[19 November 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Blame Anne Rice. Blame her for being the literary stake in the original vampire’s heart. If it wasn’t for her spinster prose take on the entire horror fiction fallacy, we wouldn’t have to suffer through the post-modern monster mystique. And while you’re at it, blame Hollywood too. They’ve long since stopped making the undead bloodsucker anything but pseudo-sexy. And blame old world Goth classicism as well. Somewhere buried in between all the neck nibbling and wolf’s bane is an underdone allegory about repression, social taboos, and the busting of both. So perhaps old Nosferatu was never supposed to be anything other than a veiled metaphor. Fine. If that’s the case, however, then we should really blame the filmmakers who have no idea how to handle such symbolism.
Twilight is the latest example of this creative confusion. On the one hand, it is really nothing more than misplaced teen angst accented with occasional bows to literal inhuman guy/gal mood swings. It’s a misguided message movie in which displaced young women are told to stop worrying about peer pressure and, instead, hook up with the girly looking loner with the translucent skin and the kabuki façade. Simply because he craves what’s in your arteries doesn’t mean he can’t love what’s in your heart. In her four book (and counting) series, author Stephanie Meyer has made a killing out of retrofitting the old Stoker mythos for prissy post-modern tweens. That she could pick up a few nerd chicks and geek babes along the way says way too much about the over-romanticizing of the series’ dandy Dracula like leading man.
Sad thing is, at the core of Twilight is an interesting idea - the concept that kids, one isolated and alienated, the other immortal and prone to acts of fatalistic heroics, can come together to find soulmate sanctuary in the cutthroat Hell known as high school. But instead of embracing the darker side of this dynamic, Meyer (and now, her first movie directed by Thirteen‘s Catherine Hardwicke) does for the heart-dotted eyes in the mash note inside the well worn Hannah Montana trapper keeper what Rice did for unmarried career gals. Oddly enough, this past week saw the release of another pubescent inspired vampire film, one with many of the same Twilight traversed themes. But while everyone in Nicktoon nation will be lining up to see Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson bring the banal books and their YouTube world to life, Let the Right One In shows how a successful version of this same material could be handled.
Once again based on a novel (this one by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist), we are introduced to a young boy named Oskar. Highly imaginative and given over to flights of frightening fancy, his mother domineers while his absentee father provides the kind of well meaning mixed signals that totally confuse the 12 year old. Picked on mercilessly by a group of bullies at school, the pale youth dreams of killing his tormentors, spending long hours in the Stockholm snowdrifts pretending to avenge his pride with a large pocket knife. Into his life comes Eli, an enigmatic kid who is similar in age and stature, but far more wise as to the ways of the world. She lives with a quiet, unassuming man, and more or less keeps to herself.
At first, Eli tells Oskar that they cannot be friends. Even as they meet late at night on the frozen apartment complex playground, there is a strange, stand-offish quality to their budding connection. Sensing something deeper, Oskar falls for his new acquaintance, and soon Eli expresses a kinship with this nice, if needy, companion. Of course, everything changes when we learn the truth about the newcomer. She is a vampire, using the old man as a kind of rations-retrieving Renfield. He kills people and drains their blood so that Eli may live. Naturally, such inhuman acts can’t go on forever unnoticed, and when the sleepy little burg discovers a killer in their midst, Eli’s cover is threatened. So is the friendship between the two lost children.
From its sensational, almost stark style to its decision to illustrate supernatural elements in the most realistic and unassuming way possible, Let the Right One In runs rings around Twilight‘s proposed meditation on the fear and possible perils of growing up. Both poster boy Edward Cullen and young little Eli are never-changing answers to disaffected juvenile prayers. Twilight‘s Bella needs someone to save her from her sense of longing and loss of strong family ties. Oskar wants a superhero, a champion to inflict the pain he can’t. In both films, adults are viewed as ineffectual doubters, maturing past the point of caring about kids, their real problems, and the true terrors they face every day. Eli is Oskar’s salvation, showing him a possible way he may never have dreamed of before while explaining the consequences. Edward, on the other hand, is the answer to every lonely gal paranormal prayers, complete with dreamboat eyes.
But where Let the Right One In excels (and Twilight fails, miserably one might add) is in the accentuation of danger. Nowhere in this Lifetime-lite examination of love with a proper neckbiter is there ever a hint of growing dread. Since we know the series goes on for another three books, it’s a safe assumption that Bella and Edward will live on, even if along the way there are hints that our heroine would prefer an existence on the other side of the supernatural plane, so to speak. Let the Right One In never forgets it’s a horror film. It offers scenes of unsettlingly terror, as when Eli goes out “hunting” on her own, or during a disturbing cat attack, and the finale featuring Oskar’s stand-off against his tormentors is a classic of creepy understatement.
But of course, the Swedish scary movie doesn’t have a massive marketing campaign behind it, dozens of chick-lit driven fans foaming at a chance to see their favorite literary characters come to flat, dimensionless life - and more importantly, a studio savoring the possibility of another three films (and even more, if you consider backstory providing prequels) in a poised to be very profitable franchise. Of course, this doesn’t mean Twilight‘s commercial potential reflects its artistic achievements. In fact, for every dollar the movie will probably make, another percentage point of entertainment value and true aesthetic grace can be removed for the overall evaluation.
That’s because we no longer accept our vampires as monsters. We want them to be tragic, tenuous idols desperate to give up their wicked ways to return to normalcy and life among the rabble. Thanks to the onslaught of comic book movies in the last few years, a character like Dracula mandates a make-over to resonate with contemporary crowds. And with women making up a sizeable part of the paying audience, tossing in a little sizzle isn’t out of the question. Hey, Tim Burton’s been talking up a possible big screen Dark Shadows with everyone’s favorite leading man who looks like a leading lady Johnny Depp. Even Let the Right One In is being poised for the inevitable American remake, probably with more pre-teen anguish and less vein draining.
And so the famed lothario of the living dead continues to be compartmentalized and clipped, turned into a symbol of unrequited love in a doomed, dour reflection of lust unbridled. As Ms. Meyer continues to profit off her reinterpretation of the genre (no stakes through the heart, missing mirror reflections, or “children of the night” in this version of the vamp), there will be filmmakers like Tomas Alfredson unafraid to truly take some cinematic risks. Let the Right One In succeeds because it’s not opposed to making its icon evil again. Ever since a certain reborn Catholic claimed Nosferatu as her own, the fanged fiend of our childhood nightmares has been remade into something akin to fantasy fodder. Now, how frightening is that?