everything crisp and white and sky blue when not lit by buzzing fluorescents - Eli and Oskar are foregrounded in stark relief to bland backgrounds.

Let the Right One In holds us from the start, but without pyrotechnics or seat-of-the-pants scene-setting. It's a more formal opening, like some snowbound version of a David Lean classic - Great Expectations, say - with different characters being introduced from different perspectives. Eli arrives by taxi in the dark of night, with Håkan (Per Ragnar), whom we assume to be her father. Alternative interpretations of who he might be become possible as the film progresses, and in the end there is also the important question, not unrelated to Håkan: What will be Oskar's fate, since Eli ages at such a supremely leisurely pace? In any case, Håkan is effectively Eli's blood collector; at one point he complains, "What else am I good for?" It's not that she's entirely reliant on him: she knows how to kill. It's that in theory he's neater, and more methodical; Eli tends to be more in-the-moment, more deranged and careless, when she snaps into the vampire lust. You don't want to be the strange new father-and-daughter pair in town when bodies begin dropping from the trees.

When Oskar and Eli start communicating in morse code through their apartment walls (innocuous teenage stuff, "sweet dreams" and so on), Håkan starts to feel the rumblings of discontent, and you can read him either as concerned father or jealous, controlling paedophile. He's old and weary, and his eyes look vacant from all the killing. Going out at night with his kit of knives, plastic containers, funnels and halothane gas, he asks Eli not to spend time with "that boy". Twice, his blood searches (murders, in any other language) are interrupted, and a ravenous Eli must take matters into her own hands. Her deep satisfaction when we first see her take blood is disturbing and unsettling. In Neil Jordan's Interview with the Vampire (1994) - where the vampires Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise spent the movie tiptoeing around the implications of what it might mean, in practical terms, to spend the upcoming centuries as gentlemen bachelors with the 11-year-old Kirsten Dunst in tow - Dunst, as the pre-teen monster, came across as insipid and coy in her bloodletting, fine actor though she is; you can almost feel the anxiety of the studio execs standing around as certain scenes were shot. In Let the Right One In, Alfredson doesn't simply throw caution to the wind; he deliberately herds our sensibilities in uncomfortable directions, and the film is the better for it. Eli may despise Håkan, but she understands that she probably wouldn't cope for long without a procurer. And when Håkan tries unsuccessfully to kill himself, after another botched blood mission, his lament for Eli is a forlorn, lovelorn moment of surrender. Perhaps he had simply once been a 12-year-old, like Oskar, and had fallen in love with Eli and wanted to help her.

You could ask all sorts of plot-hole questions - where are Child Services when Håkan does die? - but Let the Right One In is too mesmerising in its exuberant abandonment to locating the weird in the everyday for this to matter. Its surprises are many and constant; it is melancholy and yet wryly funny, exploring the frailties and yearnings of youth at the same time as it packs in a good old-fashioned narrative of revenge and loyalty. It's an extravagant hallucination, yet - because Alfredson trips through the genre so lightly and irreverently, while loving his characters so much - we buy what is patently melodramatic in the film. "I must be gone, and live, or stay and die," writes Eli to Oskar, in an ancient script that looks almost runic, but she's describing a very real problem: the unsustainability of the vampire life in this world where lives of quieter despair are lived. We buy what is tender and mournful, too. "Do you do anything special when you ‘go steady'?" Eli asks Oskar, genuinely unfamiliar with the phrase. "No," he says, thinking hard about it. She looks relieved, and yet sad, to have the chance to operate outside her destined nature. "Then we'll go steady," she says. "It'll be you and me."

And we buy, finally, with great affection, even that which seems most tongue-in-cheek. One day, Oskar cuts his hand and offers it to Eli, along with his knife - he wants her to prick her finger, at least, so they can be blood brother and sister. But oh, those drops drip-dripping onto the floor, as he holds out his hand, waiting for the reciprocal moment; as Eli stands there, looking like she's about to swoon. This is after one of Håkan's failed night excursions, so Eli's feeling a bit antsy. (I was a heroin addict once, so I know where she's coming from.) She drops to the floor, growling, and greedily, impulsively, licks up the blood, while Oskar looks down on her, eyes agog. Those vampire tastebuds will get you in all sorts of trouble.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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