Monday, April 6, 2009

Your first kiss was smothered in blood? Man, we've all been there!

Imagine, dear reader, that you are chained in a dungeon. The grimy prison guard in all-too-small leather underpants is steadily whipping your slightly numb, yet still stinging back. His flabby arms undulate and his glistening belly heaves as his hand brings down the braid over and over. You weep rock salt and perhaps you wish for death. Yet all around you, the other prisoners beam beatifically at their torturers, writhing in ecstasy though they receive the same beating as you. You are perplexed, but can only assume that the others have snapped and believe that the painful and degrading is pleasant and enjoyable.

Dear reader, that is what it was like to watch Twilight.

Now, imagine then that your torture suddenly ends and you fall into a cooling bath of aloe, and a Heroes-era David Bowie is sponging your wounds while Kate Winslet feeds you Italian pastries. That is what it was like to watch Let the Right One In.

The genre of vampire movies, though large, is woefully lacking in truly excellent films. No matter how strong these films may be in one area, they are almost universally flailing in one or more key aspects. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula starred the man of a thousand faces, Gary Oldman, as the erotic, tragic, and monstrous Dracula. The film is luscious in its use of color, scenery, and music. You get to watch Anthony Hopkins go a little off his nut and Tom Waits fall straight out of the oak tree. How could you lose? Oh, that’s right, asking Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves to do British accents. Even watching topless vampire ladies unfold out of the bed and give ol’ Keanu a nip and a BJ wasn’t enough of a distraction from the ridiculous affectation.

I took the time to ask the internet what it thought the greatest vampire movies were, and I was greeted with the likes of Underworld, Blade, Queen of the Damned, Van Helsing, and Dracula 2000. ::facepalm:: Going by the choices, the genre is dominated by action flicks, erotica (thank you Alyssa Milano), or camp. The camp can be a lot of fun (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and a good ol’ fashioned survival or monster movie is thrilling and scary, but very few films actually dissect what it would be like to be or encounter a vampire in the real world. In this respect, Let the Right One In stands out as the new golden standard for vampire films.

It figures that the Swedish would be the ones to make a film that is, at its core, about two lonely individuals who are persecuted by society. Set in a land of silence and snow with only a few precious hours of blazing sunlight, this film is subtle if nothing else. The music doesn’t lead the viewer’s emotions or suddenly screech as a violent attack takes place. It’s haunting and beautiful, perfectly reflecting the quiet hamlet the main character inhabits. The loneliness felt by Oskar, an eleven year old boy, and his new vampire neighbor Eli is evident in the use of natural sounds: breathing, sniffles, heartbeats, the crunch of snow, quiet taps on the wall, as well as silence. This is something that isn’t done as much as it should. American filmgoers have been perfectly trained to be led by music playing through the entirety of the film, being told what to feel and how to react to what’s onscreen, instead of letting the action affect them. The silence isn’t boring; it’s poignant, and it makes the film’s impact felt that much harder.

Did I forget to tell you what the film is about? Sorry, my lady boner for this movie can sometimes be a distraction. The overall plot is simple: Young boy, bullied by school mates, ignored by divorced parents, and woefully small and frail, makes a new friend when the androgynous and mysterious girl who doesn’t feel the cold moves in next door. After some time, he realizes that her strange behavior stems from her vampiric nature. The confusion over having the first person he’s cared about turn out to be a hungry predator is understandably painful for young Oskar. However, being a small weakling with dreams of blood and revenge, he finds strength through her to stand up to the local bully. Despite how dangerous and obsessive their attraction is, they fit together because they are the only ones who understand each other. Bizarre though it is, my favorite scene besides the underwater pool scene is at the end where Oskar is traveling by train with Eli in a trunk beside him, and they tap out “Kiss” in morse code on the box.

I have to say that I was truly impressed with how the film was handled; everything was understated, subtle, and most of all, disturbing. The viewer isn’t inundated with gore and violence and fighting and explosions; instead we get soft guttural growls, short, dark, and faraway shots of Eli leaping onto her victims, and a conservative use of blood. Surprisingly, the ascetic style makes the film feel more realistic. It makes the characters flesh and blood and heartbreakingly sympathetic. The lack of explosions (save one combustible patient in the hospital) and action does slow down the pace of the film; however, (unless you are an action junkie) this doesn’t make the film slow or painfully drawn out. It’s a character study that touches on several themes and moral dilemmas, and is well-worth your time.

Interesting notes:
I checked up on Wikipedia, and this film is based on the 2004 novel Låt den rätte komma in by Sweidsh author John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also wrote the screenplay for the film. Naturally, the book goes further into the backstory of several characters and is more violent and gory. An interesting twist is that Eli is an androgynous boy who was castrated two hundred years ago. The film gives this informative tidbit a nod with a brief flash of Eli changing and we see her not-quite-normal, possibly-scarred privates.

The title refers to a bonus track on Morrissey’s Viva Hate called “Let the Right One Slip In,” as well as vampire lore that proposes that vampires cannot enter a home unless invited. It was a high point in the film when Oskar forces Eli to come into his apartment without being asked and what happens to her as a result.

In typical douchebag American fashion, English publishers changed the title to Let Me In, citing that the original title was too long. Thankfully, due to the success of the film, the original title has been restored.

Now, I know that there are some vampire movies of note that are pretty excellent. I'll address these the best I can next time, so stay tuned. Same bat time, same bat channel!

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