* * * Spoiler Alert * * *
For some reason, one of our readers took me to task for reviewing the film, Le tout nouveau testament. One of the titles he suggested I review instead was Let Me In (2010), a British-American film directed by Matt Reeves. In the mean time, a good friend of mine told me about a film he had just watched called Let the Right One In (2008), a Swedish film written and directed by John Ajvide Lundqvist. When Pip informed me they were based on the same story, I was curious why there were two similar films produced in such close succession.
I had hoped to find a clue in some interview, but Matt Reeves’ explanation was not forthcoming. He knew that the Swedish film was about to be released. Did he not think there would be a dubbed English version in due course? The main motivation of the story revolves around a 12-year-old boy being bullied and hoping—but being too afraid—to get his revenge. In a roundtable interview, Reeves explains:
Sure. Well, I was bullied. And I grew up at that time, and my parents went through a very painful divorce. And I identified with that sense of being incredibly confused and the sense of humiliation and the sense of isolation. There’s tremendous shame with being bullied. I think there’s a level at which you think that there’s a reason that you’re being singled out, that you’re being chosen. As a kid, I was always mistaken for a girl. -Reprinted by Michael Leader, November 4, 2010
A telling difference in the two versions of the film was that Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) was called “piggy” (such an insult does not suggest fatness as it does in America) while Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) was called a “little girl” and in the latter film the violence of the bullying was more explicitly violent and humiliating.
Apart from a teaser in Reeves’ version which the filmmaker must have felt was necessary to interest an American audience in the movie, the two films follow the story almost word for word. The story begins in the early 1980s with an older man and a young girl—also appearing to be 12 years old—moving in next door to a boy who lives with his divorcing mother. In Reeves’ version, the mother is especially religious. Those observing this scene are supposed to assume the man is her father with the peculiar fact that the girl is walking around with bare feet even though it is outside.
In Lundqvist’s novel and film, the girl is called Eli (pronounced “Ellie” and played by Lina Leandersson) and in Reeves’, it is Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz). They first meet when the boy is sitting in the courtyard. She appears behind him and immediately tells him that they cannot be friends. He is playing with a Rubik’s Cube and invites her to try it. He comments that she smells funny, apparently a trait of vampires who need to feed. Due to some bad luck, her caregiver was not able to secure her some blood and she has to fend for herself this night. He gives her the puzzle to play with and later finds it sitting in the courtyard, mystified that she solved it so easily.
Despite the girl’s admonition, a bond does seem to form. Her caregiver has noticed this and strenuously advises her not to see the boy anymore.
Since the two live next door to each other, a kind of Morse Code is created so they can communicate through the wall. Still unaware of the girl’s true nature, the boy offers her some candy. At first, she declines, but she wants the boy to like her and tries one piece. It does not agree with her and she is momentarily sick.
The Swedish film is more subtle in its presentation which is why I favor it slightly. In fact, the revelation of what is happening is all implied and depends on our own understanding of vampire lore. Lundqvist’s version does not even mention the word vampire throughout the film. No stranger to violence, the girl advises the boy that he needs to hit back hard, even though he is outnumbered. All the while, he fantasizes in the privacy of his bedroom that he confronts his aggressors with a knife.
On a field trip, the bullies once again threaten him and tell him he will end up in the frozen pond. To defend himself, he finds a stick. When confronted, he explains that it he will use it to hit back. Given his track record, the other boys do not believe him and he suddenly lashes out and strikes the leader on the side of his head, giving him a serious injury. The adults unaware of the context of this attack come very close to suspending him. Upon his return home, he explains to Eli/Abby what he has done and she says she is proud of him. After another night of feeding, the girl appears on Oskar/Owen’s windowsill and asks to be let in. The boy is half asleep, but she explains that she must be invited in—another vampire trait which the boy does not immediately catch on to. She disrobes and gets into bed with him. She still has blood on her face so she tells him not to look. He comments that she is ice cold and wonders why she is naked. She asks if he finds that gross but he does not object. He decides to ask if she wants to go steady but she does not really understand. She finally agrees based on the promise that there will be no basic change in their relationship and it is a way to get him to like her.
In the Reeves interview, it was explained that the decision to change the title in the English version of Lundqvists’ novel was because the publisher though the American audience would not be sophisticated enough to understand the metaphor of the original title. New editions have since changed the title back to Let the Right One In. Of course, the correct title offers a greater depth of meaning. Not only does it refer to the requirement that vampires be invited in, but also refers to the risks of inviting a new person into one’s intimate personal life.
Meanwhile, the caregiver has made a serious mistake and his capture is imminent. To avoid being identified, he spills acid all over his face, a shocking clue to the his devotion to the vampire girl. Was his advice to the girl more about keeping her out of trouble or was it a form of jealousy? Eli/Abby learns he is in the hospital under top security. She finds out his room location and visits him from the windowsill. Because of his injuries, he cannot speak and invite her in. In one last act of love, he extends his own neck out the window so he may offer her one last meal.
This turn of events has brought her closer to the boy and she decides she must risk revealing what she is. He hesitantly accepts her but not until she makes a most extraordinary leap of faith. She visits his home and asks to be invited in. He teases her about this ritual and asks if there is some barrier preventing her from entering. She walks in without the invitation and shortly begins convulsing in pain, blood seeping out. The boy rushes over and urgently tells her she is welcome to come in.
He lets her take a shower to get cleaned up and offers her one of his mother’s dresses. Now Oskar/Owen begins to assume the role of helping the girl get food. In both films, a man investigating the peculiar happenings of the town is lured into the girl’s home and ambushed. The boy is shocked by the viciousness of the attack and walks out in distress. She comes out afterward and tries to show her gratitude with a little affection.
Eli/Abby, not being able to stay in any one place too long, informs the boy that she must leave soon. In the mean time, the older brother of the lead bully is planning revenge and manages to draw the coach away from the swimming pool where Oskar/Owen is working out. He is told that if he can stay underwater for three minutes, he will be spared, if not, he will have his eyes gouged out. We then see him underwater with the brother’s hand firmly grasping his hair while he does his best. Suddenly, there is a lot of commotion and we see bloody severed body parts. The boy emerges to see that he has been rescued by the vampire girl.
In the final scene, the boy is sitting on a train accompanied by a large trunk on the way to a new hunting ground, the two communicating with each other with the knocks and scratches established earlier in the film.
I know I am not the first to make this observation, but the whole development of the vampire idea had as much to do with the terrors of sexuality as with that of violent murder and the metaphor of consumption. This plays very well in this film since there is ongoing tension about the ambiguity of the relationship. Presumably when one is infected, one keeps one’s appearance forever thus Eli/Abby is both a little girl and yet very old. But despite her long life, she still has some naivete regarding matters of love since she would not have had much occasion to practice and learn. There is also a strong accent on the morality of a vampire’s violent lifestyle versus the hateful bullying that children can inflict. A society might frown on a vampire feeding on its citizens, but is it really any worse than the psychological trauma and humiliation that bullied young people suffer? So it is ironic that Oskar/Owen should find affection not from the warm-blooded denizens of his neighborhood, but from the icy embrace of a vampire who understands and appreciates him.