Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Right One is always welcome

The benchmark of vampire film and literature are easy to find. "Dracula"-- in both print and cinema-- is the lynchpin. Film was the dominate venue for vampires until Stephen King ("'Salem's Lot") and Anne Rice ("Interview with the Vampire") burst onto the scene in the 1970s. Things were going downhill for vampires in the 21st century thanks to Charlaine Harris (her Sookie Stackhouse books are the basis for HBO's "True Blood") and Stephanie Meyer (don't get me started on how much I hate "Twilight." I'll save that rant for later in the week.) Thankfully, the modern vampire has a worthy creation.

"Låt den rätte komma in" was released in Sweden in 2004. Author John Ajvide Lindqvist hit the bestseller list with his tale of the bullied Oskar (Owen in the American remake) and Eli (Abby in America), his neighbor who turns out to be a vampire.

Fans of vampire fiction everywhere should be thanking him.

Set in the cold and snow of suburban Sweden, "Let the Right One In" as it is known stateside, is a stark work about children, emotionally distant parents, bullies, and life as an outsider. The book loses almost nothing in translation (not that I know Swedish for comparison). Being set in the 1970s helps the novel (and first film adaptation) cross cultural boundaries. Everyone, except our vampire, knows what Rubik's Cube is.

Far too many people also know what it is like to be bullied, putting the reader firmly on the side of Oskar. We weep with him when he is hurt and cheer for him when he fights back.

Eli is a different story. Lindqvist holds on to Eli's mystery as long as he can before revealing her true nature. It's darker than just needing blood to survive. As novels do, the details are revealed more than in the films. (The American version completely cuts out the subplot of the vampire's creation.)

Eli and Oskar each have unique, yet familiar, parental issues. As a father figure to Eli, Hakan is awful. It's not a good relationship to say the least. They need each other, but the motivations are sinister. Eli needs a helper and someone to watch out for the sun. Hakan needs ... well, Hakan is messed up.

Oskar's parents are divorced, as so many '70s couples were. Neither is a good parent and Oskar's mother is barely there even when they are in the same room together. (To highlight this, director Matt Reeves never shows Owen's mom's face in the American film.)

This situation fosters the relationship between Oskar and Eli. They grow closer to each other and farther from their guardians. When things look their worst, Eli comes to Oskar's aid. It's a violent scene, deftly played on film. The worst of it is offscreen, which works because the camera (and narration) stays focused on Oskar. We don't see much more than he does.

The Swedish film, directed by Tomas Alfredson, uses the contrasts of Oskar and Eli well, placing the pale, blonde-haired boy next to the dark-haired and olive-skinned girl. The looks are reversed in Reeves' U.S. adaptation but the contrasts remain. All of the major plot points survived. While some of the latent pedophilia is toned down from the novels, the themes of violence and isolation are in their full glory. It's a wise choice as even the most hardcore horror fans have their limits.

Reeves brought the story to Los Alamos, New Mexico, and into the 1980s, choices loaded with their own cultural significance. Without the internet or cellphones, Owen and Abby must rely on the Morse Code messages that are vital to the novel's pace and development to communicate with each other.

Reeves' film is bloodier and Abby, played by Chloe Moretz, is more of a monster. In the Swedish film, Lina Leandersson, as Eli, gets bloody, most dramatically during a scene in which Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) tests the theory that vampires must be invited into a home to enter or suffer dire consequences. Abby gets bloody early, revealing the beast inside the girl. Moretz, only 13 at the time of the film's release, is masterful when she needs to be a vulnerable little girl and chilling when she shows glimpses of the ancient monster that is Abby's true nature. As Owen, Kodi Smit-McPhee perfectly plays the part of someone who could easily grow up to be a serial killer.

And, really, who is to say that's not how things turn out?

Author Linqvist, apparently. A sequel titled "Let the Old Dreams Die" was released in Sweden in January 2011.

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