One of the film industry’s worst traits is its reliance on trends. With filmmaking so astronomically expensive, the easiest thing to do is to just make a new version of something that already exists. Already you’ve set yourself up to fail here. An imitation will always be worse than an original, and because of this filmmaking by trend has created some of the worst films ever made, in a cycle of diminishing rip-off returns. For example, if ‘Star Wars’ is ‘Sellotape’-branded tape, then ‘Moonraker’, the Bond series’ woeful attempt at a space film featuring Roger Moore ‘attempting re-entry’ is that awful tape you buy at post offices that doesn’t even stick to itself.
If the modern day trend is for superhero films (as demonstrated by our 2015 pick ‘Birdman’, which we reviewed here), then 2008 was the year of the teen vampire film. In that year, Twilight took a stake to the heart of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, turning any brains or wit it had to dust and turning it into a strangely sterile Christian morality tale. The success of this film led to a whole franchise of films, as well as a whole vampire brood of angsty teen quasi thrillers. The kind that you see advertised on buses and think to yourself ‘thank god I don’t have preteens so I never have to go see that shitshow’. In the midst of this came ‘Let the Right One In’, a vampire film also released in 2008 that shows what could have been if teenage sexuality and vampires had been combined correctly. Although it did itself inspire a ‘Twilight’ rip-off remake in the Chloe Grace Moretz-starring ‘Let Me In’, the original film is a dark psychosexual thrill ride, like Bergman directing ‘Buffy’.
Of course, a lot of things separate this from ‘Twilight’ as should be obvious, but considering some of them in depth is an interesting lesson about filmmaking in 2008. This is particularly true when we contrast the central relationships in both, between Bella and Edward in ‘Twilight’ and Eli and Oskar in ‘Let the Right One In’. The former is an incredibly traditional and trite look and teen romance, whereas the latter is contemporary if not radical for more than half a decade ago.
At its heart, ‘Twilight’ is a Romeo and Juliet story, a tale of two star-crossed lovers from warring worlds. A story that dates back to at least the 16th century, it has existed in film since the first R&J movie in 1908 (exactly 100 years before ‘Twilight’), and is the same ur-plot that is behind ‘West Side Story, ‘Grease’, and in fact most teen films with an iota of a romantic plot. When a film is an over 500-year-old plot type filtered through a 500-year-old play filtered through a 100-year-cinematic history filtered through Baz Luhrman’s 1996 pop culture-infested ‘Romeo + Juliet’, you cannot be surprised if you aren’t left with much originality at the end, especially when that originality is spread over five films.
‘Let the Right One In’ could easily be an R&J story, but Alfredson and screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist make it entirely new by simply changing one element. Rather than focusing on what makes these lovers from warring factions different, they focus on what makes them the same. Both are misfits, both have a preoccupation for violence (one as wish fulfilment, one as necessity), and both are isolated from the outside world. Shakespeare knew this, which is why he had Romeo and Juliet recite a sonnet together in his play, and Alfredson knows it.
What is also remarkable about this film, something I missed the first time through, is the ambiguous gender of Eli. She declares that she is “not a girl”, a statement that is just accepted by Oskar. He later sees that she has no genitals. Instead, she simply has a scar where they should be. What her biological sex is is never made clear, and very much does not matter to Oskar. This complete acceptance without pretense by Oskar of Eli as transgendered is remarkable, and still very rare indeed. A few foreign films and increasingly US TV shows (see especially Broad City and my review of 2013’s ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’) have featured gay characters whose sexuality is simply an accepted fact free of any drama or judgment, but this is so far the only film I have seen to do the same thing with trans* issues.
The film is so radical in places, in fact, that it is its more conventional moments in which the film falls flat. Apart from the minor hilarity that the original title ‘Låt den rätte komma in’ sounds like Swedish Chef from the Muppets saying the English title, there are a few moments of unintentional comedy. When Virginia (the woman Eli turns into a vampire) visits Gösta and is attacked by his cats, it is difficult to take seriously. Clearly Alfredson was aiming for a Hitchcock-like scene of nature turning against a sinner, but the reality is more ‘Birdemic’ than ‘The Birds’. The same can be said for the final swimming pool massacre. For a film that can deliver such brutal sights as Håkan’s acid-burned face, and knows the horrific value in something so simple as blood on snow, the sight of a decapitated head falling into a swimming pool is such a bad ’90s slasher film moment that it takes away from the power of the penultimate scene.
But all in all the film presents a powerful lesson to Hollywood on how to break from trends, or at least how to add something new to a prevailing fashion in film making. Cleverly subvert the age-old tropes of the genre, and think of radical new ways to present issues. Or simply don’t make them issues at all, just parts of the world you are creating, secondary to arresting imagery and smart scriptwriting. Just, if you can, avoid throwing a severed head into a swimming pool.
Next time we will be looking at 2007’s ‘300’, bro culture and rampant homoeroticism in film. Until then, follow us on Twitter and let us know what you thought of ‘Let the Right One In’.