I’m not sure what it says about contemporary culture when it regularly seems to be the case that the most compelling, the most intelligent and the most provocative films turn out to be variations on themes from the horror repertoire. I expected a great deal of Let The Right One In, released in the same slot in the UK calendar as The Orphanage in 2008. I wasn’t disappointed. Like that film and the Japanese Ring series, this new Swedish film cries out to be a study text – though I did wonder as I watched it that some students might not thank me for introducing them to such a disturbing tale.
If you haven’t yet seen the film, you probably know that it features a 12 year-old boy, Oskar, living in a nondescript Stockholm suburb in the winter of 1982. He’s bullied at school and not really supported by his parents who are separated. One day a 12 year-old girl, Eli, appears next door – but of course, she isn’t really 12 and she isn’t exactly a girl. What follows is a story that mixes the traditional narrative of a vampire movie with a youth movie focusing on the bullying at school and a kind of romance. At times comic and occasionally delving into social realism, the narrative also refers to fairy tales and gradually manipulates its audience into a moral dilemma around identification with the predicament of the vampire and the murders of innocent people. At times, the film feels like a children’s film and at times it is very ‘adult’. This confusion is in itself disturbing.
The film is based on a novel (2004) and adapted for the screen by the author, John Ajvide Lindqvist. As I understand it, there are significant omissions from the book narrative in the film. The film’s director is Tomas Alfredson, about whom I know very little except that he seems to have a reputation in Swedish TV and cinema for surrealist humour. He adopts a distinctive style for the film. In many sequences he uses a very shallow field of focus and combined with the expanse of snow in many scenes this allows a distorting effect for the occasional flash of colour. The snow also provides an appropriate backdrop for the blood (and a joke about ‘yellow snow’). The ‘Scope frame is also well used (and the print I saw was an excellent digital print). I also liked the music track which feature symphonic music performed by the Slovak Symphony Orchestra and Swedish rock music from the period.
The apartment where Oskar lives is in a block that reminded me of the soul-less buildings of Kieslowski’s Polish films and throughout the film the snowy mise en scène made me think of countless Scandinavian/Canadian/Russian narratives – some films and many crime novels. I think that the use of the winter scene is one of the strengths of the film. I’ve read several reviews and there are definitely observations that I will follow up. One is the historical setting. I’m not sure why 1982 is chosen. As one reviewer points out, this was the year that Sweden had some issues with the Soviet Union and there is a possible link between fear of the foreign intruder and the arrival of this ‘Romanian-looking’ girl – who teams up with the flaxen-haired Swedish boy. Neil Young (the film reviewer, not the singer) refers to this in terms of the beginnings of Muslim immigration in Sweden. I’m not sure about this, but there must be some significance intended by the historical setting – I assumed that there was a connection to a ‘real world’ incident.
What I liked most about the film was that I wasn’t sure what would happen next. I knew that the vampire conventions would be brought into the narrative, but I couldn’t (didn’t have time and didn’t really want to) work out the context in which they would be applied. The USP of the film is, I think, in the moral questions it raises. How can you have a ‘good’ vampire? What does it mean if we will a character to take revenge? (What do we make of authorities in liberal Sweden who don’t appear to punish Tomas when he does retaliate?) During the screening, I thought about fairy tales. Now, I can’t remember why I made the connection. Undoubtedly there are some nice narrative touches and some interesting ‘significant objects’. I’ll return to this after reading the novel. My only concern is that the Hollywood remake has already been announced. I almost wish that Eli had decamped to wherever the would be producers of an unnecessary remake are based.
There is some useful material in the film magazine Little White Lies. Read the online magazine here.