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Sharp Teeth in a Dull Town

In the Swedish vampire flick Let the Right One In, the suburban setting is part of the scare.



LET THE RIGHT ONE IN sss Directed by Tomas Alfredson Written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on his novel With Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar, Henrik Dahl, and Karin Bergquist.

Film historians call the German expressionist classic Nosferatu (1922) the first real vampire movie: an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, it established the screen mythology of the shape-shifting bloodsucker and even added a key twist with its climactic scene of the vampire being destroyed by sunlight. But a more important innovation of its director, F.W. Murnau, may have been his combination of supernatural lore and naturalistic setting. His immediate model, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), featured weirdly distorted, flagrantly two-dimensional sets, but Murnau, always highly attuned to his characters' relationship to their environment, shot much of his film on location in the Carpathian Mountains and in Lübeck and Wismar, German port towns on the Baltic Sea. This combination of the worldly and the otherworldly yielded some of the film's most hair-raising moments—who could forget the ratlike Count Orlok hauling his coffin through the arch of the Wismar Wassertor?

Eight decades later, the vampire genre is more popular than ever, partly because writers have dragged the undead out of their remote, neogothic settings and into ever more familiar locales. In the 70s, TV and movie vampires began turning up in modern-day London (Dracula A.D. 1972), Los Angeles (Blacula), Las Vegas (The Night Stalker), suburban Pittsburgh (Martin), and small-town New England (Salem's Lot). Bloodsuckers invaded Manhattan in Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983) and Abel Ferrara's The Addiction (1995), not to mention the suburban everytown of Sunnydale, California, in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie (1992) and TV series (1997-2003). And the trend continues with such recent projects as the HBO series True Blood, set in a hick town in Louisiana, and Catherine Hardwicke's feature Twilight, set in a hick town in Washington state.

But the juxtaposition of vampire lore and mundane reality is especially powerful in the Swedish import Let the Right One In, which made its Chicago debut at the film festival last month and opened commercially here last week. Set in a dank suburb of Stockholm, it proves once again that horror stories can be even more frightening when exposed to a little daylight.

The movie was adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel, whose earliest pages establish the little community of Blackeberg as a sort of modernistic wasteland. A planned community in the middle of nowhere, built in the early 50s around a subway stop, it offers both everything and nothing: "There was a town center. There were spacious playgrounds allotted to children. Large green spaces around the corner. There were many pedestrian-only walking paths.... Only one thing was missing. A past. At school, the children didn't get to do any special projects about Blackeberg's history because there wasn't one.... Where the three-storied apartment buildings now stood there had been only forest before. You were beyond the grasp of the mysteries of the past; there wasn't even a church. Nine thousand inhabitants and no church. That tells you something about the modernity of the place, its rationality. It tells you something of how free they were from the ghosts of history and of terror. It explains in part how unprepared they were."

Blackeberg is an especially gray and hopeless landscape for Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), the frail, blond 12-year-old at the center of the movie. Tormented at school by a trio of smug bullies, scolded at home by his working mother, all but forgotten by his absentee father, Oskar lives in one of those apartment buildings where there was only forest before. Its snow-covered courtyard is cold, still, and silent. When he's not anesthetizing himself with TV or endlessly twisting his Rubik's cube, Oskar pores over his secret scrapbook of news clippings about bloody murder cases. He's desperately in need of a friend, and to his relief and gratitude, one arrives in the person of Eli (Lina Leandersson), a pallid, soulful, raven-haired girl who, along with a lumpish middle-aged man one takes to be her father (Per Ragnar), moves into the apartment next door.

Director Tomas Alfredson shot some scenes in Blackeberg, some in neighboring Racksta, and the majority farther north in Lulea (coincidentally another port town on the Baltic Sea). But the architecture all has the same blocky postwar feel—dull, modern, and institutional, all clean lines and punishing right angles. The apartment building looms over the desolate courtyard like a penitentiary, and in their first nocturnal encounters, Oskar and Eli perch atop a jungle gym shaped like an irregular stack of cubes. It's an apt structure given that their friendship is founded on the Rubik's cube Oscar carries around. Eli has never seen one before, which strikes Oskar as odd, but she demonstrates a near-magical acuity for solving it. It's a nicely underplayed visual metaphor as well, the two children sitting amid a stack of cubes as they initiate a relationship that itself becomes something of a puzzle box.

Eventually the visual tension between these orderly, geometrical spaces and the savagery lurking beyond them begins to drive the film, generating some of its most dramatic moments. (The spoilers start here, so stop reading now if that's a problem.) The older man living with Eli turns out to be not her father but her slave, charged with finding her fresh blood; in one chilling shot he appears in the rectangular windows of the school gymnasium, grimly surveying the young boys on the basketball court. After he winds up in the hospital, Eli comes to visit him and is chased out of the building by the night nurse; in a hair-raising long shot, Alfredson frames the nurse against the vertical lines of the building while, behind her back, Eli's shadowy figure glides up the facade like a spider. And when Eli pounces on a victim inside a bathroom, the killing is glimpsed from the hallway, the clean white tiles contrasting with the victim's arm as he reaches out and smears the door frame with blood.

As a vampire movie Let the Right One In owes a particular debt to Martin (1977), George A. Romero's melancholy tale of a young man whose thirst for blood is tied up in his longing for female intimacy. Romero shot the film in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a heavily Catholic working-class suburb of Pittsburgh, and though the town is much older than Blackeberg, its drab streets and rundown houses have the same oppressive feel. Martin is emerging from adolescence and Oskar is entering it, but both suffer from its alienation and aching loneliness, and in both movies those emotions are powerfully fused with the character's environment. After all, the teenage years are when you first begin to rebel against your surroundings. In the final scene of Let the Right One In, Oskar has escaped from Blackeberg, riding a train out of town with Eli hidden beside him (in a box, appropriately enough). The ending is more horrifying than liberating, though, because no matter how bad his past has been, their future together is a guaranteed nightmare.v


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