Culture | Blood and belonging

Swedish-American director Tomas Alfredson considers what happens when boy meets vampire

Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is concerned, first and foremost, with friendship – its idiosyncrasies, its unpredictability, and its capacity for endurance. Oskar and Eli meet for the first time outside of their apartment building in rural, snow-covered Sweden. Oskar is an effeminate, 12-year-old introvert who keeps a grisly collection of newspaper cut-outs and fantasizes about brutalizing his schoolyard tormentors. Eli is also 12. Unlike Oskar, however, she has been 12 “for a very long time.” While Oskar lives out his sadistic fantasies through private role-playing sessions, Eli exercises a more literal hunger for blood on the necks and veins of her fellow townspeople. Oskar’s life is confined to his cramped apartment, his school, and his hermiticism; Eli, on the other hand, endures a sad, nomadic loneliness.

Through its extensive festival run, Let the Right One In has already become something of an art-house hit. It won big awards at the Tribeca and Edinburgh film festivals, garnering a remarkable degree of critical attention along the way. The film is coming into mainstream circulation at a point where it’s almost impossible to say anything new about it. Much has already been made of the work’s striking cinematography. For instance, Village Voice reviewer Elena Oumano commented on “the audacious sound design – the silence of snow broken by faint sounds of a child breathing or eyelashes fluttering.” Slant Magazine’s Andrew Schenker has already noted that Oskar is depicted through an ingenious combination of intense close-ups and panoramic, empty long shots, which together create a sense of alienation coupled with claustrophobia. I would add that the film uses space in markedly innovative ways. Alfredson offers repeated snapshots of the key landmarks in Oskar’s environment: the schoolyard, the local café, the apartment complex, and the woods outside of it. Here, the camera does more than simple scene-setting work: it maps the boundaries of Oskar’s world. The brief scenes in which the film ventures out of its tight locale (I counted three of them) come with a short-lived but powerful sense of relief. The implications here are clear: Oskar is fenced in with his own alienation. Alfredson refuses to let the viewer forget this.

Eye Magazine’s Jason Anderson has commented on on the film’s complex treatment of gender and sexuality. Of course, this observation probably applies, in varying degrees, to every single vampire story. However, while these themes are staples of the vampire narrative, they are nevertheless treated differently by different texts. According to cultural critic Christopher Craft, the male characters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula are haunted by a pervasive fear of aggressive female sexuality, embodied in the figure of the seductive, penetrative, and subtly androgynous woman vampire. Vampire slaying, in Dracula, becomes a way of punishing sexual deviance and re-asserting male dominance. These chauvinistic anxieties are brought more fully to light in Robert Rodriquez’s 1996 cult film From Dusk Till Dawn in which an intrepid George Clooney finds himself at the mercy of a brutal vampiress played by Salma Hayek. Before making a meal out of Clooney, Hayek tells him what his future undead life will consist of. “You’ll be my slave,” she says. “You’ll live for me.” “No thanks,” Clooney responds. “I’ve already got a wife.”

While Dracula and Dusk Till Dawn instill the vampire narrative with a measure of gender antagonism, Let the Right One In offers a refreshingly earnest portrait of pre-adolescent companionship. The film reminds me of So Yong Kim’s beautiful debut feature In Between Days (2006), which offers an unhurried, sensitive portrayal of two pre-teen Korean immigrants growing up in a lonely Toronto suburb. Both Kim and Alfredson depict friendships that are born out of simple alienation but nevertheless become fuller, more complex, and more symbiotic in time. Oskar and Eli’s friendship is remarkable for its tenderness and its reciprocity. Moreover, knowing Eli enables Oskar to get to know himself. Not only does he discover self-assurance, he also becomes more aware of his body – his physical strength, his mortality, and his maturing sexuality.

Of course, Let the Right One In isn’t just a coming-of-age story with magic realist overtones. It’s intended for horror buffs and it offers its fair share of gore. While Alfredson typically portrays violence with a measure of lyricism, he isn’t afraid to revert to out-and-out camp when the film requires it. Nevertheless, while these scenes leave an obvious impression, they don’t for a second overshadow the work’s humanism or its complicated sentimentality.

Let the Right One In is now playing at AMC (2312 Ste. Catherine O).