Friday, October 24, 2008

Let the Right One In

Vampires can’t crash your party. They have to be invited in. A wave and nod will not do either, it has to be an unambiguous invitation, at least according to Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish coming-of-age tale of vampirism, Let the Right One In (trailer here), opening today in select cities on the coasts.

Twelve year-old Oskar looks like a vampire himself. Pale and gaunt, the sensitive student gets picked on relentlessly. Having no close friends and little supervision from his separated parents, Oskar spends a lot of time alone with his revenge fantasies. One cold, dreary night he meets Eli, the neighbor girl who coincidentally moved to town around the time a rash of mysterious disappearances began to plague the town. She does not go to school, but she can sneak up on you real quiet-like and she seems impervious to the cold. Oskar finally thinks he’s found someone he shares some chemistry with—at least a friend, maybe even a girlfriend.

Obviously, Eli is a vampire, but she starts to reciprocate Oskar’s feelings to an extent which surprises her. Considering how many years she has been undead, their relationship is more than a little creepy, but cradle-robbing is the least of her transgressions. Of course, events eventually intervene to separate the young and undead lovers. When Eli’s human familiar (and ostensible parent) gets gruesomely busted after botching a bloodletting, she makes a hasty departure, leaving a somewhat empowered Oskar to face his tormentors on his own.

As filmed by Alfredson and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, provincial Sweden in the dead of winter is a pretty spooky environment to start with. Adding the fear of the supernatural and the existential dread of adolescence, make for quite a dark and evocative film. However, if Right One will catch on with audiences, it will be with the art house set, more than horror fans.

Throughout the film, horror conventions are deliberately subverted. Despite some intense scenes, much of the actual killing and bloodletting takes place just off-screen. We see tantalizing glimpses and glimmers of Eli swooping down on her prey, but a sense of mystery is faithfully preserved. When characters that need killing finally get theirs, it happens abruptly and framed out of full view, rather than in the drawn-out revenge fulfillment scenes one might expect of the genre. In fact, Right One is not truly a genre picture, but a truly idiosyncratic relationship film—Summer of ’42, as rewritten by Anne Rice.

Still, Right One is quite appropriate for Halloween viewing, given its supernatural themes and eerily disconcerting ambiance. With a pile of film festival awards to its credit, including Tribeca’s best narrative feature, Right One also has plenty of cineaste street cred. It opens today in New York at the Angelika.