Blood in the Snow
Nicholas Russell on Let the Right One In
Seriousness is often likened to pretentiousness, which is often a sort of veiled criticism, at least when talking about movies. It qualifies everything a given film isn’t (fun, humorous, irreverent), while also overstating what the movie actually does or tries to be. Another word for this, made more common in the parlance of contemporary superhero movies, is “grittiness.” Hard-edged, unsentimental and cynical, desaturated in color, long, dour, and therefore realistic. Hallmarks, once upon a time, for art-house cinema and, for the purposes of this essay, a large swath of European fiction referred to as Nordic noir. In this essay, I’m talking about Let the Right One In, a horror film, but this is really a matter of aesthetics. What comes to mind when you think of Sweden? Norway? Finland? And how did those images get there? Or, from a different angle, what comes to mind when you think of violence?
Writers of Nordic noir like Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and Maj Sjöwall ask these questions in heightened, dramatic form, playing them off each other to reveal what they believe to be hidden or papered-over truths about their respective countries. These authors typify a genre that, though cold and bleak, doesn’t necessarily revel in darkness for its own sake. They question a comforting idea of northern Europe: that homogenous, clean paradise where people are looked after, free, smarter than you, and, most importantly to every travel guide describing them, happy. These writers ask: Well, what about the past? Say, Sweden’s Nazi history. Or Denmark’s post-colonial relationship with Greenland. Or the intersection of white supremacy and rape. Or class inequality. Or government corruption. Beneath harmony lies a morbid, disconcerting truth waiting to be uncovered. As such, most Nordic noir follows detectives and police officers, apparatuses of the state that, at the beginning, enforce the law and, at the end, come to realize how corrupt the law really is.
Now, from an outsider’s position it’s quite easy to take this underlying structure of darkness and hard truth, and apply it wholesale to anything Scandinavian. There's something pulpy and attractive about this idea that the real world is strictly violent and scary, dangerous. After all, we’ve been conditioned to believe that when something sounds too good to be true, it often is. This is the attitude and context I brought to Let the Right One In. An idyllic, but troubled country producing a serious vampire film, a historically campy genre (not a criticism). Indeed, that first viewing looms large in my memory as both unbearably cold and shockingly violent. This was the year before the release of the Swedish adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, concurrent with the larger Scandinavian crime fiction wave that swept the U.S. Throw in the flashes of Bergman I’d glimpsed though never seen in full, stark and dour scenes of melancholy and spiritual anguish, and you have some idea of the caricature I was primed to build about what a Swedish vampire movie was “actually” about.
In the 1980s suburbs of Stockholm, a boy named Oskar, who is constantly bullied at school and obsessed with revenge because of it, meets another child named Eli who turns out to be a vampire. The nights are brightly lit, the days overexposed. There are never any crowds, except at Oskar’s school. Colors are muted across the board, pale yellows, deep reds. Parents are treated like ghosts, flitting in and out of frame, preoccupied with their own problems. It’s winter, but hasn’t it always been winter here? What’s created by all this is an approximation of the airy space of childhood, where time moves slowly and there never seems to be enough that you actually want to do. Oskar wiles away his days collecting newspaper clippings of murders and rehearsing a scene of triumphant vengeance against the kids who torment him.
Let the Right One In isn’t gritty, just austere, sometimes antiseptic. So much so that incongruous moments of violence and aberrant behavior stick out sharply in the mind, lingering long after you’ve forgotten their context. I hear a stomach growling when I think of Let the Right One In. I see blood pouring from a child’s eyes and ears. I hear the screaming of cats. I see an elderly man pouring acid on his face. I see a disembodied arm sinking into a public pool.
Despite these visceral moments, this is a quiet movie. There is the sound of a breeze and the crunch of ice. Rewatching it after nearly 10 years, I realized it is also not nearly as violent as I remember. Those aforementioned scenes are largely bloodless, handled in darkness, or cut away from just as they begin. They are also, in their own way, beautiful. Let the Right One In is full of them, indelible images that are almost all in relation to violence. I think it’s one of the main things the movie is about. This beautification of the aftermath of violence is a feature I once thought odd, but now see more and more of; see also Midsommar, a Scandinavian-set horror, or Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, or Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. It’s not that these movies gild violence, but they don’t recoil from it either. It’s the line between glorification and aversion, awe and disgust. We’ve all had some iteration of this conversation. How much is too much? Can too much be just enough?
What’s interesting about these questions is how they reveal the ways that cinematic violence can be applied, as an ingredient extant to the narrative, and how its inclusion prompts us to judge just what kind of movie we’re watching. In the context of horror, add the right amount of violence, and you’ve completely changed the subgenre in which the film exists. A vampire movie like 30 Days of Night is no longer in contention to be considered serious or profound because its wanton bloodshed is seemingly out of the realm of good taste, as opposed to an Only Lovers Left Alive. Then there’s the question of corporeal violence versus emotional violence, gore versus the intangible interiority. In this case, there seems to be an inverse when it comes to what is considered serious and laudable because depicting emotional violence typically requires more “mature” themes, and much showier acting. I think of the depths of melancholy and spiritual listlessness brought on by Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly or Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, movies I shy away from because their effect has left such a strong, haunting impression.
In Let the Right One In, there is the threat of physical and metaphysical violence. Indeed, the first line of dialogue heard is Oskar saying, “Squeal! Squeal like a pig!” to imaginary bullies. Then we see him wielding a knife in his room, talking to his reflection, an illustration of his insecurity, his loneliness, and his desire to defend himself in the only way he can understand. I think that part of the reason Nordic noir, and by extension Nordic horror, is so intriguing is because you are invited to really pay attention to violence and what it means when it’s set against a static setting (snow-covered hills, concrete suburbs, white skies). Sometimes all you need is a clear background. What’s then promoted is not violence as an object or force applied at the whim of a screenwriter seeking to titillate through luridness, but violence as a consequence committed by a person. Vampire movies sublimate this idea better than most because vampires are hunters who must feed on people in order to survive. No matter if the bloodletting is shown, you know what has to happen. At the same time, there is also a rumination on aging and loneliness featuring a figure who cannot experience time the way normal people do. “What if all I have is my suffering, my regret?” asks Louis in Interview with the Vampire.
When I first watched Let the Right One In, I assumed a serious, Scandinavian vampire movie would remove any notion of spectacle. I assumed there would be some sort of existential dread, an emotional anguish that would replace the bloodletting. And if the blood did come, it would be realistic, to reinforce the sense that, among the many kinds of films out there, those with supposedly realistic violence are somehow more truthful, more mature. And if there was a gratuitous amount of this realistic violence, well, it’s a very serious thing to consider. This is a judgment as much about tolerance as it is about taste.
Ironically, the novel upon which Let the Right One In is based indulges in more of this sensational, morbid gravity than the movie does. Eli’s gender, which the film chooses to leave ambiguous, is instead a marker of tragedy—Eli was once a boy who was violently castrated by another vampire centuries earlier. In the novel, Håkan, Eli’s human familiar, is a pedophile in love with an immortal child, versus the film, which merely depicts him as an old man bound by loyalty (this implies that Oskar will eventually turn into Håkan, an aging human in love with Eli but unable to stay with her).
What we are actually left with is a story as much about the isolation of growing up as it is about the more mundane considerations of what it would mean to be an immortal who is destined forever to kill. Above all else, the bullying is what drew director Tomas Alfredson to adapting the novel, who is on record saying, “I really think you shouldn’t do films of good books.” Alfredson likens much of Oskar’s torment at school to his own childhood. There seemed to be an opportunity to depict the harshness of a period in people’s lives that’s often looked back at with rose-tinted glasses. “I don’t think it’s so sentimental for children being bullied,” Alfredson said to The Los Angeles Times in 2008. “On the contrary, they store up a lot of very violent feelings. I think that this vampire is all the violent feelings he [Oskar] gets from his tormentors . . . Maybe Eli is just a fantasy.”
Through Eli, Oskar finds protection, but also kinship. Among other things, Let the Right One In is a romance, one that takes seriously the feelings of its young protagonists. Where once I thought I found a film too distant to grasp, one that I remembered more for its Carrie-esque finale than for the narrative, I now find something far more complex, a film that looks back at childhood as a dangerous place. A failure of hindsight, to be sure, but also a consideration I was reluctant to let go of given the many other examples of Scandinavian cinema that proved my initial estimation correct. American filmmakers often make this same mistake, taking a prominent example of popular media from a given country as a representative sampling (Parasite’s outstanding success prompted a bewildering conversation amongst some critics and filmgoers as to whether or not Korean cinematic violence was symptomatic of Korean people’s underlying psyche). It’s why we tokenize international cinema in our awards, why audiences seem to favor narratives that reinforce their facile understanding of what a given country is “about.” This isn’t a paean for rah-rah diversity so much as it is an indictment of hypocrisy.
In his review of Let the Right One In, Roger Ebert gives glowing, though oddly backhanded praise. He calls the film “deadly grim,” likening it to Murnau and Herzog. His characterization of the proceedings is all about the cold and the grave, seriousness as a conduit for severity. I would have been more inclined to think differently if that idea hadn’t been so pervasive in the culture when I watched it. To some viewers, the repetition of certain images or elements can signal an affirmation of ideas, the reification of something important to the filmmaker, and potentially the nation they hail from. More often than not, it’s a sign of interrogation and curiosity, an opportunity to engage with how meaning transforms with each successive recurrence. There’s no shortage of blood onscreen in Let the Right One In, but in the absence of its vibrancy, you are left with its temperature, warm and seeping.