Monday, July 28, 2014

Låt den Rätte Komma In: Boy Meets Girl, And Everyone Learns Something, Or Dies

Part of what I think is so funny about the continued insistence that horror film is some kind of separate genre, to be kept neatly away from the “thrillers” and even “dramas” of some types, is the way that otherwise straightforward stories are spiced up, seasoned with the trappings of horror to make something that gets more serious consideration. It’s as if it’s a sign that horror movies can be taken seriously after all, but only when it’s not so much a horror film per se as a drama or character study with some nods to the genre. Monsters, for example, is basically Before Sunrise with alien monstrosities littering an apocalyptic landscape. Not especially scary, but there are monsters.

And more than anything else, Låt den Rätte Komma In (Let The Right One In) is a tender coming-of-age story, that just happens to feature a vampire as one of the characters. It’s very humane in its observances, and it’s thoughtful, but I’m not sure if it’s actually horrifying, strictly speaking.

It’s primarily the story of Oskar. He’s a shy, sensitive kid who likes books and has odd interests, and accordingly is a target for bullies at school. He’s an easy mark, with “victim” written all over him. He is also a ticking time bomb - you can only bully a kid so long before he snaps, and though he hasn't snapped yet, we can see it from where he's standing. As the film opens, he's got a knife and he's practicing his tough-guy talk like a junior Travis Bickle. This is a kid who has been through a lot, and his parents - divorced - as is so often the case, don’t really seem to notice it. But there he is, looking at his reflection, rehearsing his revenge, using the language of his abusers against them in his imagination...for now.

And then a new family moves in next door. Well, it’s just a man and a young girl, a girl about Oskar’s age. They don’t socialize much, and instead of spending time down at the local pub, the man is busy papering over all the windows. He’s also preparing the tools of his trade - a funnel, an empty jug, a sharp knife, rope, and a tank for administering anesthetic gas.

As it turns out, the young girl - Eli - has some very specific dietary needs.

And so it goes, that quiet, shy Oskar meets quiet, shy Eli on the jungle gym in the little courtyard in front of the apartment building. He’s out there at night for lack of anything better to do, and so is she. They strike up a tentative friendship and really, it’s not all that different from any other friendship between two kids who aren’t getting what they need from the world around them. In some ways, Eli's situation isn't so different from Oskar's - they both have parents (or parental figures) who let them down, who fail to provide what they need (Eli blood, Oskar real attention), and it's in this that they forge a connection and begin to actually reach out to another person for the first time. Eli isn’t twelve like she looks - as she puts it, she’s been twelve for a very long time - but she’s not some creepy mature-beyond-her-years Anne Rice vampire doll either. She’s a kid, and she’s sort of been a kid forever, and a really lonely one for obvious reasons. Oskar’s a lonely kid too, and maybe sort of old for his age because he’s had to put up with so much with so little understanding from his family. His mom is overworked, trying to support Oskar without any help and so the little details of his everyday life slip by her. There are moments of connection and love between them, she’s doing the best she can, but she can’t juggle everything without something getting short shrift. Oskar’s father seems affable enough and seems to love his son, but it’s unclear whether he’s just irresponsible in that way where he likes spending time with Oskar just fine until something more interesting comes along, or if he’s an alcoholic. It could be both, it’s hard to tell since he’s not so much abusive as just sort of benignly neglectful of Oskar. Eli’s protector/guardian/whatever tries to get her blood to feed on so she doesn’t have to put herself at risk, but he isn’t very good at it, and this is her life (such as it is) on the line. They are - her peculiarities aside - two kids looking for in each other the love and care they aren’t getting elsewhere.

And really, in all of this, Eli is sort of the lesser of two monsters. The bullies who torment Oskar are what really threaten him, or are at least of what he is really frightened. The ways they torment him are acutely and sharply observed, immediately familiar to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of playground abuse. The ringleader is a smirky little kid named Conny, and he has two sidekick types (because they always do), and together they make every day at school a minefield for Oskar. Honestly, my stomach tightened up more anytime they showed Oskar at school than when Eli was looking for blood. This is the real threat as far as Oskar’s concerned, and when Eli’s nature is irrefutably revealed to him, he seems more disappointed in or betrayed by Eli than anything else, like when you discover your crush is human after all (only she isn't and that's the problem). In either case, there's an escalation of stakes - it becomes clear what Eli needs to do to survive, and she gets more and more desperate with people starting to take notice, and even though Eli’s support gives Oskar the courage to fight back, striking back at the bullies only makes things worse, since as is often the case, Conny has an older brother who is even worse than he is, and these two worlds collide to awful result.

It might not be the most horrifying horror movie I’ve ever seen, but it is very well realized, full of careful, restrained detail. The world that the kids inhabit, away from adult attention, is believable throughout - even the bullies aren't cardboard villains. Conny is pretty much an unredeemable shit, but there are some misgivings on the part of the two sidekicks at how serious things are getting, even as they vacillate between discomfort and going along with things in the way that kids do, especially when they’re following a ringleader. Eli's vampirism plays out in little details - bare feet in snow, the reaction of animals, silence where there should be sound, and the actress manages to look both just as young as she is and simultaneously very old and very sick with only small help from effects. When it manifests more overtly, it can be startling, a reminder that oh yes, she is basically a monster and what does it say that this is Oskar’s closest friend? There’s a certain dispassion to the way the film is shot and how events play out - Eli’s violence and Conny’s are given equal footing, which makes the end a nice meeting of the two, but the disengagement makes it a film that engages the head more than the heart or gut, the kind that elicits golf claps rather than gasps. It’s very well-made, but there’s a certain heat missing (insert jokes about the cold and Scandinavia here). Ultimately, it's a monster movie but the monster isn't the point - it's the relationship, and how the monstrosity is just another condition to negotiate in the pursuit of connection that is the real point.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Available on Netflix

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