There are assloads of vampyric interest about right now. At the beginning of the decade, we were all agog about magic and wizardry care of the Scooby Gang of Hogwarts. Nowadays, we're into anything with fangs. The stories are all passed on as romantic tales that just happen to have some action or horror to them as well as consumption of hemoglobin. In any fad however, there will always be that ONE FILM that distinguishes itself from the others. Coming to us all the way from the home of ABBA and that Chef from The Muppet Show, Sweden courtesy of Cinemanila, Let The Right One In is that ONE FILM.
What's Not There But Isn't Missing
As many Pinoys know, a romance is often defined by some of the cheesiest lines to ever be written. The cornier the dialogue the better. One of the things that distinguishes Let The Right One In is it's sheer lack of dialogue. Director Tomas Alfredson tells the story mainly with visuals. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema is assigned duties of telling the audience that it's 1982 by simply making it look like it's 1982. I don't remember seeing a declaration of the year at the beginning of the film and that was to my benefit as a part of the audience. From the very first shot long before you see any of the props of the era, it already looked old. Like it was a film brought out of the archives just for us today. That's a quirk often associated with European films, but in this case it's intentional.
Music itself is notably absent. Music only ever appears in the parts where the film reminds you that it happens to have teeth. It's very effective in telling you that there are going to be people killed Right Aboooout... NOW! The near silence of the film helping to build the tension whenever the music decides to let itself be heard. It's the part of the dream that injects nightmare into the experience. It's never obtrusive and serves as the warning for the more squeamish not to look, but of course you'll still look. You dare not turn away for a moment as every frame has something to tell you. One particular scene near the start where you merely hear the sever of an artery is far more efficient a means of wrenching an audiences innards as the actual visual. That's because everything seems so damn normal.
None of us here live in any snow-covered 'hoods, it's safe to assume. But we are all welcome residents of the suburban setting of the film. We all live there. This is a normal everyday world. That's the train we all use to go to work. That's the snowbank where we like to play. Over there is a pine tree where we'll carve our initials. It's a world the director let's us feel cozy and familiar in even if we've never held a snowflake in our hands. The intentions of displaying the plain at it's finest draws us in more as innocent passers by who happen to witness all of this as it's happening. All the more to punctuate just how extraordinary it is to find that dead body covered in blood. It's a very different means of trying to make the audience feel like this is all real as we're accustomed to the more Hollywood approach of making things look like a documentary or a news broadcast - something to either look forward to or dread as the Hollywood remake is on it's way next year.
The lack of dialogue has to make one wonder if the script itself had as many pages as a comic book. The film is based on a novel by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist and that weighs in at 480 pages. It feels like the entire dialogue of the film could fit in ten. Add another half page perhaps for the screams of agony. I have yet to read the book but it's a safe assumption that most of the pages made their way onto the screen by means of the visuals. Also, as is the way with these things, the book was probably better. That's mandated by international law, in case you didn't know. Good thing there's a bookstore outside the theatre so you can find out for yourself.
Who's In It
The cast is largely made up of young adolescents playing the twelve year old characters - twelve year olds, more or less. The subtlety of their performance is a perfect match to the setting. The casting process itself was akin to the initial casting call for the Harry Potter films, but nordic. Everybody up there is as pale as the undead anyway so the look wasn't hard to get. The two young leads were chosen for their sheer opposite in appearances. The main boy character is Oskar and he is pale white and blonde. It's like sunlight follows him around wherever he goes, even at night. Eli is the girl and yeah she's the undead. She is also pale but in the foreboding way. Her hair is dark, her eyes are big blue orbs but it's more like they scared off all the other colors rather than chose to be bluish gray in the first place. For Eli, it's as if a shadow follows her wherever she goes. It's the interaction between these two that is the heart of the film's romance. Once again the sheer subtlety of the film has to be praised. Oskar and Eli spend their time together in near silence for the most part. Everything is downplayed and the silence allows the audience to almost hear what they're thinking instead of having to be told what they're saying. It's all done with so much finely-tuned fragility that in one scene where Oskar hugs Eli, it's comedic. Like the simple act of the hug was too over the top. The romance of the characters is more felt by the audience than seen and it's a far deeper experience of their relationship.
Oskar is of course a bullied wimp at school. That part of the tale is predictable. How many times have you seen the cool and popular jock befriending the fantastic creature in a story? And of course, the relationship bears fruit in the way Oskar changes. That part is predictable as well but the film never lets you feel like you've seen it all before. It makes you want to see how it will happen. Once again, do note that these are twelve year olds because there is sexuality involved - but not sex. No sex onscreen, anyway. There is also brief full frontal nudity but don't bother calling the authorities. A body double was used and no minors were asked to do that. The one character where outright sexual depravity should be involved is severely sanitised and it changes the way the ending is seen.
Pardon this little spoiler that is contained entirely within this paragraph so skip to the next one if you wish. Eli the vampyre is in the care of Hakan. In the film, he seems to be a kindly old man and the impression the entire film gives is that he was once what Oskar is now. That he was once a young boy who fell in love with Eli and takes care of her even now in his old age. The truth of the matter however is that Hakan is a pedophile. He works for Eli as a gatherer of blood and gets paid for it. Because of Hakan's nature, he does so in hopes of bedding Eli. Once again, not having the read the book, it's possible that their arrangement was more sexual than monetary since it would make more sense. Hakan needs money but has a psychological need to have sex with the eternal 12 year old in Eli. When he dies, the question is asked of who will take care of Eli during daytime? Oskar seemingly answers but instead of becoming a person who rescues Eli from such a relationship with Hakan, he looks more like he is doomed to follow Hakan's footsteps because Hakan's portrayal in the film is not of the pedophile but only of the absolutely loyal caring companion. Instead of walking of into the sunset as lovers, it looks as if Eli just found a new employee. One she's far happier with but still. The film uses the cleaner Hakan to minimise controversy and even the texture of the film but at the cost of how the ending is viewed.
Last Bites and One Bungi
If there is one flaw in the film, it has to be the special effects. This was never a visual effects extravaganza guaranteed to sear your eyeballs with all the pretty shades of the 48-bit computer generated rainbow. When some scenes make heavy use of it, it feels more like an invasion, as if somebody mixed up the reels. But this is true for only a couple of scenes. Once again surprising is how the production took great pains to make things look and sound as bland as possible. There were supposedly fifty CGI shots in the film and they passed by largely unnoticed. The high end production values are also unapparent as they were used to make things look as unfantastic as possible. The indoor shots look as if they were taken in the actual apartment building shown when in fact, they were done in studios. Even some outdoor closeups were done indoors. It's old-skool movie magic that surprises us accustomed to the bleeding edge of technology where a huge empty room painted green is referred to as a set. Also, for the purists out there who justify only seeing a foreign film in subtitles in order to hear the actor's real voices, the voice of Eli is dubbed. One last bit of Pinoy-slanted trivia is that while we know the title is from a song by Morrissey, the American title of the book is Let Me In which as anyone unashamed to admit their inner baduy can tell you is a Mike Francis song.
It's tempting to end with something as cornball as "Let the right film in" but if Let The Right One In can eschew the cringeworthy, then it's a good lesson to learn. As a filmgoer, this film is a truly enlightening experience after so many films with fangs that just bite, but never deeply. There's a horror film in there trying to break free but held in check by the very much beating heart of a romance so pure and true sans any of the mandatory kilig moments that romance is supposed to have. Let The Right One In is a vampyric love story that others can only pretend to be. As a lesson to filmmakers, it teaches that higher-end production values can be used for other than creating the next fantaserye and that a story about the fantastic should at it's heart be a fantastic story.