Eli in Let The Right One In

Why did 2008 demand vampires? As we sit mired in Twilight, the most insipid and insidious pop cultural phenomenon in recent years, I keep coming back to that question. I brought Robert Pattinson to the festival I programmed this year with a much smaller film he was in, and spent months of my life dealing with his preliminary needs and the maelstrom of attention the festival started to draw from a legion of teenage girls and, even more horrifyingly, their mothers. The psychosexual connection they felt to these characters, and their quietly Mormon story of lust and caution, only served to bring to life a fear I had when watching another “vampire” film back in May: boy, I hope they don’t remake this with pretty teenagers.

I walked into Let the Right One In at Tribeca Film Festival, I only knew it as the “Swedish vampire love story” and that a good friend said it was the best thing they were playing. Tomas Alfredson’s film is the story of Oskar, a young and lost kid trying to navigate a world of bullies and loneliness. Into his life appears Eli, one of those sad and dark girls that are the first crushes of every emo band’s lead singer. He finds connection and even redemption in her friendship, and finds in himself control for his rage and direction for his emotion. But Eli is a vampire, and her need for Oskar is bound with her need for a new keeper, a new human to be her connection with the world.

These stories couldn’t be more different, but the some of their intent is the same. They are repurposing the coming of age tale with the “twist” of the vampire mythos, but to radically different ends. In Stephanie Meyer’s cycle vampirism is the vehicle for her abstinence message, but it also is the ultimate turn-on. As Lucy Mangan pointed out so well, her Bella needs the strength of a man to save her from herself, not her vampire boyfriend. It’s a return to the puritanical concept of the weak willed and tempting woman, the Eve there to corrupt her Adam.

Sexuality is built inherently into Let The Right One In as well, but shifted down several years. Oskar is 12 and Eli will forever look like a girl that age. Instead of Meyer’s permanently beautiful teens, adding a fountain of youth layer to the appeal of being undead, the Swedish film is dealing with a child and a creature that for all intents and purposes seems to be one.
When our lead in Twilight wants to be a vampire, it seems to be almost the logical choice: who wouldn’t want to stay in love and beautiful for the rest of your life? Oskar never has that option with Eli, he is posed at the beginning of adolescence and she will never progress past it. He needs saving from himself and from everything, but they have no pretty inventions of narrative to let them escape the moral choice Oskar will have to make make. His tragedy is knowing that he will have to grow old, die and spend his life killing in order to be with her. Yet she is the first thing to give him reason to keeping living.

And so here we have our tales: the story of a boy who finds a redemption that will ultimately destroy him versus the story of pretty teenagers engaged in pretty activities and battling against false challenges. The films work with the same set of blended genre tropes, and both aim to entertain. But the American film wants little more than to provide of fantasy of escape, cute guys and flying and the tops of trees and a relationship that is played as pure but borders on abuse. The Swedish film poses a question: is Oskar better off aimless and alone or in love but with a horrifying responsibility?

I’m still not sure what it was about 2008 that needed stories about vampires, but perhaps I don’t because the question has a false pretext: between the pop culture phenomenon and Sweden’s Oscar candidate (no way to get around that pun), neither one dealt with the myth of the vampire or tried to expand the textual history of their tales. What they wanted was to say something about love and abuse: whether they knew they were doing it or not.

(A post script: Let The Right One In‘s proper US remake will be out in 2010, and is being developed by Matt Reeves, director of Cloverfield. I can see the casting call now: “like the Twilight stars, but older and prettier”)