There’s something funny about the girl who just moved into the apartment next door. She doesn’t go to school. She doesn’t wear a jacket even though it’s the middle of winter. She smells funny and her stomach is always growling. When we get a look inside her apartment we find that it’s devoid of furniture.
Our hero, Oskar, an awkward twelve-year-old boy growing up in a drab suburb of Stockholm, arrives at the logical conclusion. “Are you poor?” he asks his new friend.
Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) is an unusual horror story. Yes, there’s blood and death and dismemberment. But that’s nothing, the film suggests, next to the horror of being twelve. You’re skinny and you look ridiculous in your gym shorts. The other boys at school torment you because you’re a little smarter than they are. Grown-ups are clueless, yet your life is subject to their whims. All that’s bad enough. But what if you were twelve forever?
The girl next door, Eli, has been stuck on the cusp of adolescence for a long, long time; how long, she can’t or won’t say. She’s seen and done things that her gormless new neighbour has only dreamt of. And yet, for all her experience, Eli comes across as an innocent kid acting tough. When she makes friends with Oskar, is drawn into (or draws him into?) a chastely romantic relationship, are we to view her as a lonely girl surprised by long-forgotten hormonal stirrings? Or as a wizened old predator seeking young flesh? The movie sustains the first reading but hints strongly at the second, as when, eerily, the adorable young actress who plays Eli, Lina Leandersson, is replaced for a moment or two by a similar-looking but much older woman.
I can’t recommend this film enough, and yet I’m reluctant to write more about it because I don’t want to give anything away. I should mention that the climax is the most extraordinarily economical “action” setpiece I’ve ever seen. It’s a long static shot with Oskar’s face filling most of the frame; the violence takes place offscreen, with only the intrusion of a couple bloody props to show what’s happening, and yet it’s so well choreographed (and the sound design is so perfect) that we know exactly what’s going on, and it fills us with a combination of vengeful glee and bone-deep dread. I can’t explain it better than that. Go see the movie.
If you’ve already seen Let The Right One In, you may read on.
One thing that I missed, which my viewing companions pointed out afterward, is that there is “something funny” about the crotch shot. As you’ll recall, this is the moment when Oskar peeks in on Eli as she’s changing into a clean dress. As she pulls the dress down, Oskar gets a momentary view of her uncovered crotch.
Maybe I’m blind, but all I saw between her legs was a dark patch which I assumed was a tuft of pubic hair. Oskar’s reaction – he ducks away from the doorway, eyes wide – is consistent with the behaviour of a twelve-year-old boy who’s just seen his first naked girl. But my fellow filmgoers insisted that Oskar had seen something besides pubic hair. Something like a scar.
I did a little research on various message boards, which led me to the following interview by Karin Badt with the director, Tomas Alfredson. It’s a good interview which I encourage you to read in its entirety, but I’ll pull out the relevant quotes:
I tried to do a flashback scene, where we see the castration of Eli [the girl vampire] two hundred years ago, with very close shots of a knife coming close to skin, starting to cut, and I said to the make-up guys that I want to do this. They said you can’t do this unless it is real animal, because if you are so close to the camera, you can’t use rubber or special effects, so I said okay, let’s do that then, then I forgot about it, and the assistant director said, we have the pig here now. I said, what pig? The pig for the cutting shot. A living pig. He is outside together with the slaughterer. So I went outside the studio and a butcher was standing with his knife, and this pig looking with his sad eyes. I said no. I wouldn’t be able to sleep if we killed him. That’s bad karma.
The script is based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. I wrote it with a screenwriter: he wrote and I added structure. I cut the novel to only one track: the love story. What makes it unusual is that it is a love story with no sex, with a castrated boy.
I’m glad that Alfredson decided not to kill the pig, and I’m glad that the castration scene was left out. In fact, knowing now what it signifies, I wish the crotch shot had been left out, too. But perhaps the director thought that he’d already deviated far enough from the novel and that the author would blow his top if the film elided the non-trivial detail of Eli’s transgenderedness.
Now that I look back I can see that this detail was suggested elsewhere, most explicitly in the scene where Eli asks Oskar “Would you still like me if I wasn’t a girl?” (It’s possible to assume that she’s only hinting that she’s not a human girl.) But I can’t help feeling that the crotch shot – so quick and dim that a lot of viewers, like me, are going to miss the point entirely – is either too much or too little. Take it out, and readers of the book can still pick up on the other hints and nudge each other knowingly. If it’s left in, a bit more explanation is wanted.
Judging from the descriptions of the plot I’ve picked up here and there, the novel Let The Right One In is a lot less ambiguous and a lot more lurid than the movie. For instance, in the novel the character of Håkan, the old guy whom Eli is living with at the beginning, is a pedophile. In an interview with the website Icons of Fright, Alfredson explains that this information was left out of the film because if the theme of pedophilia were introduced, given the prurient fascination it would attract, it would overwhelm the story and crowd out the central relationship between the two kids.
To my mind, if Håkan were definitively portrayed as a pedophile it would upset the disturbing symmetry of the narrative. What made the film especially poignant to me was the realisation that Håkan, presumably, had started out like Oskar, as a “childhood” crush of Eli’s. The question left unresolved (beautifully) by the ending was, did Eli cynically manipulate Oskar into the now-empty role of factotum? Or was her loneliness and neediness genuine? Not that the one answer precluded the other. (Now, having read these interviews with Alfredson, I realise that this is not necessarily the “correct” interpretation, i.e., the one the director intended.)
Now, if Håkan were a pedophile – or to be more precise, someone who was initially drawn to Eli sexually rather than having been in love with her from an early age – the Håkan-Oskar symmetry would be destroyed. Håkan would become a mere monster instead of a tragic figure, Eli would become merely a victim, and Oskar merely her saviour. I find this gloss on the story less satisfying not because I’d rather think of Eli as evil and Oskar as doomed, but because I’d rather not know for sure: I’d rather be free to wish.
Update, Mar 21 2009: The Onion AV Club has just put up a Book Vs. Film discussion by Tasha Robinson that gets into the plot of the novel in some detail. Her post ratifies my suspicion that the novel is “a lot less ambiguous and a lot more lurid than the movie”:
[W]here the book is a well-told but conventional horror story, the film is more unconventional. Its long silences and chilly tone summon up dread better than the book’s grotesque descriptions of pedophile vampires.
Now I have another question. Robinson writes that “knowing the author was behind the screenplay helped” her to come to the conclusion that she preferred the movie to the book. John Ajvide Lindqvist is the credited screenwriter for Let The Right One In. Why, then, does the director, in the interview I quoted above, say, “The script is based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. I wrote it with a screenwriter: he wrote and I added structure”?
If Alfredson actually wrote the movie himself (with a collaborator) it would explain the huge differences in tone between book and screenplay. But you can’t argue with that screenwriter credit. Anyone have an explanation?