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5 stars to the androgynous vampire

January 21, 2010

I finally watched “Let the Right One In”, which had languished on my Netflix Watch It Now queue since it became available several months ago. I usually watch movies while doing other things, such as reading blogs or balancing my checkbook, but some movies demand my full attention (particularly those with subtitles). I’m glad I finally cleared a couple of hours for this one, as it was one of the best vampire movies I’ve ever seen, as well as one of the best love stories I’ve seen.

Spoilers below…

The movie centers on Oskar, a 12-year-old boy bullied by his classmates. One night while playing outside of his apartment building, he meets Eli, a mysterious girl who appears to be his own age. Eli lives with Håkan, an middle-aged man who serves as a helper/Renfield of sorts, who helps her get the human blood she feeds upon. Of course, this is a rather gruesome task, but he is devoted to her and ultimately sacrifices himself to her appetite. Meanwhile, Eli and Oskar form a close bond and Oskar discovers that Eli is a vampire who, without Håkan’s help, must kill in order to survive. Eli, wise in her 200-some years of age, helps Oskar stand up to his bullies, with mixed results. In the end, this is less a vampire movie than a movie about the friendship between two lonely people who need stability in their world.

I liked this movie for several reasons. First, it’s relatively faithful to the vampire mythos. Eli snaps the neck of one of her victims to prevent his undead fate. Those who survive her attacks become vampires as well, however, it’s not necessarily a welcome journey. Sunlight destroys vampires (instead of inducing sparkling skin, like in some books/movies), and they must be invited into people’s homes. Eli is able to scale buildings and defy gravity fairly easily, but she doesn’t shapeshift (as Bram Stoker’s Dracula does) and she sees her reflection. Overall, it’s a nice return to vampire basics (particularly the invitation part, which I first learned of in Stephen King’s vampire novel, Salem’s Lot).

Second, Oskar’s problems as a child seem real. His parents are divorced, his mom’s not around much, his dad’s an alcoholic, he’s bullied, and he’s fascinated by the murders happening in his town. He’s a troubled kid, but not precocious or clever. I have no problem believing kids like him exist. This is increasingly rare in movies (cf. the romantic advice-spewing little sister in “(500) Days of Summer”). His relationship with Eli unfolds naturally and innocently. He’s at the brink of puberty, but he’s still at the point where, when he asks Eli to “go steady” with him, he doesn’t see it as anything more than just a deep friendship and affection for each other.

Third, the relationship between Oskar and Eli, which had potential to be all kinds of creepy, is actually one of the most well-founded relationships I’ve seen on screen. They respect each other, care for each other, and are concerned about each other’s safety and look out for each other. This is a sweet, real love between them, free of all the clichés that we see in too many movies (e.g., meeting “cute”, having a montage of happy times together, saying “I love you” within days of knowing each other, strict adherence to traditional gender roles). The characters are believable; therefore, their relationship is believable as well.

Finally, I liked how this movie addressed issues of gender. I dug around a little and found that in the book, Eli’s backstory elaborates that she was born as a boy and castrated, so she lives as a girl (yet identifies as “not a girl”). I can understand why the movie didn’t explicitly go there; it would require an awkward flashback or explanation that would disrupt the pace of the story. It does, however, hint at this in a scene where we glimpse Eli’s pubic area, and instead of a penis or vulva she has a scar. This is foreshadowed by Eli asking Oskar several times if he would still like her if she weren’t a girl. Oskar, bless his heart, says yes. This movie isn’t about transgender or genital mutilation issues (although I suppose one could construct some sort of ill-advised transgender/vampire metaphor if they really wanted to; that’s most definitely not the point of this post), but it doesn’t shy away from the gender issues presented in the novel it’s based on. I have a feeling this will not be the case in the American adaptation that is due out this October.

I’m disappointed that Hollywood felt the need to produce an English-language remake of this movie, as it’s perfect the way it is now. I enjoyed this movie more than almost anything I’ve seen in the last year. While most movies I watch leave me frustrated to the point of wanting to bang my head against the wall, “Let the Right One In” gets it right.

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