“…what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”. — Vladimir Nabokov, 1964
If you’re not going trick-or-treating this Halloween, consider staying home and immersing yourself in one of the best horror stories, Let the Right One In.
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004 novel)
While technically a “vampire romance” novel, Let the Right One In by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist couldn’t be more different than Twilight.
Oskar is an outcast 12-year-old boy who’s tormented by merciless bullies. One day, a vampire girl named Eli moves in next door to Oskar with an older man. Eli, despite having lived for 200 years, is stuck physically and mentally at the age of 12. The older man, a pedophile, helps her by murdering people for fresh blood. At first oblivious to this, Oskar develops a special bond with Eli, and the two lonely, needy souls sustain each other emotionally. But soon, the horrors of Eli’s vampiric acts starts to swell and affect the people around them, threatening both children’s lives.
Does it sound like Twilight with children? It’s not. It’s a tale about a most innocent and untainted love trying to survive in a cruel, horror-filled world. It’s about finding acceptance and support in the midst of isolation and emotional deprivation. It is unsentimentally bleak and cruel, but the emotional warmth and tenderness glows like a hot coal amidst barren snow.
It’s also a meditation on evil. Despite being a vampire, Eli is still just a little kid who’s only trying to survive. So does killing to sustain herself make her evil? The real threats in the book are not supernatural but human, in the forms of school bullies and the police hunting Eli down.
Despite its romantic core, the novel still very much a horror story and the relationship does at times get overwhelmed and buried by lengthy side plots, graphic and gory scenes and heavy themes such as pedophilia, sexuality and castration. That’s why many consider the films to be the best versions of the story:
Let the Right One In (2008 film, dir. Tomas Alfredson)
The original Swedish film adaptation, co-written by the author of the book, does away with most of the subplots and brings the love story to the fore. The result is a much simpler than but still very faithful story to its 500 page source material. The simplicity also manifests in the film’s sparse, subtle style.
Alfredson rarely moves the camera and cuts sparingly, letting the chilling events naturally unfold and settle fully. Many of the shots are either wide master shots or intimate closeups with blurred-out backgrounds. The distance and empty space conveys a sense of lonely bleakness and the intimate shots fully capture the tenderness of the blossoming romance. The naturalistic lighting and the real Swedish winter setting give it a stark realism – Bergman’s Winter Light comes to mind – that translates the novel’s prose very well. Even the gorgeous soundtrack leaves long periods of silence and only comes on during crucial points.
Overall, the elegant yet detached tone can make one feel, well, detached from the story. We are left to infer many emotions of the characters. For a version that fully engages the audience with the characters, we have to look to the American remake:
Let Me In (2010, dir. Matt Reeves)
Director Matt Reeves re-adapted the book for the American audience in a way that brings you into the main characters’ perspectives and emotions. You feel what it’s like to be a 12-year-old boy hiding a vampire girlfriend or a serial killer lying in your victim’s car. The film uses point of view shots and Hitchcockian suspense justifies the horror and violence of the book. The scenes where Oskar – whose name is changed to Owen in this version – is bullied are just as scary as the blood-sucking ones. Not to mention the beautiful film-noir lighting and color palette that reinforces the ominous tone.
Fans of the original still couldn’t rest in peace over this film. Despite the enormous critical acclaim, they call it an “unnecessary remake” since many dialogues and shots are practically the same. They think Hollywood ruined an arthouse film by Americanizing it and taking out all the subtleties that makes the Swedish version so great. First of all, Let Me In is an independent Hammer film; there’s nothing “Hollywood” about it. Second of all, Director Reeves utilized the best of American filmmaking by following the steps of Alfred Hitchcock and shooting it just as elegantly and artfully as Alfredson had.
Personally, I prefer the films over the novel, which has a lot of excess content for people who aren’t attracted to horror as a genre. The two films are very similar in that they both haunt and disturb in a quiet, unsettling way, but I like Let Me In more for its dark, rich visuals and suspense. It is, in fact, one of my favorite films of all time. Whichever one you choose to watch/read, I hope you’ll be moved just as much as I was.