Friday, November 21, 2008

Let The Right One In

Let the Right One In - Oskar and Eli the 12 year old vampireAllow me to rescind, fleetingly, my previous disappointment with the horror genre. Let The Right One In is an exceedingly rare and beautiful example and it earns its place in the pantheon of great horror films. I don’t want to say that it’s a film obsessed with things, because in truth it’s not. It’s subtle. But it is a film about our obsessions or, at least, a film which touches on mine.

There are things about childhood that we never can manage to leave behind: our first kiss, our first love, the teasing, scorning words of our schoolmates. For some these things provide comfort and for some a nauseous looking back. For myself, I have yet to think on my first love without regret and sorrow: I have yet to be truly free of it. The pain I felt at its end, of course, is not nearly so great and has been replaced by a kind of nostalgic sadness, because age has conspired to alter me. But it is still there, and I can imagine what the outcome might have been had I never been able to move on from that awful age of transition where my first love had its inception. Therein lies the horror of this movie: a 12 year old girl vampire who is neither a girl nor 12 years old - who can never grow old and never leave the dismay of that age, who can never escape the memory of that time, who can never transcend her appalling hunger and its violence - and a 12 year old boy who is taunted viciously by his schoolmates, who cannot escape them, is impotent against them and their own violence. Natural cycles. Let The Right One In is a movie about natural cycles. The first, blushing hint of love in the playground. The shy awkwardness of its approach. Its hesitant acceptance and the subsequent uncertainty. The discovery of our true natures. The vampirism of the female. Consummation. Symbiosis. All steeped in the horrible flesh tones of memory.

I don’t want to ruin a film which is still in theaters. Go. See it.


Sean said...

From The Evening Class:

"In fact I'm completely reluctant to cull out the film's most intriguing details because they should be experienced firsthand. But the imprint that lingers with me is that of the hand on the windowpane; the plea for access. Eli at Oskar's window asking to be let in from a snowy night; Oskar at the window looking out, the warmth of his hand leaving moisture on the cold pane. This longstanding trope that vampires must be invited over the threshold recontextualizes the belief that it is not necessarily evil you are inviting into your heart. All I will say about the film's final scene is that the beautiful look of protectiveness in Eli's eyes and the sheepish smile on Oskar's face invites questions about their own amor fati."

There goes my Let The Right One In II post. I wanted so badly to talk about the title of the film and its meaning, but just couldn't make the right words come. Well, here they are!

Hectocotylus said...

I see you have mastered the fine art of commenting on your own blog!

The horror genre, as you said previously, is not without major problems. Let the Right One In is almost certainly top 25 (horror) material but on a list of the greatest films of all time you would need binoculars to see where I place it.

I'm trying to decide, for no particular reason, if it's the best film to feature an overt supernatural creature since Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête. (Forcing myself to embark on this pointless endeavor has of course rendered me incapable of thinking of any other decent films to even feature "overt supernatural creatures.")

Curious: Do you think Eli loves Oskar? I can't decide but if I were forced to choose I would say no. (I imagine living such a long time (and in such torment) would diminish one's capacity to love. Not to mention how she treats Hakan.)

Hectocotylus said...

Actually, I have more to say about the top 25 paragraph, but I'm going to bed. (Basically: it might just be that I'm reluctant to give any horror film credit for being one of the greatest films of all time, period.)

Sean said...

I'm not sure why you're making the point about it not being one of the greatest films of all time. I agree that a very long list would be needed for this film to make an appearance on it. My post, however, specifically mentions it as earning "its place in the pantheon of great horror films." A small arena, as we both know, and one that this film easily has access to - I would say probably top 10, for my list. Maybe.

(I guess I'm not sure if you missed the "horror" part of my post or if you're just making a broader comment. I'll give you credit and assume you're just making a broader comment, in which case my answer is: yes.)

As for other films, post-1946, featuring overtly supernatural creatures, the most obvious (by topic) is Herzog's Nosferatu. . . . Then there's Irena in Curse of the Cat People, but luckily that's two years too early.

I *do* think that Eli loves Oskar, as do many others on the internet, but I also believe it's completely ambiguous, from the title of the movie to its last scene with an obviously human Oskar tapping out secret messages to his new girlfriend. Her treatment of her companion serves to highlight this ambiguity by helping to create the parallel in the first place. If she did not treat him so poorly, we might continue to believe that he is her father - and, in truth, her poor treatment doesn't exactly mean that he isn't. So, to clearly state it, I don't believe we can know 1) if the companion is her father or lover and 2) if she loves him or not - although, and because, there are very strong arguments for both sides. Which is good, because it allows the movie to be rather more unsettling than it would be. The book is apparently much more clear on this, but that doesn't really mean anything, as you know.

Speaking of taking firm positions on an ambiguous point, Roger Ebert seems to have taken the question of Eli's sex (is she female, is she gender neutral?) and turned it into one of those simple dualities we were just discussing elsewhere. To him, if Eli is not a girl she must be a boy.

"They decide to have a sleepover in his bed. Sex is not yet constantly on Oskar's mind, but he asks, "Will you be my girlfriend?" She touches him lightly. "Oskar, I'm not a girl." Oh.

Oskar is cruelly bullied at school by a sadistic bully, who travels with a posse of two smaller thugs and almost drowns him in a swimming pool. At a time like this, it is useful to have a vampire as your best pal. A girl vampire or a boy vampire, it doesn't really matter."

And later:

"I will not go into the relationship Eli has with an unsavory middle-age man named Hakan (Per Ragnar). Maybe he is his familiar, maybe he just likes blood."

. . . given that we were treated to a view of Eli's genitals (or lack thereof), I'd say that the status of Roger Ebert's sexual experience, urination experience, and possibly even his own gender identification are now ambiguous.

Hectocotylus said...

Haha. Sigh. Ebert.

Yes, I'm making a broader comment. My horror genre paragraph was not attacking your piece but the genre. I know very well that you wouldn't think about placing Let the Right One In on a list next to The Passion of Joan of Arc -- and therein lies the problem. Can horror films ever elevate themselves to that level? Sure, something like Picnic at Hanging Rock would go on a list of greatest films ever, but you know as well as I do that Picnic isn't a horror film in any agreed upon way. Where might Let the Right One In stand in comparison to Dreyer's Vampyr? (a film I need to rewatch. Ferrara's The Addiction and Almereyda's Nadja are also vampire films I need to revisit. And we need to watch Romero's Martin - a film Let the Right One In apparently owes a debt to, not to mention its recommendation from Jon).

Curse of the Cat People isn't anywhere close to being as good as Cocteau on even his worst day!

I really do think that the flash of Eli as an old woman is the key to cutting through some of the films ambiguity.

Please tell me your aren't contemplating reading the book!

Sean said...

I read the book on my Kindle last night.

. . . No. I'm not contemplating reading it. I only made the book comment in case you decided to make the desperate "the book tells us . . ." argument.

I guess the answer to the question of horror films raising themselves up is this: what other genre-based films would appear on your list? Are there any comedies, musicals, or romance films?

It seems like a problem of making a film to fit the confines of a genre and disturb people rather then making a film to fit your artistic passion. Looks what happens when even great directors turn to the horror genre - Kubrick's The Shining, Dreyer's Vampyr, Bergman's Vargtimmen. What do you have there but a list of some of the greatest horror films and some of those directors weakest works?

Hectocotylus said...

I have no real answer at the moment but here are some of my immediate thoughts. (I'm not yet sure how any of this might relate to Let the Right One In...)

"What other genre-based films would appear on your list? Are there any comedies, musicals, or romance films?"

After thinking about this I realized that I don't think of the greatest works of art (in any medium) in terms of genre. I would consider Stalker to be a science fiction film but I don't think of it in terms of one. Solaris - more easily classified as science fiction - is one of Tarkovsky's weakest films. Though still a masterpiece, it might very well be this 'clinging to genre' that makes Solaris a lesser film than Stalker, Rublev, or Mirror. Even Tarkovsky's original vision was much different than how it turned out. (He couldn't stray too far from the book because the author, Stanislaw Lem, threatened to walk out if he did.) And when Stalker was originally shot (the first version), it followed the short story much more closely but Tarkovsky was not happy with it.

Yes, there are genre films I would list as being among the greatest of all time. To name the first few that pop into my head: City Lights, The Phantom of Liberty (comedy); Dancer in the Dark (musical); Solaris and La Jetée (science fiction); La Belle et la bête (fantasy). Picnic at Hanging Rock is a horror film the same way Stalker is a science fiction film... (I don't know exactly what that means but I think you know the feeling I'm talking about that compels me to say it.)

All of this made me go and search for something Tarkovsky said in Sculpting in Time (I have highlighted what I think is the key remark):

"Any talk of 'genre' in cinema refers as a rule to commercial films-- situation comedy, Western, psychological drama, melodrama, musical, detective, horror or suspense movie. And what have any of these to do with art? They belong to mass media and are for the mass consumer. Alas, they are also the form in which cinema exists now pretty well universally, a form imposed upon it from outside and for commercial reasons. There is only one way of thinking about cinema: poetically. Only with this approach can the irreconcilable and the paradoxical be resolved, and the cinema be an adequate means of expression of the author's thoughts and feelings.

The true cinema image is built upon the destruction of genre, upon conflict with it. And the ideals that the artist apparently seeks to express here obviously do not lend themselves to being confined within the parameters of a genre.

What is Bresson's genre? He doesn't have one. Bresson is Bresson. He is a genre himself. Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Dovzhenko, Vigo, Mizoguchi, Buñuel--each is identified with himself. The very concept of genre is as cold as the tomb."

Hectocotylus said...


Vampyr, Let the Right One In, Hour of the Wolf, Psycho (at the time), and even Videodrome, are all examples of directors trying to use the horror genre to express their artistic vision, not directors trying to fit their artistic vision into the confines of a genre. Perhaps I simply have a personal prejudice against the genre born out of the experience that most horror films are terrible and not taken seriously as a whole. But maybe not: what horror films would you proudly place alongside your favorite Bergman?

Based on the list I've been making, it does seem to be true that the best horror films are the ones that least easily fall into the genre.

The whole trick, I think, is to think beyond genre, as Tarkovsky said. I don't think of any of my favorite films in terms of genre - they just are. It's only films I find fault with that I throw into a group. Even City Lights isn't a comedy - it's Chaplin! (This is a paraphrase of the very next line in the Tarkovsky quote.)

* * *

Your response: Vargtimmen IS MY FAVORITE BERGMAN!

Hectocotylus said...

Oh my. I repeat myself! I need to remember to read over everything again before I respond...

Sean said...


Sean said...

I agree that the films you mention are great and fit into the basic confines of genre, but as Tarkovsky states those are commercial definitions. For instance, we consider Dancer in the Dark to be a musical because its character breaks into song at otherwise inappropriate times. However, the films that define this genre (West Side Story, The Sound of Music, That Whole Realm of Crap From R&H) are quite different from it. I remember reading something about the conditions under which the musical was born and how those conditions are essential to the genre's definition, but unlike you I don't keep a notepad open on my computer when I'm reading print, so I can't reference it now. Anyway, I think the films you mention, as you mention, fall into their genres only partially and remain, as you say, transcendent works of their individual authors.

The problem then comes full circle, again, to the question of why none (or so few, if you include Picnic) of the quasi-horror films from great directors make it very high up on the list (for us). This problem extends to literature. Poe's mind, in my estimation, was first rate, and his artistic vision was commiserate with it - but his art never really transcends "genre." Is it something innate to the idea of horror that sets it against high art?

Sean said...

Oh, also: I am receiving very many hits from Sweden on this particular entry, including many return visitors. I would love to hear your thoughts on LTROI and/or my thoughts on it!

Hectocotylus said...

"Is it something innate to the idea of horror that sets it against high art?"

It is GENRE itself that is set against high art. The reason for this is that genre exists for its own specific ends. Comedy exists to make us laugh, horror films to instill fear, westerns to make us feel macho and/or nationalistic, fantasy for pure escape, etc. (And even in this grouping there is a certain hierarchy. Fear is probably considered by most to be a much lowlier aim than laughter.) High art exists to "create a sensation of divine resonance" and to help one experience a "re-awakening." Films that achieve (or strive toward) the goals of what is referred to as "high art" might perhaps fall into a specific genre, but if they do, it is only incidentally. Genre is "as cold as the tomb" because 99% of all genre films set out with very specific, tangible objectives. And the goals and objectives of genre films are often more akin to amusement park rides (to say nothing of the fact that a large majority of them are made simply for profit). So yes, genre itself is antithetical to art, as Tarkovsky said.

Sean said...

"Films that achieve (or strive toward) the goals of what is referred to as 'high art' might perhaps fall into a specific genre, but if they do, it is only incidentally."

Right. Which is basically what I was (attempting) to say before.

My question is this: we can agree that occasionally a great film is made which might be classified as a genre film, but that genre is almost never the horror genre. Why is that?

I think you come close to answering that question with "fear is probably considered by most to be a much lowlier aim than laughter", in that the artist - struck with the own terrors of his life - cannot envision a film which depicts them without coming across as camp and simply wants to overcome them, anyway? That depends so much on the cliche of the "tortured" artist, though . . .

Hectocotylus said...

"My question is this: we can agree that occasionally a great film is made which might be classified as a genre film, but that genre is almost never the horror genre."

Yes to the first part, no to the second. That the horror genre is the weakest of all genres was perhaps my first contention, but I came to the conclusion that it is genre itself that inhibits greatness.

"Musical" would probably be the specific genre that has the fewest entries on my list of great films, and personal preference probably has the most (or everything) to do with this. (Aside from preventing me from giving musicals a fair chance, this bias also prevents me from watching very many.)

If I do take comedy more seriously than horror it is because I am one of the people who finds laughter to be a more complex gateway to new perception and thought than fear or terror. (Again, this could be a personal bias.)

I suppose there could be something to the idea that fewer horror films are made by great directors... But if this is the case I have no idea why. And if your suggestion is that artists are unable to successfully grapple with fear or terror as concepts... I'm not so sure I find your speculation to be very compelling (nor do I agree with it as a premise).

Sean said...


Put that way - i.e., that great films are sometimes capable of falling incidentally into the category of genre films and that among those films the "horror genre" is not badly represented when compared to some genres - I agree with you. The example of musicals brings the point home well.

"I suppose there could be something to the idea that fewer horror films are made by great directors... But if this is the case I have no idea why."

In the light of our changing attitudes about the idea of genre, this becomes the next best question. A possible answer to this seems to come from your own feeling from the previous statement:

"If I do take comedy more seriously than horror it is because I am one of the people who finds laughter to be a more complex gateway to new perception and thought than fear or terror. (Again, this could be a personal bias.)"

While this is, of course, your own personal interpretation it does make sense, on a broader scope, that others would find this true as well. Looked at politically (because everything is politics, and politics is everything, after all), fear and terror are the emotions we use as a species to repress, not to transcend or, as you see it, "create a sensation of divine resonance." There is something of terror in the divine, of course, but it's never quite the terror of horror films.

Rereading my words it does seem as though I'm suggesting that artists are unable to successfully grapple with fear or terror. This was not my intent, but rather to suggest that they were perhaps unwilling (for reasons that I was/am unsure of) to do so or did not desire to do so. One could modulate your idea of comedy as a higher art to fill this void, though, and I like that idea.

I have also enjoyed this discussion.

(You should not take this as an ending of the conversation on my part, should you wish to continue it.)

Hectocotylus said...

I have enjoyed this discussion too. It's only a matter of time before we never have to talk face to face! (That's why we got these blogs, right?)

"...fear and terror are the emotions we use as a species to repress, not to transcend..."

Good point. That's what Ray Carney would refer to as tapping into our "reptilian brain stems":

...Take an even easier route and rely on a suspense plot with constant threats of violence. Stir and serve. I've just described ninety percent of the movies made last year. That's not art, it's just playing games with our evolutionary past – duping our reptilian brain-stems into pseudo-fright/flight or maternal/protective responses.

There's certainly something to be said for that.

And now (for the moment) I think I've said (and re-said) all I have to say on this topic.

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