Saturday, January 31, 2009

Review :: Let the Right One In

In my last post, I mentioned, after giving The Dark Knight top honours as my favourite picture of the year, that significant gaps existed in my experience of 2008's movies, which meant that my choice came with some heavy qualifiers. Let the Right One In was one of those gaps. Now that I've seen, I don't know if my choice has changed. It has been challenged, however. And this challenger comes with some damn sharp teeth.

What was the last good vampire movie? I mean the last really good vampire movie. 1922's Nosferatu? It could be reasonably argued, I think. F.W. Murnau might have single-handedly created and ended the vampire horror movie genre. Since then, nearly every creature of the night movie has tread the same path. After all, when it comes right down to it, the vampire mythos, with its convoluted rules and gimmicks, its well-worn and by now utterly tiresome tropes and conventions, are just not all that interesting. Sunlight. Garlic. Stakes. Blah, blah, blah. I mean, just look at this. Look at it. Look at it and try to resist the urge to find something sharp and pointed to drive through your own heart just to escape its soul-crushing banality. This is what vampires have become: icons for disaffected teenagers; once potent metaphors of human evil reduced to the boring cliches of high-school drama. But it's not just the recent spate of glossy, teen-marketed films. From Lestat to Blade to Buffy (which, the careful reader will know, I love), it's hard to find anything in vampire cinema to get excited about. (A few exceptions exist: Herzog's Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht and E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire and... well, maybe that's it.) So, when I started hearing buzz about a new vampire film wowing festival audiences - and not just a new vampire film, a Swedish vampire film - I was initially skeptical. If there's one thing I don't need, it's to suffer through more imported, sub-titled Anne Rice style undead angst and sexual ennui. However, I did finally overcame those apprehensions and watched Let the Right One In. And I'm glad that I did. Let the Right One In isn't the new definitive vampire film; it probably won't enter the popular consciousness in the same way that the over-rated Interview with the Vampire did (at least not until the recently announced, and entirely pointless, American remake is set loose against us).* But, cinematic cynicism aside, it is the most haunting and beautiful vampire story told since Klaus Kinski donned his make-up.

Based on a novel of the same name, Let the Right One In (Lat den ratte komma in), directed by Tomas Alfredson, is the story of a bullied and lonely 12-year old boy, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), who one day meets and befriends the young girl who has just moved in next to him, Eli (Lina Leandersson). But there is something a little... uh, off about this girl. By now, if you've heard anything about the film, or even seen the trailer, you know that this young girl is actually a vampire. But in meeting and falling in love with her, Oskar begins to gain confidence and stand up for himself. And really, that's it. That's the story. It sounds more like a coming-of-age** story than a vampire story, I know. But one of the things that the film does so beautifully is blend in a number of different elements and genre conventions in such a way as to make those conventions and their influence nearly invisible. There's a poignant adolescent love story here. There's also a revenge story here. There are nods towards slasher films and family dramas. Insufferable as some of these things normally are, in Let the Right One In none of these elements are allowed to become too strong; they are ghostly influences, subtly colouring the audience's lens; they are all wrapped tightly within and managed by a stark Swedish aesthetic and an ethereal and lyrical realism. It's an arthouse film, but one that has been stripped of pretensions, stripped of smugness, and stripped of affectation. There is a strict economy here - an economy of language, of effect, of style - and the result is an ominous, lonely film, drenched in a blighted aesthetic that is at once realistic and slightly dreamy. It's beautiful, in other words.

Vampire movies usually take one of two paths: either they are lurid, over-sexed affairs or they are bloody, gory massacres (and if you are really lucky, they are sometimes both). In either case, it's usually an exchange of fluids thing. Vampires are hot and messy; they are lightning rods of teen angst, which means, once you get past the morbidity and death-glamour of the whole thing, that they are dull, boring, usually obnoxiously self-aware atrocities. Let the Right One In avoids all of this by tracing a rather ambivalent path through the wreckage of vampire films past. It remains firmly committed to its vampire elements, presenting them with a savage eye that never blinks away from its murderous nature (the lengths that one character in particular will go to secure blood is both horrific and oddly affectionate) (though, I should point out, the film more gives the impression of violence than an actual portrayal of it); at the same time, however, the vampire side of the story never feels primal, that is, it never feels as if it is the film's central concern. There is something mundane about the film's horror. Its violence is neither sexy nor self-indulgent; it is bleak, barren and gorgeously unaffected, by which I mean that it de-glamorizes vampire life, presenting it not as a grand, romantic retreat into darkness, a la Interview with the Vampire, et al, but as a lonely, empty waste where every day is just another twist down a spiral of shame and self-loathing. There is something genuinely arresting about such a portrayal, about such an impoverished aesthetic. This ambivalence runs throughout the film, both in terms of narrative and cinematography. Extreme close-ups compliment long, barely moving tracking shots; motivations are sometimes a bit murky, but never unreasonable; entire stories are suggested by two-minutes scenes or single shots. And the film's final conflict, which resolves the film's action in a disturbingly satisfying way, is a master class on cinematic style: a nearly perfectly executed use of framing and off-camera action.

If Ingmar Bergman had made a vampire film, I think it would have looked an awful lot like Let the Right One In. Though this film isn't fraught with as much existential angst as that other Swedish master always seemed to prefer, and though it doesn't have people sitting around thinking about the meaning of their lives or the death of God, it does bear some striking resemblances, especially aesthetic and dramatic ones, to the works of Bergman. I don't know, maybe it's a Swedish thing. Outside of Bergman, I'm not very familiar with Scandinavian cinema, however, so I can't really comment on their entire industry without sounding reductive and ethnocentric. If Let the Right One In is any indication, however, some exciting things are happening there. Certainly this is the most exciting thing to happen to vampire films in a long time. If you are a vampire fan, or better yet, if you are a good movie fan, Let the Right One In deserves your immediate attention.

Experto crede: a heavy contender for best film of 2008. Forget that Twilight shit, this is the vampire movie of 2008. in fact, it might be the vampire movie of the last ten, twenty, or thirty years.

* I do not understand Hollywood's recent fascination with re-makes, especially foreign language horror re-makes. It all smacks a bit of xenophobia, if you ask me. Perfectly good films, like Ringu, which work so much better in their original milieu, get hacked and slashed into sterile and artistically bereft star vehicles. One of the more high-profile victims of this trend is Chan-wook Park's Oldboy, one of the more dark and twisted revenge flicks of recent memory, which, it was just recently announced, will soon be given the Hollywood treatment at the hands of Steven Spielberg and Will Smith. It should be so lucky. If you know anything about this film, you know how preposterous an idea this is. American horror is, for the most part, boring. If suffers from a strangely puritan impulse, a no-doubt studio mandated directive never to give audiences anything more than gore and titillation, never, in other words, to cross the line from opium cinema into intellectually or aesthetically vibrant filmmaking. It plays it safe, staying well within its permitted bounds. So, when Hollywood, roused from its stagnant slumber, notices that other brands of horror - be they Japanese, Korean, Swedish, whatever - are not only doing well but receiving actual critical attention, something American horror hasn't received for a long time, it gets jealous and decides, in a fit of terror and outrage (prompted by premonitions of its own irrelevance, no doubt), to grab those properties and subject them to the production line re-make procedure. This usually means that the re-make makes more money, if only because the anesthetized North American audience will apparently watch just about anything. But it also means that those very things that made the original films interesting are cut, or at least aggressively sanitized, to the point that no one wants to see them. Fans of the originals are left disappointed while new viewers, who never saw the originals' brilliance, pass them off as nothing more than just another boring horror film in a long string of recent boring horror films. It's artistic rape, really.

** The most pretentious and boring of all pretentious and boring cinema.