It’s uncommon to associate melancholy with either majesty or beauty, particularly in the English speaking world. It’s a widely-held belief, certainly in America, that lacking overt cheer is evidence of psychological dysfunction. Anyone who thinks otherwise should try the following experiment: find a group of Americans, ingratiate yourself into their midst, and then look purposefully, woefully depressed. The response one will get is “cheer up”, “things aren’t that bad”, or even “snap out of it”.
But melancholy has its place, and other cultures exploit it well: perhaps nowhere more so than in Scandinavia. It is perhaps a matter of survival; in the deep midwinter, many Scandinavians make do with only 4 hours of sunlight per day. One has to learn to cope with the dark, and the ensuing depression that may follow. There can be poetry in coping with the bleak.
“Let the Right One In” is a good example of this. It is a Swedish film, it is magnificent: I suggest that it is wonderful precisely because of its point of origin.
The vampire film genre, to be blunt, is near exhaustion, and thus the public can be forgiven for groaning at the thought of yet another film featuring more blood slurping monsters. We have seen Dracula many times and presented in many different ways: in versions in which he wears a cape, in versions in which he dons armour to go fight the Turks, in versions where he was played by actors as different as Christopher Lee, Frank Langella and Gary Oldman. We have had many female vampires who double as seductresses, a decolletage plunging to the navel coming as standard. Additionally, we have seen a huge variety of cat-eyed contract lenses and long fangs. We have even had vampires portrayed, somewhat nauseatingly, as objects of teenage affection, almost as if blood sucking fiends are supposed to somersault into the “young adult drama” genre, attempts which should perhaps be entitled “Transylvania 90210”.
“Let the Right One In” transcends existing norms from the very beginning. We are presented with a very ordinary block of flats, possibly social housing, on the edge of a major Swedish city (presumably Stockholm). It is snowing, it is dark, and the scene is unremittingly bleak in its tediousness. We first see this world through the eyes of a twelve year old boy named Oskar, played to perfection by Kåre Hedebrant: his every gesture indicates that he is a shy, rather timid boy who dreams of being much more powerful than he is. His first words are “Squeal like a pig”, something he desires to say to his tormentors.
The vampire’s arrival does not occur in a manner a traditional horror film fan may expect: there is no magnificent black coach drawn by horses with flame red eyes, nor does the vampire arrive in a luxurious limousine. Rather, we see an ordinary looking dark-haired girl, accompanied by an older man, step out of a plain taxi.
Oskar befriends the vampire, named Eli, who appears to be as old as he is. If we did not know about Eli’s true nature, we would take their introduction and first conversations as being touchingly ordinary and sweet. However, it is the mundane used in this manner that makes their relationship believable. While other vampire films have claimed to be a love story, this one genuinely is, even though the words “I love you” are never spoken.
However, this element would not work without the performance of young Lina Leandersson as Eli. It would not be understating matters to say that her selection made this film. It is extremely difficult to simultaneously portray youth and great age at the same time: Ms. Leandersson more than pulls it off. She can reach out tentatively for Oskar’s hand, as if she is feeling the first pull of young love. Yet at the same time, one can look into her eyes and see the great sadness and weariness of advanced age. If acting to this level is a skill that can be learned, then many of today’s “A list” film stars need to get on the next plane to Stockholm.
As with any great film, it is the attention to detail that enhances it significantly: we are never told what year it is, for example. However, Oskar gives a Rubik’s Cube to Eli, who has never seen one before: this instantly thrusts us into the early 1980’s; this detail is enhanced later by a small mention on the news of Brezhnev still leading the USSR. Similarly, we are never precisely told that Oskar’s parents are divorced, nor are we explicitly told why: an overheard phone conversation introduces us to the former, the latter becomes clear when Oskar’s father has a male friend over for drinks. Also, Oskar never tells us that his school is a miserable place: he doesn’t have to do so. I found myself squirming in my seat looking at the bland classrooms, the vaguely fascist Physical Education teacher, the subtle hell of school field trips.
Nothing is “over the top” in this film. We never see vampire fangs, though we witness what damage they can do; the sole noticeable visual “vampire” effect is Eli’s eyes are at times an unusual, though not unnatural colour. The children that bully Oskar at school are not “extravagant” bullies: the ringleader is a child not taller than Oskar himself. Eli’s lair is not caked in blood and gore: it is spartan, spare; she is unconcerned with money and luxury, indeed she offers Oskar a large wad of high denomination notes, as she doesn’t particularly care.
This combination of the dark, the subtle, the clever and the tender is just beyond the ken of Hollywood film makers. If they were to remake this film, and I suggest this is likely, then we would be “treated” to lengthy expositions about Oskar’s life, comic book bullies, CGI enhanced transformations of Eli into a much more savage creature, and perhaps they might even age Eli and Oskar sufficiently so they could have sex. In short, they would abandon the altogether Swedish economy of the present film for the cinema of fairground attractions.
I hope that Hollywood will be dissuaded from creating a ruinous facsimile. This piece of cinematic art should be left to stand as it is, a dark tale from a cold country, the kind of fable that justly comes from a land that has long had stories of gnomes and trolls. Yes there is death, there is pain, but there is love too. Sometimes these qualities together are richer than a tale that is full of ordinary facets and typical smiles. In this instance, they came together in a film that I will cherish for a long time to come.