Sucking in rhythm and sorrow

I saw Twilight a couple weeks ago and Let the Right One In this evening, and frankly I’m panicking. Why? Because we are raising a generation of children that is woefully unprepared for the vampire threat.

Children, vampires are not your friends. They’re not your soulmates. They’re not your first love. They don’t glitter in the sunlight. They don’t solve Rubik’s Cubes and send you messages in Morse code. They will not protect you from bullies, runaway vans, or other vampires. They will not whisk you away from your coldly beautiful northern-latitude environment to be united with them forever. They will bite you on the neck and suck your blood out until you die. I really can’t stress that last point enough, children. The only thing to do when you run into the bloodsucking undead is to grab yourself a good sharp wooden stake and drive it straight through their hearts. This is because, as I said, vampires are not your friends.

I’ll be taking up a collection to purchase and mail copies of The Lost Boys to every 11-year-old in America shortly. For now, I suppose I’ll just have to talk about the movies, dangerous pro-vampire propaganda though they both may be.

I don’t run screaming from (or screaming at) Twilight the way a lot of horror fans do. The Missus really liked the books, for two reasons I think: 1) She enjoyed their vampiric mythos/hierarchy/taxonomy; 2) She enjoyed how they depicted the ideal teen-girl romance. A beautiful boy who loves you more than life itself, won’t have sex with you until you’re married, and never needs to sleep so he can stay up in your room all night holding you and talking? Sign the 16-year-old Missus up! And indeed I can appreciate those aspects of the story as well. True love among teenagers really doesn’t have a whole lot of pop-culture support at this point–god knows I could have used some when I was a kid–and there’s something, I dunno, rebellious about the notion that this girl knows her heart better than anyone else. Yeah, I suppose there’s a creepy Mormon subtext to all this, but the fact that its vampires we’re talking about will hopefully get some undergarments in a twist anyway.

I haven’t read the books so I can’t speak to how well the film does or doesn’t get it, but one thing it does very well is take advantage of gorgeous Pacific Northwest scenery. Watching our tormented young vampire bound around amid the Washington rainforests, all those rich greens and blues, makes you wonder why more movies can’t be set there. It also does high school pretty well: aside from the two leads, or really maybe just Robert Pattinson’s Edward Cullen, most of the kids you see are convincingly teenaged, awkwardly but not miserably coming to terms with becoming their own individual people. There’s a lot of nervous joking and showing-off of boobs and things like that. Credit director Catherine Hardwicke’s experience on Thirteen.

It’s not a terribly good movie for all that, though. To be blunt, Pattinson and Kristin Stewart as Bella deliver most of their lines like they’re barely holding in a bowel movement–every word feels forced out through clenched teeth and short breath. Bella is an aggressively uninteresting person, with the possible exception of her endemic clumsiness, but even that just makes her seem more Mary Sue-ish as half the guys in the high school, not to mention the drop-dead gorgeous vampire, fall all over her. I’ve heard complaints (including from the Missus, who found the movie very heavy-handed given that nearly everyone who saw it would have read the books and didn’t need things hammered home) that the romance and attendant “I’m a vampire” confession come on too fast, but I didn’t notice it. For me the big pacing problem was with the antagonist vampires, who have a few foreshadowing attacks, then basically come out of nowhere (in the middle of a vampire-family baseball game, of all things), upend the entire story, and get dispatched within the space of about 20 minutes total during the latter third of the film. It felt like the filmmakers just threw up their hands and spliced it in at random. The whole project feels a bit like the work of people who aren’t quite sure they’re gonna pull this thing off.

Let the Right One In, on the other hand, is a film that feels like every frame was considered and labored over. That leads to an extremely laconic pace–you really feel every one of its 114 minutes–but, at its best moments, a feeling like you’re watching No Country for Old Men with vampires instead of Mexicans and snow instead of desert. Like that film, and Twilight for that matter, it makes excellent use of its unique locale, in this case the snows of Sweden. The visual emphasis on the contrast between black night or gray day and white snow is constant and engrossing, and the opening-credits snowfall alone is a hall-of-fame image. I think that many of the memorable horror movies of recent years have been exceptionally well made and lovely as films, from The Descent‘s opening sequence and use of reds to I Am Legend, Cloverfield, War of the Worlds, and 28 Days/Weeks Later‘s use of ruined and abandoned cityscapes to The Mist‘s handheld immediacy to The Ruins fashion photography-derived cinematography, but this is the loveliest, the filmiest, of the lot. It is, in the words of Ricky Jay in Boogie Nights, a real film.

And lest you think it’s all landscapes and creatively framed portraits, there’s a plethora of memorable horror images to be found here as well. Indeed, the care given to making the non-horror material so beautiful seems to reinforce the similar attention paid to crafting unnerving scares, and vice versa. The murder set pieces are chillingly blasé, with a tinge of Hostel matter-of-factness. The few overt moments of vampire supernaturalism are subtle and freaky enough that at first I wasn’t even sure I’d seen them correctly. Gore is far from constant, but it’s creative and hard to shake when it does show up. The film has the power to shock using the basic tenets of vampire lore, which is saying something given how shopworn such things can be. And when it shifts gears into sequences involving more run-of-the-mill violence, particularly in the final scene with the bullies, it’s just as disturbing. The only unsuccessful moment involves an attack by a pride of CGI cats that stands out for its obvious special-effectness in a film where the digital work is frequently so subtle as to be in the “did I just see what I thought I saw?” category–it also has countless similar scenes of cute animals attacking people for laffs in shitty post-There’s Something About Mary comedy trailers for the past decade going against it. over. But even there I’m basically okay with it, since it jibes with the lore and since compared to what usually happens to cats and dogs and things in horror movies these days it’s refreshingly good-natured.

The visuals are deployed in service of a rewardingly complex story about a bullied tween and the girl next door, and there really isn’t any monkeying around about whether or not she’s really a vampire. We learn pretty damn quick that she sure is, which I again thought refreshing–after all, no one goes to a vampire movie like it’s a mystery. The pleasure and complexity of the film is following the basic plot as it intersects with three prominent and nuanced subplots.

First there’s the vampire girl Eli’s adult caretaker, who by the time we meet him is old and increasingly bad at his job of murdering people and supplying Eli with their blood. (Reminiscent of Mahogany in “The Midnight Meat Train,” even in methodology.) He’s a sad figure, but the film surprised me with how far it was willing to take that sadness, how furious it seemed to ultimately be about it. And bless its heart, it never comes right out and says what we all suspect about how his relationship with Eli began. It hangs there like a reproach against the film’s own resolution.

Then there’s the saga of Eli’s victims. Normally horror stories that take a sympathetic approach to their monsters “blame the victim,” as it were, showing the humans who the monsters hunt and then who eventually hunt the monster to be provincial, small-minded, and just as evil in their own way as the creatures they’re fighting. The humans are the real monsters, etc. Not so here, even when all the cues we’re receiving from their age and their rough-edged ways and their drinking and smoking signal us to expect otherwise. All told, the lives of three perfectly good-hearted people who genuinely care about each other are cruelly snuffed out by Eli. She’s not a bwa-ha-ha cacklingly evil vampire in the Dracula/’Salem’s Lot mode, she’s portrayed as someone whose well-being we should care about, but neither she nor the film make any bones about the fact that she murders innocent people to survive. As a result the movie plays with audience identification in the same unexpected, effective fashion as, say, The Wicker Man. Who are we rooting for, and what does that say about us?

Finally there’s our hero, Oskar, and the bullies who bedevil him. There’s plenty of comeuppance dealt out in all the right places, and it’s always pretty satisfying…for a time. But one bully cries, another is clearly miserable with his role as a Judas goat, and the ringleader is equally clearly doing unto others what has been done unto him. When their time comes, I snorted a “serves ‘em right” laugh or two, but I didn’t laugh for long.

But even beyond the bully storyline proper, what they do is give Oskar a reason to do what he does and be how he is. Something that the bullying has done to him psychologically prepares him to fall into the arms of Eli, if you will–that’s something we never see with Bella and Edward. At age 12, an outcast clinging to fleeting moments of genuine happiness with his divorced parents, a hapless victim of children who are perhaps even more miserable than him and certainly less redeemable, an inability to see beyond the end of the school year…you can see why he would care so deeply for this little girl who shows him kindness, lets him in on her secrets. For that matter you can see why the reverse would be true (provided you’re willing to grant vampires that luxury, which for some reason seems to be a whole lot less of a problem for horror fans with this movie than with stuff by Stephenie Meyer or Anne Rice). Perpetually 12 years old, trapped in a relationship long past its expiration date, exposed daily to suffering, possibly the victim of abuse herself in some long-ago life…she needs a kindred spirit. If Bella and Edward’s relationship is a romantic ideal, Oskar and Eli’s is one grounded in personal psychological shortcomings and damage, as well as tenderness and vulnerability and play. Their relationship feels real. Doomed, sad, and real.

4 Responses to Sucking in rhythm and sorrow

  1. Steven says:

    I think I may be one of the few people who couldn’t get into Let The Right One In, and I haven’t seen Twilight, and this is still one of my favourite pieces of writing on horror this year. Way to get it in under the wire, man.

  2. Thanks, Steven! I can’t think of many people that would mean more to me coming from.

    Shit, one thing I meant to put into this essay and forgot is that Meyer, and by extension the film, took out everything in vampire lore that would force her to work hard to write a vampire story. Mirrors, shadows, daylight, religious stuff, smelling bad, graves and tombs…you need to think about how vampires “pass” while still needing to worry about that stuff outing them. Get rid of it and you don’t.

  3. Sean B says:

    Now see, this is why I don’t do movie reviews; you just made my piece about “Let the Right One In” look like a sandwich made with week-old thanksgiving turkey and the butt-ends of the bread. Snazzy work, Mr. Collins.

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