LET THE RIGHT ONE IN takes vampires seriously but is still pretty stupid.

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[LET THE RIGHT ONE IN trailer here.]

Fanboys tend to go crazy over horror films that take seriously their fantastic elements. For example, a much cited boon for Shaun of the Dead was that the film’s zombies posed a serious, legitimate threat to the characters. Let the Right One In is certainly a “serious” vampire movie, shot in the stark desolate landscape of a snowy Swedish suburb. It might also be just about the most overrated film of the year.

The best horror films are not really “about” their fantastic elements. Rather, their fantastic elements are a way of shedding light on some aspect of humanity. Bruce LaBruce’s recent Otto; Or, Up With Dead People is a good example, using zombie mythology as a queer critique of the persecution of beings whose corporeal way of life is considered abject. Let the Right One In is a vampire story and a love story: 13-year-old Oskar is a quiet victim of school bullies. The eternally young vampire Eli turns up on his doorstep and they fall in love and she solves all his problems. The problem here is that the vampire element does nothing to illuminate the love story or vice versa. Eli is a semiotic dead-end: A vampire is a vampire is  vampire.

Vampires could potentially be used to explore all sorts of topics: That their mode of killing is particularly sensuous has meant that they have often signified excessive sexuality. Eli is an old vampire in the body of a child who is cared for by a normal human man who is much older than she is in body. There could have been a really interesting exploration of child sexuality here and indeed in the original novel, Eli’s keeper was a pedophile. That is all cut out of the film and the film is all the poorer for it.

It might seem a bit stupid to pick at bad logic in a horror film, but there is some glaringly bad writing here. In an early scene, Eli’s keeper kills a child in a park and hangs him upside down to collect his blood. He gets caught mid-act and has to make a run for it, but this begs the question: Why the hell did he kill a child in an open public space? IN THE MOST BRIGHTLY LIT PLACE POSSIBLE? The answer: Because that is what the script-writer demands.

Another mistake the script makes is to overstate Oskar’s predicament at school. Sure, people get bullied – but do bullies often premeditate murder without any concern as to whether they will be caught? Because they do in this film, loudly clearing a pool out so they can torture young defenceless Oskar. I don’t think bullies necessarily need to be sympathetic but a mature film would at least attempt to humanise them; to show what makes them tick. The bullies in Let the Right One In are evil because they are evil and that is what the script calls for. This kind of simplistic good-versus-evil view of the world really needs to be called out.

Besides the questionable quality of the special effects, the one particularly troubling moment is a shot of Eli’s vagina. Oskar creeps up on Eli while she is changing and he sneaks a peek. In the book, Eli has apparently been castrated and this is apparently a reference to that. However, the script does nothing to establish this, nor does it explain afterwards. If what we see is Eli’s castrated genital area, that’s really not how it registers. The shot is too quick and the impression we are left with is of Eli’s prepubescent vagina. Perhaps an abnormally ugly vagina, but a vagina nonetheless. This really smacks of shoddy filmmaking – if you can’t let the audience know that they’re seeing castrated genitals, perhaps it’s best not to show anything at all.

Perhaps we need to ask more than for genre movies to take fantasy seriously. Maybe genre movies need to take life seriously too.

SEE THIS WITH:

Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)


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6 Comments

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6 responses to “LET THE RIGHT ONE IN takes vampires seriously but is still pretty stupid.

  1. I think that in one or five or ten years’ time, the one word I’ll associate with this film is “overrated”. It’s silly, it undercuts itself as horror, it’s not very well thought out, but at the end of the day all that pales in my mind compared to how enormously and inordinately positive the reaction to the film has been. Oh well. Them’s the breaks.

  2. Can I just see pan’s labyrinth and ignore this. It sounds horrible.

  3. James Douglas

    Well. It’s sort of distressing how much I disagree with you here.

    Firstly, and mostly incidentally, I think it’s a mistake to begin the review by taking a stab at fanboy mentality. It’s not that some ‘fanboys’ (and, really, is this term any better than hipster?) won’t respond to the film in this manner, it’s that the film on the whole is neither derived from nor directed to that particular subculture. I think it’s sort of cruel and ad hominem to suggest that a film which is really on the order of other fantastical art films, like ‘Pan’s Labyrinth, belongs specifically to the type of people who wet their pants over new images from “Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen’.

    You’ve also managed to insinuate that anyone who does like the film may secretly belong to this fanboy culture, which is where the personal hurt come in. You’re breaking my heart, Brad.

    So, before I go on about the tricky issue of social messages in horror films, I’d like to address your problems with the script, which I feel stem more from a lack of sensitivity to the film itself, rather than any actual problems in conception.

    Firstly, the initial fumbled murder by Eli’s caretaker. Well, since the entire narrative arc of this character stems from his increasing inability to do his job properly, thus producing the double register of meaning as to whether Eli is in love with Oskar or simply needs a new keeper, it’s hardly problematic that the film would show him fucking up in an amusing and obvious way.

    As for his choice of location, he’s obviously pretty experienced at killing and maybe that type of place has worked before. At any rate, considering the film is so effective at establishing the desolateness of the setting, I think the director is able to sell the unexpected intrusion of the dog.

    Secondly, with the behavior of the bullies, the film doesn’t really spend enough time with them for us to know what their plan was. Possibly they just designed to get him alone in the pool and enact only a vague sort of punishment. My reading of the scene was that the older brother character came up with the breathing test on the spot, hence the nervous, uncertain reactions of the others.

    As for why they bully, well, one of them has a violent, bullying older brother, and sometimes kids just do stupid things in packs. One of the central themes of any vampire story is the passing down of violence like an affliction. Here it goes from brother to brother, and friend to friend. Elsewhere in the film it goes from the alcoholism of the father to the son’s alienation, as with Oskar. Eli’s vampirism, and the violence it effects, is only the most literal manifestation of structures already inherent in the community.

    As for that shot of Eli’s vagina, while I agree that it is deliberately unclear, I saw it as mutilated, and, in conjunction with her repeated questioning of Oskar ‘what if I was not a girl?’, and without any previous knowledge of the book, I registered the possibility that she was a circumcised boy. I don’t think the shot indicates ‘vagina’ in the straightforward way that you suggest, rather I think it effectively adds another note of ambiguity to their already strange relationship. Perhaps your ‘shoddy filmmaking’ is my ‘subtle insinuation’.

    Anyway, I think I just fundamentally reject your notion that the film ought to say something socially informative or interesting in order to be a good vampire film, or even just a good film. Leaving aside the question of whether it does say something of this sort, and I think in my comments about the bully subplot I have indicated that it might, it really shouldn’t be required to. For me the film operates on the level of a fable, as a mere combination of tonal and narrative elements; I don’t need to be cognizant of any ideological elements in order to like it. I think on the mere level of “hey, what would happen if an alienated Swedish boy in the 80s met a cute age-appropriate vampire?”, and “how can we show this in an interesting way?”, the film is enjoyable enough.

    And the other thing I like, is that it’s such a strange beast tonally that I’m not surprised that people have such wildly different reactions, not just in enjoying the film, but in taking in narrative content. Which is why it generates such good discussion.

    So, this has been heaps of fun. If it comes across as too strongly worded, think of how much worse it could have been if I let myself sign it Anonymous.

    Really good blog Brad. I think it will be a staple of my weekly internet adventure.

    -James.

    • Brad

      Yo whattup?!
      Your comment is the only piece of writing I’ve read which makes ‘Let the Right One In’ sound remotely interesting. That said, I still tend towards thinking it’s a vampire film without any kind of subtext or cultural commentary which is the only kind of vampire I’m really interested in. Of course, death of the author blah blah blah…

      I don’t think this film is on par with ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. That film was much more philosophically and politically engaged than this film.

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