Image of Vampires in an Atypical Horror Film
How it works
Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008) is a vampire horror film focusing on the unique solidarity between two misfit pre-pubescents: Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a psychologically disturbed, lonely boy, and Eli (Lina Leandersson), an equally disaffected vampire. The film foregrounds the valorized allure and unsettling horror of their love in a world of sameness and difference. The film’s melancholic sublimity is effectuated by what I term its “deconstructive indifference,” which refers to how it disarticulates the natural and inevitable tendencies of vampire horror films about love, particularly the dominance of narcissism and nostalgia, and conditions its possible resignification through empowerment, play, and even jouissance.
The film’s indifference or disinterest is linked with seriality or remediation, where the focus is on processes and experiences that frame relations of kinship and proximity, which falls outside the scope of relations of sameness and difference. I contend that the masterful portrayal of the indifference to the world of sameness and difference by love, and indifference of the world of sameness and difference to love, serves to distinguish Let the Right One In from other vampire horror films and the genre motifs flowing from them by conditioning the possibility of the film being a radically new genre open to deconstruction.
One way Let the Right One In attains a meta-awareness that enables it to be a radically new genre is through its energetic resistance to the structuralist equation of binaries with differences, as well as the post-structuralist identification of wholes with totalities. It reconfigures a structuralist conception of a binary as differences in a non-totalistic whole. The film depicts binaries as continuously moving between differences and identities, without depending on a hypostasized, non-relational structuring principle. They are nominal since they only represent differing emphases within different embodiments or merely different aspects of a complex, functioning film. Let the Right One In does not allow for a dialectical transformation that results in resolution or completeness. Instead, it promotes non-hierarchical interdependencies among elements of the narratives it continuously generates and allows increasing complexity to condition identities through its implicate order, recursive looping, and non-causal enfoldment processes. The film exists in a space midway between “smooth” and “striated” space, in Deleuze’s terms—where the formation, deformation, and reformation of subjects and objects occur, where what holds together is also apart and what is apart comes together without totalizing closure, and where the film’s deconstructive indifference that underpins its pervasive melancholic sublimity elides a structural mise en abîme.
“Let the Right One In,” conceived as a congregation of co-present genre motifs, marks a useful way to understand the movie as a whole functioning holistically, but not totalistically, and capable of deconstruction. The film’s complexity, which stems in part from its incorporation of a variety of genre motifs, other than those of vampire movies, permits it to function holistically by conditioning the emergence of its melancholic sublimity as a whole. Rochelle Wright argues, “Let the Right One In seamlessly merge several apparently disparate genres to create a hybrid form that appeals to widely divergent audiences. A detailed analysis of the film demonstrates how it simultaneously draws on and departs from common themes and motifs of indigenous Swedish film as well as the vampire film tradition, combining elements of the horror film, the coming-of-age story, and the realistic socio-psychological drama to create a unique mix of the innovative and the familiar” (56). Although Wright’s concern is with the proximate causes for the film’s popularity, he highlights the film’s extensive range of genre motifs, particularly the features of these motifs general enough to be taken as universal, that conflict with the film’s intrinsic distinctness to create a radically new genre open to deconstruction.
The Indifference of Love to Others
“Let the Right One In” begins with the silence of a desolate winter night as a car carrying Eli and her incompetent male protector, Hakan, pulls up to an anonymous Blackeberg suburb of Stockholm. Eli’s arrival from elsewhere and departure to another place in the film capture the paradoxical disavowal of relation and the staging of difference by vampires based on concealed details of their origins, as Jeffrey Weinstock notes: “The sleight-of-hand trick played by the vampire cinema – the psychic defense mechanism that allows us to disavow the vampire as our own – is that, despite the fact that the vampire always begins at home, it always appears to be coming from somewhere else.” The fear and anxiety connected to Eli’s arrival in the isolated, quiet Blackeberg suburb intimate Eli’s role as a specter of the impure past attempting to mesh with the utopian and modern character of the district. Helena Karlsson argues that the movie reflects the many social and demographic changes of 1980’s Sweden, as Keith Booker notes: “Karlsson sees the vampire as a double-edged figure of Swedish national anxieties in a postindustrial and multicultural age, as an emblem of the forces that both threaten Sweden’s traditional social fabric and invest the country with new energies” (184).
The camera then pans up to Oskar, an innocent-looking twelve-year-old boy, inside a brightly lit flat. Oskar is self-possessed and utterly preoccupied with acting out revenge fantasies using a small knife, a phallic symbol used throughout the film to represent castration and male powerlessness. Oskar stares at his reflection in a mirror while doing so, which intimates Oskar’s solipsistic and eventually narcissistic absorption. The next scene of Oskar at school reflects his isolation and misfit status. After correctly answering a question about a case study involving details of a crime, his teacher mocks his familiarity with it. The scene ends with Oskar repeating, “I like books,” which is either unheard or ignored. Oskar continues to be unheard or ignored by everyone to whom he relates throughout the film, aside from Eli. The movie’s use of visual imagery and aural effects, where “specification” marks a creative or productive activity, as opposed to registration, observation, or representational recapitulation, effectively communicates Oskar’s shift from intrasubjective to intersubjective awareness. Scenes where Oskar is alone, all the viewer hears are the sounds that he makes. However, whenever Oskar realizes that Eli is present, other sounds fill out the film’s score. The first scene that Eli witnesses Oskar, he is stabbing a tree muttering, “Squeal, piggy, piggy!” Oskar’s revenge fantasies facilitate the indeterminacy of Eli’s ontological status—Eli may be Oskar’s subconsciously imagined friend. Similarly, when Oskar first plays with the Rubik’s cube, the only audible sounds are his. When Eli is proximate, however, the sound of birds chirping begins, the sun comes out, and Oskar’s awareness of Eli and his surroundings becomes clear to the viewer. Once the sun comes out in the scene, the camera pans close-up to Oskar’s face because Eli cannot endure sunlight and must live in the shadows and darkness—the vampire resides on the margins and lives a subterranean existence. The special solidarity that develops between Oskar and Eli registers spatially through close-up shots of them. However, most scenes place Oskar in the foreground and in focus while Eli is on the periphery and blurred. The emphasis on narrating the film from Oskar’s viewpoint relegates Eli to a subsidiary spectator role. Although the vampire is nearly always the most compelling character and focal point of vampire films, Let the Right One In positions Eli as understanding what Judith Butler calls, “the value of being beside oneself, of being a porous boundary, given over to others, finding oneself in a trajectory of desire in which one is taken out of oneself and resituated irreversibly in a field of others in which one is not the presumptive center” (25).
The Indifference of Love to the Moral
There is substantial agreement that a guiding motif of “Let the Right One In” is its invocation/injunction to accept and even sympathize with Eli’s alterity. This diverges from the historical representation of the vampire figure in cinema as a contaminated “Otherness” who makes cultural terror and anxiety visible, and infects individual paranoia and fear with the constant threat of contagion. Thus, vampires have been historically represented in film as immoral, Byron-like individuals excluded from genuine human affection. Any connection vampires have with humans can be expressed only in a murderous way, and they are unable to communicate their profound loneliness to humans. Vampires have unshared tragic limits by existing in a paradoxical liminality between life and death, as “living dead”. A vampire’s immortality revolves around the “death drive,” a notion popularized in psychoanalytic thought, despite the hope of possible reinvention and recurrence of nostalgic valorization associated with the vampire’s perpetual youth. Although enigmatic to both the dominant and progressive cultural imagination, the vampire’s excessively queer immortality creates a hermeneutical horizon lacking any purpose or value, which leads to questions about the values of life and mortality. Thus, the film’s potential moral import serves as good grist for the mill.
Booker captures the film’s putative moral import by arguing, “The film asks us, then, to accept the unconventional, even ‘abnormal’, nature of the film’s two central characters and to perform an ethical exercise in respect for alterity, in which we allow them their difference but refuse to objectify or demonize them for it.” Booker’s remark resonates with the film’s viewers. Most, if not all people, have experienced the pain of being alienated, rejected, or isolated for their differences in whatever capacity. Further, the film portrays both Oskar and Eli as profoundly alienated by their alterity. However, these two misfits do not just seek belonging or acceptance of their differences, but instead crave something different from their differences.
However, the invocation to accept and even sympathize with Eli’s alterity qua vampire is not unique to vampire horror films. Simon Bacon notes that, like the Twilight Saga and The Vampire Diaries, Let the Right One In continues “the journey that began with Louis in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire where our dawning ‘sympathy for the devil’ has seen the vampire become a figure that we admire rather than abhor” (18). Eli sympathizes with Oskar, but this does not mean that the viewer necessarily should as well. I contend that the invitation to accept and even sympathize with Oskar’s, not Eli’s, alterity is one of the film’s subversive focal points.
The invocation to accept or sympathise with Oskar’s alterity presents a more formidable challenge due to the film’s subtle portrayal of Oskar as eerily similar to the bullies who torment him. For instance, Oskar’s bullies are the only peers he interacts with throughout the film. Just like his bullies, Oskar succumbs to peer pressure. After Eli exhorts Oskar to hit his bullies, to hit them “harder than ever before,” Oskar gives in to Eli’s peer pressure and lashes out at the lead bully the next day after suffering more teasing.
Oskar smiles triumphantly as his tormentor’s ear bleeds profusely, the boy screaming in pain. Oskar exhibits the same eerie smile upon seeing Eli after she brutally murders the bullies at the end of the movie. Interestingly, just like Oskar, the bullies also seem to lack parental support and adult supervision. One scene toward the end of the film reveals that the lead bully and his older brother are latch-key kids.
Although there are poignant scenes of Oskar with his parents, particularly instances where Oskar and his mother laugh together while brushing their teeth or when Oskar is seen sniffing and wearing his dad’s red sweater, his mother’s obliviousness and his father’s alcoholism prevent them from effectively influencing Oskar’s character development. After Oskar’s bullies whip him with a stick early in the movie, Oskar’s mum asks him why there are marks on his face the next day during breakfast. Oskar sheepishly looks down and tells his mother a blatant lie, but she never questions it, seemingly too distracted by the television.
However, for Eli, Oskar does not lie. When she asks him about the marks he looks down, presumably embarrassed and angry. The film intimates that Oskar’s father may be an alcoholic and strongly implies that a man who comes to visit and drink with his father may be a romantic interest. This may be why Oskar’s parents are separated.
More importantly, the scene showcases Oskar’s exclusion, highlighting that he is not yet a man. As Bacon notes, “The loosening up of parameters around boyhood may be as much about the often-described ‘crisis in masculinity’ at the end of the twentieth century as it is about adolescent agency” (161). The lead bully, akin to Oskar, appears just as powerless, vengeful, and disturbed. Further, he also requires the aid of another person, another powerless male, to exact his vengeance after being injured by Oskar.
It is no coincidence that his older brother, the lead tormentor at the pool, uses a small knife to threaten Oskar’s life at the film’s end. Oskar’s use of a small knife to act out revenge fantasies throughout the movie proleptically traces his metaphorical death in eventually choosing a life with Eli.
Granted, there are crucial differences between Oskar and the bullies who torment him. Eli may act as Oskar’s peer, but the film cements that Eli is a different peer than Oskar’s bullies. The film reveals that Eli is a very old twelve-year-old when she tells Oskar that she has been twelve, “for a very long time.” Further, Eli’s inability to remember her birthday and her appearance as a sad, pained old woman after Oskar accepts her plea to “Be me, just for a while,” reflects that she is no ordinary pre-pubescent. Eli’s immortality does not engender the hope of perpetual renewal or reinvigoration of nostalgic glory. Although Eli represents ultimate old age and the promise of eternal youth, the film’s stark realism and generalized melancholic sublimity preclude the possibility of an erotically charged exploitation of Eli’s immortality.
Further, the lead bully, who is injured with a torn ear, must enlist the help of his older brother, while Oskar never explicitly asks Eli to protect him from his bullies. Although Eli encourages Oskar’s desire for revenge, the film shows that Oskar was well on his way to becoming a monster without Eli in his life. As Booker observes, “It is not clear exactly how psychologically disturbed he really is. But his potential for very real and very serious psychological problems is made very clear. Even without partnering up with a vampire, he might well have become a serial killer.” The horror film trope where a human’s encounter with the monster—the “Outsider” or “Anomalous”—effectuates a change in identity at the cost of a deadly encounter is preserved in the film: Oskar’s encounter with Eli, the Othered, causes his non-liberatory transformation into someone we anticipate will kill humans for Eli, just like Hagan did.
The film explores dimensions of morality, specifically the virtues of modesty and meekness that Oskar seems to embody on the surface. Its faith in opposites, defining its framework in the strict demarcation of “good” (Oskar and Eli) and “evil” (Oskar’s bullies), functions to suppress Oskar’s instincts or impulses, and love is one of these impulses. Friedrich Nietzsche’s epigram “all acts of love are beyond good and evil” (156) has explanatory use in the context of my view that the film’s exploration of love casts its deconstructive indifference to the moral. Oskar and Eli’s chance encounter may capture proximity to an ineffable, apophatic, and unthematizable law of alterity—thus pertaining to the moral treatment of encountering the “Other.” Although the film does not exploit the importance of non-particularity and anonymity.