Who Is the “Right” One Exactly?

I talked a little bit in my last post about the very personal nature of the horror of transformation in “The Thing.” In that movie, even our hero cannot say “I am clearly not the monster here” and make it sound convincing. (He tries to sound convincing and… yeah, he doesn’t pull it off.)

From what I know of the genre, this is an exception to a much-commented upon rule. I feel like, as I watch more and more “conventional” horror films, I’m going to find myself stuck in that very restricting rut that makes up the morality of most horror cinema –an outside force accosts the non-monsters; if you are good (no pride, no envy, no drinking, no sex) you’ll probably survive and if you are bad, you’re meat. If you’re the monster, you’ll have your fun, but the deviance you spread will ultimately result in your demise. This is horror’s bread and butter: do no wrong and you’ll live, mostly for the sake of the audience who needs to be able to leave the theater with something to hold on to, some discernible positive direction.

My impression is that some films mess with the hard and fast rules to keep things fresh, which is nice: they’ll kill off the purest character to mess with your head, or they’ll let the drinking, smoking, sex-having deviant survive. The nerve! Some films have you rooting for the monster before the ultimate return to normalcy, which, when you realize what you’ve been doing, makes you feel like you need a shower; others make you despise the monster, giving him leeway to haunt your nightmares for eternity, and then intentionally fail to give you the catharsis you seek: the movie ends and… IT LIVES!!!

These are all neat tricks that liven up the genre. Movies that pull off any one of these tricks with aplomb are usually the ones that get remembered and passed down and watched by kids like me looking to dive into horror cinema for their pop culture blogs.

And then there’s a film like “Let the Right One In,” which uses all four tricks on you to create a whole new morality; because of this, “Let the Right One In” is beautiful, thoughtful, moving, and it will mess with your freaking mind if you let it!

To put it simply: young children get bullied and murdered in this movie, perfectly nice older couples are slaughtered, the culprit gets away with all of it, and we the audience are left rooting, at the end of the film, for a very hungry corpse and a serial killer in-training who affectionately flirt with each other while the corpse hides from the sunlight in a cardboard box.

And it’s all done in this way that makes you feel really good about it. The film is clean and tidy like an Ikea, only breaking up its snowy sterility with an occasional gothic splash of dark red blood or a moment of unrestrained passion. In spite of some genuine freak-outs in “Let the Right One In,” the credits roll and you’re whistling and you’re smiling! And then you’re like, wait a minute, I’m happy about all this nonsense that just went down? I mean this film’s basic moral message is “The bullied should kill their bullies, men suck, parents suck, innocence is non-existent, but it’s all okay if you’ve got a crush.” But, the film so movingly tells it’s story that what complicates it morally troubles you as the viewer in all the right places: it makes you feel uneasy about the world, but not about the film or the wonderful characters in it.

More than that, rather than pedantically dictate to you from on high what is right and what is wrong as so many horror films do (what’s horrifying or queasy about unquestioned value systems, exactly?), “Let the Right One In” makes right and wrong an even more personal issue than even “The Thing,” with all its evasive paranoia, does. Really, this film asks what is right to you, and what is wrong? You have to make that call on your own when watching “Let the Right One In.” Which is a kind of horrifying place to put the viewer. We are, after all, rarely asked to think for ourselves. So that complicates things a little… That creates most of what I find scary about the film.

Let me back-track a bit. “Let the Right One In” is a 2008 film from Sweden. Its story revolves around a young, pale, slight little fellow named Oskar who is bullied constantly by three boys at this school. He feels moments of love from his parents, who are separated, but, truly, when it comes to his problems, he has no one to turn to. So Oskar turns inward. He strikes out at trees with his knife, pretending that they are his assailants, calling them “Piggy,” which is what he is called. He collects newspaper clippings that feature brutal murders in the area. He is quiet, introverted, weird and mistrustful of authority. Essentially, Oskar is about one forceful shove away from a school shooting.

Then, in the snowy courtyard, he meets Eli, a girl his age who moves in with her caretaker in the dead of night and covers up all the windows. This is the part in the coming-of-age movie where the girl calms the misguided soul, moving him to embrace himself without embracing violence. Except in this movie. That is not what happens in “Let the Right One In,” where Eli tells Oskar, in the blunt way she says everything, “Hit them. Hard.” Later she tells Oskar that he will have to be more like her. That he will have to literally be her.

And who is Eli? Well, she looks twelve but she sees the world as someone who has walked the Earth for many more years than that. She is the one in charge of her caregiver, yelling at him like a company CEO when he fails to bring her back what she needs: fresh human blood. When she does not get it, her face becomes drawn and gray and she begins to smell, her stomach growling like a cat in the throes of a debilitating death. When she kills on her own, she is sloppy, with blood exploding all over her innocent, feline features. She cannot enter a room without spoken permission.

When Oskar puts all of this together, he asks, with an impish smile “Are you a vampire?” to which Eli responds with a bit of a “Well, Duh…” ambivelence as if people piece this together all the time, though she rarely lets them survive after this realization. It seldom matters to Oskar, who it should be emphasized again, is not an extremely normal kid, although the feelings of alienation he wallows in feel universal to the audience. The idea that Eli kills at will to get what she needs freaks him out a little, but he does not flinch when she kisses him full-on after feasting on a man. So his own interpretation of right and wrong is little bit unclear, even in his own mind, which doesn’t help the viewer much in deciding who is doing the bad things here. They part from their innocent kiss with blood smeared across both their lips. You see, they truly love each other, and they cannot bear to be apart, and in the film’s morality, the one that challenges the viewer to make their own call, that makes it all okay. So any of these moments, adorable exchanges between the vampire and her new liege, drew an automatic “DAWWWW!!!” from me. And then, as an instinctive follow-up, an echo “ewww…” And we wonder even though it makes us uncomfortable: who are the true monsters here: the vampire who loves but kills, the bullies who hate and maim, or the parents who feel nothing and do nothing?

Enough Stalling. How’d You Hold Up, Wimp?

How I held up can basically be summed up in the story of the last twenty minutes of the film. All the non-action (this is a very vague, placid movie is what I’m getting at here) brings us to this moment: Lacke, a middle-aged, average dude whose friend and girlfriend have both been killed by Eli, enters Eli’s layer to put her down. Oskar, who is there, waiting for her to wake up after the sun goes down, hides out of sight. As Lacke walks into the bathroom where Eli sleeps, I begin freaking out, in spite of the fact that I have ALREADY SEEN THIS EXACT SCENE ON YOUTUBE BEFORE!
I knew exactly when Lacke was going to die, because I had seen it happen, but I could not remember how! And so my heart froze. I felt a sudden rush of terror rewatching the one scene in this movie I had actually seen before. I mean, I had only a few options:

A) Eli wakes up and kills Lacke with her teeth, which I’ve seen happen before.
B) Oskar kills Lacke with his knife, which would be new but not entirely unexpected.

Neither of these options was particularly terrifying, yet the unknown had my brain doing somersaults. I paused the film for a moment and caught my breath. Why did I get so scared here? Nothing in the film had really scared me to that point. Some of the imagery had disturbed me, in the kind of way that a well-composed painting of a bloody, maimed child would, but this was the first feeling of sinking dread I had experienced so far. So, why’d I get scared? Why does anyone get scared? Who knows?
When Lanke, about to stab Eli, was distracted by Oskar yelling “No!” and suddenly found Eli wrapped around his neck like a blood-sucking scarf, I went “AHHHHH! AHHHHH! AHHHH! Oh, right, that’s how it happened… Cool. AHHH!”

That was a pretty drastic reaction. Most of this film, though, I reacted the way I did during “Let the Right One In”s final, cathartic killing. Oskar is being held underwater by the bullies who are preparing to end Oskar’s life once and for all, when suddenly, we see a massacre take place. Only we see the whole thing take place from underwater, with Oskar completely unaware that he is being rescued by his true love. We see, in order: a body being dragged through the water at about 90 mph, a severed head plop into the water, and finally, the hand that is holding Oskar’s head beneath the surface become mysteriously detached from the forearm which had once held it in place. Which leaves you with more of a “Whoa, that’s beautiful… Did I seriously just think that?” than a jump and squeal.

Do I need to jump? Should I be watching more films that make me jump? I’ve been receiving recommendations, and also have some more conventionally jump-inducing films in mind for later, but I am not certain that I will see their value. Some would argue that “Let the Right One In” is not a horror movie in spite of it’s being a vampire movie, because it is not very scary. I wouldn’t argue it is particularly adept at drawing from you the squeamish response that so many a slasher has before, but how could one not see that “Let the Right One In” is indeed a horrifying film? From its ambiguous moral compass to the murderous nature of its sympathetic protagonists, from its archly beautiful scenes of blood-letting and despair to its blood-soaked kisses filled with childhood innocence and deviance, this film makes you question the value system of horror and of your life without having to make you jump or squeal. That’s worth something, right? That it leaves us feeling so glad to see two characters we love (but probably shouldn’t) continue to live out a deadly cycle of killing is worth more horror points than a bump in the night, surely.

It takes balls for “Let the Right One In” to leave us with a happy ending, soaked in sun and hope, as the two lovers emerge from their loneliness together and ready for the adult world; except you know walking out of the film, somewhere in the back of your head, in a deep, dark place you don’t even want to glance towards, that one of them will never grow up, continuing to feed off the living for eternity and that the other will become a cold, middle-aged man who kills innocence to keep the girl who gives him companionship from withering away.

And so the beginning of the film, where we see a hungry corpse and her creepy caretaker enter a new city ready to take more lives, is this story’s true ending. The ending we see, with Oskar tapping out K-I-S-S in Morse code to Eli as she waits for the sun to go down, is just a brief moment of hope on the way there. That is creepy. And I love that… as long as it’s not me. Kind of the point of horror right there.

Extra Innings

  • Scariest Scene: To avoid being redundant, I’m going to point to the conclusion of the film’s most prominent subplot. Virginia is Lanke’s girlfriend. Walking through the courtyard, she is set upon by a ravished Eli. However, before Eli can kill Virginia (by breaking her neck) Lanke steps in and rescues her. Big mistake… Virginia develops a severe aversion to sunlight and a thirst for blood. She cannot enter an apartment without being invited, and a pack of sweet housecats attacks her, latching on to her like furry Christmas ornaments. (This scene actaully gets my vote for second place.) Virginia, taken to the hospital, knows perfectly well what’s happening to her, and she is not okay with it. In one of the film’s hard moral decisions, where we are not sure what would be the right thing to do, we see a display of desperate humanity in the face of becoming a monster she never wants to become. Virginia asks her doctor sweetly to open up the blinds. As the light cascades into her hospital room, Virginia smiles as a free woman. And then she bursts into flames! Lanke runs into the room to find his love engulfed in a fiery inferno which licks the ceiling. End scene. Gulp. Humanity check, right there.

  • Best Scene: I’m going to call it a tie. In the first we see one relationship end. Eli’s caretaker, who was caught in the act of murder, poured acid on himself to render himself unrecognizable and save Eli from investigation. Eli visits him at his seventh floor hospital room. (She does so by climbing the outer wall of the hospital and perching on the windowsill like a curious pigeon, which is an awesome touch.) In his last sacrifice, Eli’s caretaker offers her his throat and she obliges sadly, throwing him over the windowsill into the snow when she is finished. As he dies on the ground, he see his deformed face in full for the first time. You thought Two-Face looked horrifying in “The Dark Knight?” You didn’t see 2008’s scariest acid burns then.
  • In the second scene, another relationship begins. Eli is covered in blood and seeks shelter in Oskar’s room. Once again she enters through the window after receiving permission to enter from a groggy Oskar. She strips off her bloody clothes and crawls beneath the covers with him. Oskar is first grossed out and then distinctly pleased by this development. The two flirt playfully and childishly, Eli reciting a nursery rhyme as she strokes Oskar’s back, Oskar asking her if they should “go steady” without either really understanding what that means. Their interaction is immensely adorable and endearing in every way. It is also immensely creepy when  you consider both actors look 12, one is playing a being who might be centuries older than 12, and the other is playing a child who may very well be mentally disturbed. Which somehow does not make your heart stop from skipping a beat (in the good way) when Oskar falls asleep, and Eli the Ever Restless lies there calmly for once and strokes his arm, eventually taking his hand in her own. It is a scene filled with so many raw emotions that apply to anyone from 12 to 100, and plays each one brilliantly.
  • No black guys in this movie, which I guess can be attributed to the fact that, in our popular imagination, Sweden has no black people. Which may be inaccurate, but… no black guys, no black guy to die first. So we are still at Convention 0, Black Guys 2 on our Black Guy Dies First Scoreboard, with a point going to Sweden for being so white, you gotta wear shades.