So these zombies got me thinking about vampires . . .
Hey, how’s that for an opening line? Zombies got me thinking about vampires. If I were a staff writer at The New Yorker, I could dine out on that one for at least a week. Or do I mean Fangoria?
What happened is that somebody convinced me to watch the 2004 remake of George Romero’s classic 1978 horror flick Dawn of the Dead, and I found it so uninteresting that I spent much of the time thinking back to the last horror flick I saw, Let the Right One In, and why it’s stayed with me and will probably keep tickling my imagination long after the false Dawn has done a sunset in my memory. I’ve decided it’s because of the monster rules.
Every monster has rules, but some have more rules than others. Zombies and werewolves are pretty basic, simple monsters and therefore have the fewest rules of all, and you mess with them at your peril. Zombie rules, following the template laid down by Romero in the seminal Night of the Living Dead, have the simplicity of a child’s nightmare: they’re dead, they’re hungry for anything with a pulse, and they’re never going to stop coming after you unless you can put them down with an extremely difficult head shot, and while you’re managing that trick a bunch more are coming up behind them — or you.
Most importantly, they’re slow. You can outrun them and outmaneuver them, but if you get careless or get tripped up, you’ll be surrounded. Then, because of their slowness, you’ll have entirely too much time to contemplate the likely awfulness of your imminent demise. The original Dawn of the Dead plays by those rules, and in addition to generating enormous amounts of suspense it creates a surprising amount of pitch-black satirical humor. Each shambling ghoul is a former human with remnants of its old identity trailing from its body. This makes for a potent blend of creepiness and absurdity, as in the scene where the heroine is attacked by a Hare Krishna zombie. The ghoul’s orange robe and the shaved head appear funny, but the leechlike tenacity of its assault quickly makes the scene terrifying.
The remake screws with these rules and falls flat on its rotting face. The script has twice as many characters but they’re only about half as interesting as the original quartet, which is a problem. The biggest problem of all, however, is that the remake’s zombies are fast, and the film’s ADHD editing keeps you from getting anything more than a quick glimpse of some gross face or rotting claw before the shotguns go to work. Worst of all, they’re preposterously fast, as in the scene where a morbidly obese woman who in life probably had just enough strength to get a bag of Cheetos away from Jonah Goldberg suddenly turns into a zombie with the stamina and agility of an Olympic triathlete. The first couple of times it’s startling, but after that it’s simply predictable — and predictability is death to a horror story. What’s supposed to be a remake of Dawn of the Dead becomes a ripoff of 28 Days Later, itself a better-made but ultimately flat attempt to play with Romero’s Rules for Zombies.
The fact that zombies have so few rules — few, but unbreakable — means there are rather few really good zombie movies. Unless you’re a gorehound Lucio Fulci fan, there’s really only the Romero canon (not even all of it) and maybe Shaun of the Dead. The storytelling options are too limited. Same thing with werewolf movies. An American Werewolf in London takes the traditional scenario as far as it will go. The Howling plays it for satiric laughs and some genuine scares. After that, nothing.
On the other hand, vampires have lots of rules, which paradoxically offers lots of room for storytelling. (They also have personalities, which makes them far more interesting monsters.) There are loads of pretty good vampire flicks and a few great ones — Near Dark and Shadow of the Vampire are two that come instantly to mind — and Let the Right One In has recently taken its place among them. The title refers to a bit of lore that bars vampires from entering houses uninvited. Though we get to see what happens when the rule is broken, there’s a far more unsettling meaning at work in the story — one that doesn’t become apparent until the very end.
The director, Tomas Alfredson, captures the claustrophobic Patricia Highsmith atmosphere of the novel, and brings a unique visual flair that has me eager to see what else he will do. The sterile interiors and barren outdoor spaces, made even more forbidding by a blanket of snow, create a sense of alienation and dreamy anxiety. The story’s setting, a Stockholm suburb called Blackeberg, is like a well-scrubbed simulacrum of a real town that defies any attempts to give it character. (Even long-occupied apartments and houses look like hotel rooms.) Alfredson amplifies the eerie mood with slow, stately camera moves — no cheap shock cuts or people leaping out of shadows. In this film, the scariest shadows are inside people’s heads. There’s a scene involving cats that employs some unfortunately cheesy CGI, but Alfredson’s visual sense is otherwise razor sharp, and the climax uses economical means to suggest a tremendous amount of carnage while keeping the actual gore to a pretty chaste level.
Alfredson also gets quietly accomplished performances from his two leads: Kare Hedebrant as Oskar (the blond kid with the knife up top), a socially isolated 12-year-old who passively suffers the torments of some relentless bullies; and Lina Leandersson as his new neighbor Eli (pronounced “Ellie”), who at first appears to be a young girl living alone with her father, a man named Hakan. The novel’s subtler touches have been glossed over, though we are able to guess at the pedophile nature of Hakan’s love for Eli, which leads him to make a curiously noble and quite horrible gesture of self-sacrifice on her behalf. Likewise, the fleeting glimpse we get of Eli’s body (in place of the book’s detailed flashback scene) gives her character pathos as well as horror, and reinforces the theme of how inhuman monsters are too often born of monstrous human behavior.
But the real strength of Let the Right One In, both as a novel and a film, is that it’s actually a story about love and mutual need. Oskar is essentially human clay in need of shaping: his divorced parents aren’t up to the task, and the local bullies are only too willing to make him into a lifelong victim. Eli needs a companion and daytime protector: though she plays the role of a bright 12-year-old for Oskar’s sake, an unguarded moment lets us see her real age, and grasp the calculating nature of her approach. As awful as the outcome may be for the rest of the world, it makes perfect, awful sense for Oskar and Eli. In a world of soul-destroying monsters, Oskar has at least managed to find one that cares for his well-being.
* * * * *
By the way, the American DVD and Blu-Ray releases have rightly been criticized for using substandard titles, though I think the movie is still eminently worth watching. Unreliable subtitles are a chronic problem for anyone with a taste for foreign films. You simply aren’t going to get the verbal texture of the original dialogue. In this case, you get lines of dialogue that are simplified to the point of being dumbed down, as well as laundered to remove everyday vulgarities, but unless you’re ready to master Swedish — or Italian, or German, or Japanese, or Russian, or any of the other languages of art-house cinema — you’re always going to be missing something the home audience can take for granted. The DVD release of Let the Right One In also has a dubbed version that adds inappropriate vocal choices to the translation problem.