[24 March 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It was one of last year’s best films - foreign or otherwise. It was unceremoniously snubbed for Oscar consideration (favoritism found Sweden submitting another, lesser effort). It’s been praised as one of the best genre titles in the last ten years, and definitely one of the best vampire films in quite a long time. So how does Magnolia, the company responsible for releasing the mandatory home video version of the critically acclaimed Let the Right One In respond to the challenge of maintaining the magic in Tomas Alfredson subtle masterpiece? They mangle the subtitle translation so badly that some of the most important elements of the narrative are damaged - sometimes, irreparably.
A bit of background. Most fans found this film as part of the annual awards season struggle for recognition. Critics groups, like the ones yours truly belongs to, received a screener copy of the movie, complete with a set of burned in translations and the typical “do not duplicate” warnings. No bonus features, no anamorphic widescreen transfers - just the movie and its many allegorical delights. As with many year end evaluations, Let the Right One In snuck up silently, taking over many a press organization with its indelible combination of visual flair, storytelling finesse, and premise fulfillment. It was a literal joy to behold, a smart horror film that wore its metaphoric menace on its brittle, beautiful sleeves.
Of course, newfound devotees were looking forward to the day when the DVD would be released. Even more so, individuals unable to see the film during its festival runs and Best Of ballyhoo could now cuddle up with a copy of the title and be whisked away to a frozen world of suspicions, innuendo, and sly, sinister terror. Initial reviews of the package were favorable, if not completely enamored of the lack of added content, and few mentioned problems with the transfer or subtitles. Then a website known as Icons of Fright.com began a campaign of complaining. Some chalked it up to fanboy geek grumbling. Others argued that the author of the post was making a mountain out of a multicultural molehill. Once the evidence was made available, however, the truth threw everyone for a loop.
As anyone who reads the image-laden article can see, Magnolia has made a mess of the Let the Right One In translation. Certain important scenes have been robbed of all their context, while slight word changes turn characters from martyrs to meaningless. It’s worth the time to traipse over the site and check it out. The modifications will stun you. More importantly, they beg a question that has plagued most film fans since the VCR made movies a viable source of personal ownership and enjoyment. How reverent must a studio be when distributing a foreign title to US viewers? For decades, supporters have laughed at poorly dubbed martial arts epics and the awkwardly worded comic conversations. This is especially true of horror films which, notoriously, have suffered through numerous video translations and debates over the proper source language (Dario Argento, for instance, shoots all his films without sound then dubs in the region appropriate track).
So it’s really no surprise that the DVD of Let the Right One In suffers from this flaw. It happens all the time. But what is stunning is the high profile nature of such a slight. When a Lucio Fulci gore-a-thon or a forgotten bit of Shaw Brothers archeology get short shrift in the transfer department, it’s par for the course. After all, no upstart distributor is going to take the time to turn a washed out, mono mixed bit of exploitation into a top rate, reference quality presentation - and no one is suggesting that Magnolia didn’t have the best interests of Let the Right One In and its admirers at heart. But when you see the pitiful excuse for subtitles here, it does make one wonder (and to make matters worse, there are rumors that the Blu-ray offers the proper dialogue, over the English dub version of the film, Huh?).
Let’s extrapolate for a moment. Studio frequently announce the release of “Unrated” or “Director’s Cut” DVDs, including material in the movie that wasn’t in the original theatrical version. Typically, there’s more blood, breasts, and borderline unnecessary dialogue scenes, all earning the special label because the MPAA didn’t have a chance to evaluate the print as pass their questionable judgment. Remember, the tag “Unrated” is different from “Not Rated”. The former once had the approval of the suspect ratings board. The other didn’t even bother to show up and screen it. This is significant because marketers want you to believe you are getting something “better” when you buy the non-theatrical edition of a favorite film. The truth is, however, that you’re only getting something different.
So why not label the new Let the Right One In in the same manner? Companies specializing in foreign films - like Criterion - frequently advertise that a newly remastered classic also contains “new translation by…”. If you don’t mind letting buyers know that you’ve altered a movie visually, or plotwise, why not mention the fact that this newest release will featuring a brand new interpretation of the script. In the Icons of Fright piece, the writer suggests that money may be involved in Magnolia’s decision. Rights over the original subtitles (and the comparative cost of creating new ones) may have been the biggest factor in why we have this new version. And isn’t that just like the TV on DVD debate, when musical cues and era-appropriate songs were replaced by different tunes in order to avoid massing monetary payouts?
Such a decision, naturally could lead to a few disgruntled customers, but wouldn’t such anger be better than the current belief that Magnolia just didn’t care about the release? And there’s the sneaking suspicion that, beyond all the initial hand wringing and kvetching, many in the moviegoing public wouldn’t know about the change, and therefore wouldn’t care that they’re missing the movie as it was meant to be seen. While it sounds cynical, filmmaking and the distribution of same is still a business, and driven by commerce as well as art. While it’s clear that Let the Right One In deserves better, we can at least be glad it’s available at all. Every year, hundreds of worthy offerings never even get a chance to shine for an audience eager for something new. Here’s hoping Magnolia answers the communal call and corrects the problem. As of now, they have definitely let the wrong one out.