Tag Archives: Let the Right One In

Real monsters

Finally saw Let Me In, the American remake of the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In, and it turns out to be a pretty decent movie in its own right. The 2008 original is better and tougher in certain ways, but this new version is an honorable job that stands on its own.

Both films are pointedly set in the Eighties, and I was struck by the difference in how each evoked its period. The American version has some shots of Reagan speaking on television, and when the vampire’s victims start turning up, the local law concludes that a Satanic cult is at work. That sure took me back, and not in a good way.

It’s amazing to remember how many otherwise intelligent people were patsies for the whole Satanic conspiracy hoax. People who would give me knowing looks whenever I scoffed, and leaned forward to say, “Well, there’s something weird going on.” Some jogger in the woods would come across a gutted deer carcass and run home convinced that the devil’s minions were out slaughtering children. The hoax became even more toxic when it tangled itself in the mass hallucination about recovered memories, which ruined a great many lives during that singularly strange decade.

Let Me In reminded me that it’s been a long time since I’ve heard any bunk about ritual murders and devilish conspiracies. The Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 terror attacks seem to have blown away that nonsense by reminding the country of real monsters. Unfortunately, the Satanic hallucination was replaced with other hallucinations that led the country into the Iraq disaster and other imperial ventures.

Each decade invents its own monsters, I guess.

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Monster rules

oskar-let-the1

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.                

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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.

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Friday finds

This interesting New Yorker essay about the continuing appeal of vampire stories came along just as I watched the new DVD edition of  Let the Right One In, one of the most original horror movies I’ve seen in years. I’ve already sung the praises of John Lindqvist’s novel, and I was happy to see the movie more than does it justice. The essay mentions it on the way to a lengthy discussion of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which obviously deserves pride of place in the history of the genre, but which has been surpassed many times by writers following in Stoker’s train. One novel that’s overdue for reappraisal is George R.R. Martin’s Fevre Dream, which ingeniously blended a variation on the classic vampire tale with a lovingly researched historical novel set on the Mississippi River in the mid-19th century.           

Famed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has directed movies about the ease with which an innocent man can be convicted of murder (The Thin Blue Line), the delusions of the powerful (Robert McNamara: The Fog of War) and the future of robotics (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control). He’s also directed a series of commercials for Miller Beer, and you can find all of them here.

Lemony Snicket reveals the formula for the perfect bedtime story. I particularly like the first point (Ask your child what the title should be. This stalls for time and spreads the blame if the story’s no good.) and the third (When you get stuck, remember Raymond Chandler’s advice: “When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.” The bedtime equivalent is a clumsy talking animal holding a tray of cream pies).

Timothy Lim blends Charles Schulz’s Peanuts with Frank Miller’s Sin City to arrive at — Schulz City.

Hey — New Jersey just got listed as one of the “Eastern Edens” for birdwatchers in Audobon magazine.

The Grim Sleeper is a prolific serial killer thought to be responsible for nearly a dozen murders in Los Angeles. If you’ve never heard about this one, maybe there’s a reason.

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Approved authors 4

Between now and New Years Day I’m offering passages from some of the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year. Most of the books were published this year. Most of the books are by people I’ve had some contact with, whether e-mail or in person, but there are also authors who wouldn’t know me if they tripped over me in a doorway.  In short, they’re here because I enjoyed their books and I think you will, too.

LET ME IN/LET THE RIGHT ONE IN by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Thomas Dunne Books, 2007.

If Patricia Highsmith had set out to write a straight-up, balls-to-the-wall horror novel, the result probably would have been a lot like Let Me In, Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 debut:

letmeinHakan had found a good place to stand watch, a place with a clear view of the path in both directions. Further in among the trees he had found a protected hollow with a tree in the middle and there he had left the bag of equipment. He had slipped the little halothane gas canister into a holster under his coat.

Now all he had to do was wait.

Once I also wanted to grow up

To know as much as Father and Mother . . .

He hadn’t heard anyone sing that song since he was in school. Was it Alice Tegner? Think of all the wonderful songs that had disappeared, that no one sang anymore. Think of all the wonderful things that had disappeared, for that matter.

No respect for beauty — that was characteristic of today’s society. The work of the great masters were at most employed as ironic references, or in advertising. Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” where you see a pair of jeans in place of the spark.

The whole point of the picture, at least as he saw it, was that these two monumental bodies each came to an end in two index fingers that almost, but not quite touched. There was a space between them a millimeter or so wide. And in this space: life. The sculptural enormity and richness of detail of this picture was simply a frame, a backdrop, to emphasize the crucial void in its center. The point of emptiness that contained everything.

And in its place, someone had superimposed a pair of jeans.

Someone was coming up the path. He crouched down with the sound of his heart beating in his ears.No. An older man with a dog. Two wrongs from the outset. First a dog he would have to silence, then poor quality.

A lot of screams for so little wool, said the man who sheared the pig.

He looked at his watch. In less than two hours it would be dark. If no one suitable came aling in the next hour he would have to settle for whatever was available. Had to be back home before it got dark.

The man said something. Had he seen him? No, he was talking to the dog.

“Does that feel better, sweetpea? You really had to go, didn’t you. When we get home daddy will give you some liverwurst. A nice thick slice of liverwurst for daddy’s good little girl.”

The halothane container pressed against Hakan’s chest as he leaned his head into his hands and sighed. Poor bastard. All these pathetic lonely people in a world without beauty.

He shovered. The wind had grown cold over the course of the afternoon, and he wondered if he should take out the rain jacket he had stowed away in his bag as protection against the wind. It would restorct his movement and make him clumsy where he needed to be quick. And it could heighten peoples’ suspicions.

Two young women in their twenties walked by. No, he couldn’t handle two. He caught fragments of their conversation.

“. . . she’s going to keep it now . . .”

“. . . is a total ape. He has to realize that he . . .”

“. . . her fault because . . . not taking the pill . . .”

“But he, like, has to . . .”

“. . . you image?. . . him as a dad . . .”

lettherightA girlfriend who was pregnant. A young man who wasn’t going to take responsibility. that’s how it was. Happened all the time. No one thought of anything but themselves. My happiness, my future was the only thing you heard. Real love was to offer your life at the feet of another, and that’s what people today are incapable of.

The cold was eating its way into his limbs; he was going to b clumsy now, raincoat or no raincoat. He out his hand inside his coat and pressed the trigger on the canister. A hissing noise. It was working. He let go of the trigger.

He jumped in place and slapped his arms to get warm. please let someone come. Someone who was alone. He looked at his watch. Half an hour to go. Let someone come. For life’s sake, for love.

That last line is more than just an example of a predatory delusional system at work: Let Me In is, among other things, a book about love and devotion, as well as the bonds forged among outcasts and damaged people. That emotional authority gives weight to the story, as does Lindqvist’s disciplined approach. There is only one supernatural element in Let Me In, and the story’s horrors are all the more effective for the way Lindqvist sets them against the gray walls of a particularly depressing city housing complex outside Stockholm.

The recent film adaptation of Lindqvist’s novel, retitled Let the Right One In, was a sensation on this year’s festival circuit and received a brief theatrical run preparatory to a DVD release early next year. I’ll certainly want to see the film, but you shouldn’t miss reading the book first if you want to discover one of the most original horror novels to come along in years. You should certainly avoid reading any of the publicity, because as the passage above shows, Lindqvist very expertly raises certain expectations, then gleefully yanks the rug out from under those expectations. I haven’t been this impressed by a horror writer since I read Clive Barker back in the Eighties, but Lindqvist’s approach is much less flashy — and, in its subdued way, far more effective.

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