The Pale Light of Morning
by Genevieve Yue
Let the Right One In
Dir. Tomas Alfredson, Sweden, Magnolia Pictures
Like the vampire itself, the vampire film never dies. In recent years it’s been mashed up with (or feeds on) almost every conceivable genre, from Matrix-style eschatology (Underworld) and biological warfare (I Am Legend) to Mormon-inflected teen melodrama (the soon-to-be-adapted Twilight series). So at first glance, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In seems like it could be the latest attempt to rehabilitate the vampire flick by packaging it for the tween puppy-love set, a sort of My Life as a Dog meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But where Buffy playfully deployed vampire lore as an allegory for adolescence, taking literally the idea that high school is hell, Let the Right One In is surprisingly straightforward and grim. The film dispenses with metaphor in favor of a gritty realism where, far from being exceptional, vampires must struggle along with everyone else in the bleak, near-perpetual darkness of a Swedish winter.
Based on the best-selling novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also adapted the story for the screen, it’s set in 1982, where Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a frail-looking boy of 12, begins an unlikely friendship with Eli (Lina Leandersson), a slight girl who has just moved into his apartment block and always seems curiously underdressed for the weather. As strange murders begin to occur—Oskar secretly collects newspaper clippings that detail savage bite marks and desanguinated bodies—Oskar beings to realize that Eli is a vampire. Yet there’s nothing particularly fantastic about Eli or Håkan (Per Ragnar), the older man who dutifully retrieves her victims’ blood so she doesn’t have to. No elaborate rituals or decadent attire: just a coltish girl with sad eyes and a dingy apartment littered with a few modest trinkets.
The romance between Eli and Oskar develops sweetly, and [spoiler alert] when Eli reveals to Oskar who (or what) she is, the moment unfolds as if it were any other secret divulged between children. Then Oskar, with a child’s innocent cruelty, dares Eli to walk into his home without permission, thereby challenging her to violate one of the cardinal laws of the genre. With camerawork so close up it trembles, Eli shrugs and steps through the door without hesitation. For a moment it seems as though nothing’s happened, that it’s yet another arbitrary rule that’s been made too much of. That is until she begins to whimper and shake, and dark pools of blood begin to form all over her body and face. Oskar rushes to her, aware of what he’s done, suddenly adult, and invites her in. Her blood, which has seeped through her clothes, transfers onto him, and it’s a startling twist on the pact Oskar initiated in a previous scene by slicing his palm with a knife and extending it to her.
In a way this is the scenario with which all vampire stories begin; one possible origin occurs in 1376, when a band of Mongols arrived at the Crimean city of Caffa, doubled over with a strange blood disease. After they were denied entry, perhaps angry or desperate or both, they began hurtling their dead over the fortress walls. Plague sieged the city, and the few survivors fled across the Mediterranean Sea, triggering the outbreak of the Black Death throughout medieval Europe. Vampire tales, after all, are based on real horrors, and it’s fitting that this scene of admittance, the basis for the title of the film, is so central to Alfredson’s story. What happens when the rules are broken, when the monster enters without permission? Blood, here, is more than a symbolic bond; for Eli, it’s what she needs to survive, the test of her devotion and the expression of her pain. Though there are more gruesome moments in the film, this is the one that leaves the most tender bruise.
Alfredson is carefully attuned to his child actors, not only Oskar and Eli but also Oskar’s tormentor, Conny, and the gang of schoolboys who do his bidding. Reluctantly taking turns with the others, one boy cries as he whips Oskar with a switch, his face contorted in far more anguish than his victim, who stoically receives a deep welt on his cheek. And later, when Oskar turns his revenge fantasies into reality by firmly striking the side of Conny’s head with a stick, his expression isn’t one of glee or remorse; rather, he stands with his mouth open, panting hard. He looks surprisingly free, shocked as anyone at what he has done. Though later Eli will have a decisive part to play in Oskar’s bully problems, it doesn’t take supernatural elements for Oskar to get blood on his hands.
In contrast to the tremulous, nuanced performances of the child actors, the adult neighbors and drunkards who gossip in the local tavern seem more suited to brassy sitcom fare. With the notable exception of Håkan, they provide little more than dark comic relief and the occasional reminder that this is still a vampire film with a strict set of conventions that include, bizarrely, an all-out cat attack. Even Oskar’s well-meaning parents, who live apart and remain oblivious to their son’s increasingly troubled life, are mere sketches: they’re filmed in sidelong glances, and in a few telling shots, can only be seen from the neck down. Horror films need their sacrificial lambs, and it’s appropriate that the adults are the first to go, as this was never their story anyway. Against the falling snow that begins and ends the film, their crimes and punishments, like everything else, retreat to the shadows of those implacable nights.
Aside from a few gory, sticky scenes that were maybe meant to satisfy the vampires among us, the horror of Let the Right One In isn’t horrible at all. Instead it fades to the background, surprisingly calm and even, in a sense, dully ordinary. Like Oskar’s warm palm print against the cool glass windowpane, it vanishes as suddenly as it appears, evaporated in the pale morning light. Alfredson sets his film in what he calls “a country that keeps going despite everything,” and it’s here that we might understand the story as a metaphor after all, a vision of contemporary life driving inexorably forward, not without memory but without time to reflect. For in Sweden as elsewhere (and it remains to be seen whether the American remake, already slated for production, will retain this delicate sensibility), real horrors—bullies, child neglect, senseless violence—happen all the time, but too often we don’t stop to take notice. Not looking, Alfredson seems to argue, is in some ways the more serious offense. His vampires, after all, are fleshy, vital creatures who suffer and bleed, even as they cause others to do the same. In some ways it’s easier to imagine that they don’t appear in the mirror, because then we wouldn’t have to look. But like the residents of Caffa, it may be that our cruelest possible mistake is to leave them at the door, uninvited and unseen.