EbertFest: “Let The Right One In”

VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD: “Let The Right One In” is probably a good movie to go in and see without any advance knowledge of the subject.

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Photo: Chaz and Roger Ebert introduce Carl Molinder, the producer of “Let The Right One In.”

Just when you think that horror is dead and that vampire movies are deader than undead, along comes “Let The Right One In.” This movie restored my childlike faith in a perfect world populated by unstoppable, remorseless mockeries of all of God’s creations.

It was a welcome throwback to good old-fashioned creepfest horror of the Seventies. Modern horror is utterly toothless. It’s torture porn. You walk into the theater where you watch attractive people make their way through a charnel-ey edition of Willy Wonka’s candy factory. You make a note never to backpack through Ecuador with horny teens without first checking with TripAdvisor to see if there are any secret colonies founded by former Third Reich senior officers along the route. And then you move on with your life.

True horror is inescapable. I exit the theater and (goddamn it) I’m in a world that’s not different enough from the one I just left. Any kid in a stroller I see on the way to my car could be Rosemary’s Baby.

Doubly-creepy: a happy ending. We know better, of course, but we can’t rap on the screen in the final shot of “Let The Right One In” and tell Oskar, a middle-schooler who from his limited perspective has been given everything a bullied adolescent could ever hope for, that he’s completely screwed.

In fact, “Let The Right One In” is probably less about vampires than it is about adolescence. You feel like you don’t fit in; you give up on acceptance and hope to find someone to be alone with. The other kids at school treat you like crap; you give up on trying to understand them, or learning to at least somehow share a school with the little bastards, and instead pray for them to be torn apart by a wild animal. Instead of trying to understand the world, you build a smaller world around yourself in which you feel as though you have more control.

If a vampire does not move next door, chances are excellent that you’ll learn all of the skills you need in order to become a functioning adult with a full range of skills and options for these problems.

If a vampire (apparently) your age does move next door…things get complicated. You now have someone to hang out with late at night. Bonus: he introduces himself to you with a slick, emo line like “We can’t be friends.” He trusts you with secrets, makes you feel normal, and the big bonus is that your comeuppance against the school bullies is far more immediate, tangible, satisfying, and profoundly bloody than simply showing up at your ten-year reunion with a better career and more hair.

Oskar gets his happy ending. At the start of the movie, he’s a latchkey kid who’s persecuted relentlessly at school and mostly left to himself by divorced parents who don’t seem to have any time for home. His life is so devoid of hope that his one major hobby is playing with knives. By the end, he’s running away from home with his new best friend, his “steady,” in a lightproof box next to him on the train.

He’s joyful for probably the first time in the whole movie. But he’s missed an important point about relationships with vampires. If a vampire tries to avoid drawing you too closely into his life, he’s your friend. If you only learned he was a vampire after he accepted your offer to become blood brothers and then you started to look at people’s throats with a new kind of interest, then he wants to share eternity with you.

Otherwise, you’re just the hired help.

As creepy and bloody as the rest of the movie is, “Let The Right One In”‘s ending tops it all. Fifty years later, Oskar will be the creepy old man living with the twelve-year-old boy, whose role is to go out alone at night with a black leather bag and an empty gallon jug and not come back until his hands are bloody and the jug is full.

The third way to truly creep me out? Make me feel respect or even sympathy for evil people. You can’t condone Hannibal Lecter’s actions, not when he rips a prison guard’s face off and wears it like a mask, no, not one tiny bit. But you respect him. And there’s something about Eli the vampire, stuck at 12 years old forever, that evokes pity. This is no dignified, stately Count. It’s essentially an unbathed parentless kid with no fixed home and no real future, apart from limitless time.

I truly feel sorry for Eli, even knowing what he’s done to about eight people in the movie and what sort of life to which he’s selfishly doomed poor Oskar. It seems as though Eli is stuck at age 12 in both body and emotional development. I can think of no worse hell than spending 200 years with the same limited understanding of the world and skills for getting by that I had when I was in junior high.

Note: “Let The Right One In” is not to be confused with the 2000 Jonathan Lipnicki film, “The Little Vampire. (Trailer)

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16 thoughts on “EbertFest: “Let The Right One In””

  1. Interestingly, I just watched this movie last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. I watched it on DVD but noted it was available via NetFlix Instant Play for online viewing as well.

    It wasn’t as clear to me that Eli was a male. You have some sort of inside information or observations you can share that led you to that conclusion?

  2. I see that the majority of reviews identify Eli as a girl. But there’s that line where Oskar asks Eli to go steady and Eli replies “You know I’m not a girl, right?”

    I think the gender of Eli is meant to be vague. Or maybe inoperative. In trying to get a clear answer to this online, I learned that in the original novel, Eli was castrated by vampire-hunters a few lifetimes ago. I’m going with “Male.”

  3. Ah, I interpreted that line in the context of being a vampire, and thus not a girl. I read elsewhere that they re dubbed the female actors voice in the original film to make it more raspy and maintain ambiguity about the sex. I guess we are intentionally supposed to be guessing and discussing it like this!

    Haven’t read the novel, though I may even after seeing the movie. Between this story and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (book I really enjoyed), I’m impressed with the stuff coming out of Sweden recently.

    Thanks for the reviews!

  4. Andy, I think by saying, “I’m not a girl” Eli was saying she’s not young. Two points: she is revealed (quickly) as an old lady when she holds Oskar down in the hallway, and Oskar catches a brief glimpse of her scarred girl-parts when she’s changing clothes.

    My idea: the creepy old man who acts as caretaker is Eli’s son….

  5. It really doesn’t matter except for the creepiness factor of the Older man and the apparent young girl thing, but I believe that Eli was female, and that the “you know I’m not a girl, right?” was a description of her situation; More “I’m not human” or “You know I’m not 12 years old” than a gender thing.

    I really liked this film, it reminded me of my youth during Minnesota winters in the late ’70s. Cold & bleak

  6. Gender aside, I think the movie was interesting for what it DIDN’T show. The confrontation scene in the pool shot from under hte water was fantastic, scary, violent and beautiful all at the same time – all with out showing that much gore. Also stellar performances by the two kids…

  7. > in the original novel, Eli was castrated by vampire-hunters a few lifetimes
    > ago. I’m going with “Male.”

    … and the movie gave us what appeared to be a very, very brief glimpse of her privates (when she was putting on Oskar’s mother’s dress), that indicated scars instead of genitals.

  8. Keith – Good point. That pool scene was fantastic as you see the feet retreating across the pool behind him and can envision the chaos above. I think it sets an interesting dynamic between the characters as he knows how violent she can be, but never has to witness it first-hand as he is underwater or can turn away (like he did in the apartment).

  9. Eric Isaacson, Good point on that strange shot of the vampire getting dressed. I suppose The novel may well be worth reading, also for some clarification of the scene between the father and the other man during Oscar’s visit. Oscar reminded me of the character of the same name in The Tin Drum which also deals w/ not aging.

    Andy, have you ever thought of a second career as a film reviewer? Great post.

  10. The movie intentionally keeps it vague with the shot of the old woman and the brief glimpse of Eli’s private parts. According to the novel, Eli was castrated when he was a young boy. He is a “male” but not really. He is an “it,” an un-dead which gives the line “You know I am not a girl” even more depth.

    The AV Club has a good comparison of the book and the movie, in which this point ,and many others, are discussed: http://www.avclub.com/articles/let-the-right-one-in,25503/

    Interesting fact, in the book Eli is referred to as “she” until the castration is revealed, from then on, it’s “he.”

  11. The blogosphere was a buzz discussing the DVD release of this movie.
    The American DVD/Blueray release’s English and Spanish subtitles are, for some bizarre reason, NOT the same subtitles used in the film that came around Art Houses last year. These new subtitles are less rich and really rob the film of a lot of its character.

    The American Distributer Magnolia has released a proper version. Look on the back of the DVD for “subtitles English (Theatrical), and you’re good to go.

    For more, and to see comparisons of old subtitle shots vs. new subtitle shots Google: “let the right one in” subtitles.

    And yea, this movie was just great. I saw it just after having to watch Twilight and well, one can just imagine.

  12. I find it amazing that anyone would have any doubt about Eli’s gender after seeing the film. The scene where he is putting on Oskar’s mother’s dress clearly shows scars where a penis and testicles would be, and no vagina. And he says “I’m not a girl.” Duh.

    Anyway, absolutely amazing film.

  13. Regarding Eli’s gender in the movie, it is absolutely vague. In the book it’s very clear that Eli was a boy. From an interview with the author it likewise clear the screen play is significantly different from the book. And, very importantly, the film was the director’s creative journey re-imagining the book. Something the author completely supported and deeply respected.

    I don’t think freeze frame analysis of the scene with Eli getting dressed would prove anything. It’s another open ended question left for the viewer to ponder. I thought it was the scarred genital area of a female. It very much reminded me of the scarring left by a bladder operation.

    Regardless, I have a difficult time believing that a film which poses so many questions as it unwinds would stoop to such a literal answer for the question, “I’m not a girl.”

    I though it was the least jarring way Eli could communicate to Oskar that she wasn’t actually human. Otherwise Eli would say, “Would you like me if I was a boy?”

  14. In response to:

    “Dave Stolte says:

    April 27th, 2009 at 11:01 am
    Andy, I think by saying, “I’m not a girl” Eli was saying she’s not young. Two points: she is revealed (quickly) as an old lady when she holds Oskar down in the hallway, and Oskar catches a brief glimpse of her scarred girl-parts when she’s changing clothes.

    My idea: the creepy old man who acts as caretaker is Eli’s son….”

    -Eli became a vampire at 12. And the book says Eli was castrated so how can that caretaker be the son of Eli? I guess its not impossible but it would have to be implied somehow in the book, which i dont think it did.

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