“I’m twelve. But I’ve been twelve for a long time.”
— Eli, in Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008)
Loneliness has always figured into our curious sympathies for vampires. The vampire is separated from others by their animal nature, their bloodlust, their sensitivity to the sun, always driven into the shadows. They carry with them a resultant need to be invited, welcomed in; they must ask permission to cross the threshold of a home. An impulse to seduce their victims pervades the mythos; they may hypnotize their prey or lure them with sexuality. A wretched viciousness attends to the monster’s need for survival, but a woundedness is maybe the defining feature of the vampire.
In F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the silent German expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu, Count Orlok develops an obsession with the wife of a guest, a woman he has only ever seen in a photograph. While the monster stalks her husband, the wife dreams of the attack and sleepwalks out onto her balcony, the mountains of the vampire’s castle far beyond her view. A mysterious psychic bond connects them regardless of distance. Nosferatu boards a ship and brings disease to the wife’s town, and along with it a crippling fear of the night streets. In the end, he creeps into her bedroom and drinks her blood as she sleeps. Enveloped by the ecstasy of finally tasting his victim, the vampire forgets about the sunrise. The light breaks in and he disappears in a puff of smoke, the price of betraying his own loneliness, the audacity of a monster in love. The husband comes to his wife’s bedside but it is too late. After one final embrace her life sinks into her sheets and she is gone.
The vampire is a predator, but one that ultimately began as a victim themselves. Their monstrosity is connected directly to that singular violent extraction of their humanity, of blood drained through their neck. The brutality they originally endured is now reenacted, immortally, through their own violence, the attraction and repulsion of their own victims. Whatever the mythology, becoming a vampire is as much about trauma and the perpetual standstill of time as it is about death/rebirth. Time moves all around the vampire, entire civilizations may rise and fall, but the vampire, at least their physical form, never changes, a crystallization of their irrevocable human upheaval, a violence frozen in time that the creature of the night is cursed to repeat. A vampire must kill to live, or perhaps find someone else to kill for them. In either way, the vampire embodies the cyclical nature of violence and the lasting impact of trauma.
In Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 adaptation of the Swedish novel of the same name, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a bullied 12-year-old boy growing up in a 1980s Stockholm suburb, befriends Eli (Lina Leandersson), a vampire child that is Oskar’s same age only in appearance. Although reluctant at first to indulge the interest of her neighbor, Eli soon finds herself intrigued by Oskar’s curiosity and drawn in by a sense of kinship, a shared loneliness. Sitting on a jungle gym, the ground covered in snow, the pair silently trouble over a Rubik’s Cube—the solitary activity of the puzzle, so attractive to the lonely. When the young-looking vampire discovers Oskar has been cut on his face by his antagonizing classmates, she encourages him to hit them back, “harder than you dare.” Oskar doesn’t yet know he’s befriended a monster, but he can feel her affinity, that she cares for him, finds something familiar—that woundedness and that lonely.
Alfredson’s cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shoots in starkly contrasted wide and close. At once, full figures stand at a distance in the wintery landscape, sometimes set against brick buildings, or reflected in a window, or on one side of a wall or door. The characters are forlorn, isolated in the frame and from one another. But, when Oskar and Eli talk, Hoytema gets close to them, sometimes shooting in extreme close-up, only their eyes or only a hand. The intimacy of their interaction is clear even when neither can fully grasp the other. To further accentuate this closeness, Alfredson worked with his supervising sound editor Per Sundström to highlight the sound of lips smacking, hearts beating, and clothes rustling with each discrete movement. Together, the design forms an impossible dissonant tone of closeness. They are apart, remote in the frame or obscured by its edges, but they are together, close, sometimes just barely touching, and yet we discern each of them as if we had the super-sensory hearing of a wild animal.
This closeness is sweet just as it can be disquieting. At one moment we hear Oskar’s love-fluttering heart, the next we hear Eli lapping blood from the floor of an abandoned building. The uneasy closeness hints at the darkness of Oskar and Eli’s attachment. Oskar is bullied, so wounded; Eli has been changed into a vampire. Oskar is an outsider at his school, unable to fit in with his classmates; Eli is forsaken by her curse, her only companion (the “caregiver” that kills for her) a mirror of her original trauma. Their relationship is caring but not uncomplicated, and it’s marked with blood, the blood Eli needs to survive but also the blood of vengeance.
Oskar asks “Who are you?” “I’m like you,” Eli tells him. Vampires are monsters but they’re a lot like us. It’s what makes them so enduring; maybe more than any monster, we can relate to the vampire, but most of all during the painful hours awarded to us by loneliness and isolation. Alfredson’s film is a coming-of-age tale about the love between a 12-year-old boy and a hundreds-year-old vampire and it is genuinely a moving depiction of first love—the original first love of a boy and the unusual, defiant love of a monster, so far from others but not completely lost. Let the Right One In is a genuine romance but it’s also a horror film that leaves us wondering where our pair may lead one another and how their histories of violence define their connection. In this way the film rejuvenates the mythos of the vampire, asking us, as Eli does of Oskar, to empathize with the monster, to align ourselves with them, not as a morbid exercise but to feel a deeper sense of our own painful memories, our own loneliness, and our kinship with those who, if we just let them in, may come to understand us.
Let the Right One In played at the IU Cinema on a 35mm print on September 22, 2017 as part of the Kids These Days series. Although this film has already screened, there are many incredible movies left in the series, such as Stand By Me in November and Dirty Dancing in December.
Nathaniel Sexton enjoys the films of Andrzej Żuławski, Alex Ross Perry, and Jerry Lewis. He reads comic books, plays pinball, prefers his movies sad or slow, and volunteers at a video rental store. He likes to travel west by car but always misses movies when living out of a tent.