At the Movies

Michael Wood

Vampires seem to be making a comeback these days, and not just at night and from the grave. In broad daylight you see sleek sets of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels everywhere, and the first of no doubt many movies based on the series opened at the end of last year.[*] But vampires haven’t really been away. From Dracula to Buffy they have sustained an extraordinary attendance record among human communities, have never stopped being almost everyone’s favourite form of the undead. There’s a sly evocation of this tradition in Tomas Alfredson’s alternately creepy and mildly sentimental Let the Right One In when Oscar, a lonely bullied boy with morbid tastes in local history (he keeps a file of newspaper cuttings with details of all the murders he can find, and he finds a lot), finally asks his friend Eli whether she is a vampire.

This question is a long time coming – about an hour into a movie that runs for just under two – because Oscar, although vulnerable and photogenic, is not very smart. In answer Eli says: ‘I live off blood. Yes.’ Oscar says: ‘Are you dead?’ She says: ‘No. Can’t you tell?’ Of course he can’t tell, he hasn’t seen enough movies. If he had he wouldn’t earlier have tried to get Eli to make a blood pact with him to seal their friendship. She watches horrified as he slices into his hand with a knife, and she slurps up the blood that has dripped onto the floor before driving him out of the room for his safety.

Oscar’s slowness and general helplessness – his parents are separated, he lives with his mother, visits his father, neither of them pays any real attention to him, the school bullies know a victim when they see one and pick on him all the time – is part of the general atmosphere of ineptness, deftly created by the director, that makes the film so unsettling. Faces are often out of focus, then in focus then out again. There are lots of mirrors and windows, hazy images of living persons who look like ghosts. The locals – we are in a Stockholm suburb in the 1980s, although it’s the blurbs rather than the film that tell us this – are a collection of hard-drinking Nordic blokes with the odd cat-loving weirdo thrown in, and one ill-treated woman whom even the movie has some trouble remembering. The men all grin and gesture with a fake jocularity which makes Jack Nicholson look like a model of sense and sincerity, and this effect was compounded for me, through no fault of the director, by the badly dubbed version I saw. This had the advantage of added eeriness because no one’s mouth moved when they were talking; and the disadvantage of turning Sweden, as far as tone of voice and idiom went, into a Hollywood idea of the middle of nowhere. This meant that what I assume sounded cool or withdrawn in Swedish, giving nothing away, sounded endlessly aggressive in English, as if this was a community where saying ‘Good morning’ could well be the occasion for a fight. However, this did make me feel the undead were preferable to the living every time.

The school bullies are so undeveloped as characters that they represent the mere idea of bullying, and Oscar manages to strike back, with a little encouragement from his vampire friend, at exactly the moment when the body of one of her victims is dragged up from beneath the ice. Parallelism, get it? She acts out his desires, only goes a touch or a bite too far. Since this allegorising is too explicit to ignore, as well as too explicit to do the movie any good, let me get it out of the way. Later Eli explains to a horrified Oscar not only that she does what he wants to do to his enemies – ‘You’d murder if you could,’ she says – but that she doesn’t have a choice, and she doesn’t even have enemies. She just needs the living blood. We are meant to think about revenge and its appetites and consequences, although not very hard. When the bullies get their comeuppance, I take it everyone was cheering as I was, all moral compunction out of the window.

There is also more than a faint suggestion that Eli is not just a vampire, but a sort of secret sharer, Oscar’s alter ego, born of his loneliness and unexpressed anger. It’s true I’m tempted to pick up on this suggestion because it recalls one of the greatest of all horror movies, David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), where so-called anger therapy results not only in a welcome release of psychic aggression but in teams of little people smashing in the heads of the people the patient doesn’t like.

The real interest of Let the Right One In lies in its more mundane aspects, and in the displays of ineptness I’ve mentioned. There’s the setting for a start: a snowbound, ascetic housing development, neat, orderly, infinitely rational and distinctly uncomfortable. And if the human beings in the community make you long for another form of life, the buildings cancel out this longing: even ghosts and vampires would give this place a miss. Unless of course they had no choice, and that then would be a mark of their abjection, a misfortune even by their own unhappy standards. And there is the sheer bungling of the chief crimes we see. What would you do if you had a 12-year-old daughter who happened to be a vampire? You’d certainly want to help, but would you hold up a person in a much travelled forest, put him out with acid fumes, string him up from a tree, and slit his throat, letting the blood drop into the funnel you have brought along? And would you then, disturbed by passers-by and their dog, take away your paraphernalia, your knife, your jar of acid, your plastic overall, forgetting the bucket of blood? The next time we see this person, Eli’s father, trying the trick, he has his victim tied up in a back room in the school gym, which is about as discreet a locale as the town square, since people are banging on the door and windows before he’s even got started. This time, appalled and defeated by his inadequacy, he pours acid over his own face and allows the cops to take him in. A little later Eli visits him in hospital, we see his eaten features, all holes and blood and bone, and he tilts his head so that she can drink before he dies, a last paternal sacrifice.

Reviewers and bloggers have wanted to say that Let the Right One In is not really a vampire movie at all, and in interviews the director has given some encouragement to this view. It’s a film about childhood, the touching affection of two alienated 12-year-olds for each other, and the violence that haunts even the quietest of hearts. Certainly the slow pace of the film supports this idea, as does its excellent acting, especially by Lina Leandersson as Eli, who unforgettably embodies sorrow, charm, menace and kindness in equal proportions, but also by Kåre Hedebrant as Oscar, perpetually bewildered and sulky, never charming but appealing in his bewilderment.

But it’s important to see Eli as more than a symbol of alienation, and it’s worth taking the story literally. She isn’t dead, she can’t die, and she needs a regular fix of blood. A striking visual feature of the film is that she never wipes her mouth after she’s been drinking, and that when her face gets blood-spattered from one of her assaults it always looks decorated rather than stained, ornamented as if by some expert in ritual culture or just gothic make-up. When she’s upset, when Oscar hesitates to let her into his mother’s apartment, for example, giving us a clue to the movie’s title, blood begins to flow from her body like universal tears, from her eyes, her ears, her mouth, the crown of her head. Only Oscar’s embracing her, and willingly inviting her in can stop the flood. And in what for me was the film’s most surprising moment, when she seeks to visit her father in hospital and is told he is on the seventh floor, she just backs out of the door, apparently not intending to go upstairs to see him. The receptionist comes out after her, can’t see her anywhere, goes back into the hospital. At that moment a small figure rapidly scales the wall from the outside, and settles on the window ledge of her father’s room. What with all the blood and the acid and the corpses I’d forgotten the other bit of the vampire story, the bat gifts.

If there is an allegory here, it’s the one that haunts all vampire movies: addiction. But we should, I think, at least for a while, refuse even this more plausible generalisation of what this particular film is about. When Eli asks Oscar to ‘be me for a while,’ she means he is to imagine her actual life, the bare apartment, the dead father, her daytime sleeps in the covered bathtub, her helpless affection for him, her strange powers, her endless need to steal what sustains the life of others. Letting the right one in might be the opposite of finding the right name for the case.

[*] Jenny Turner wrote about Twilight in the LRB of 26 March.