Horror and Humor in Let The Right One In

Part of our ongoing From the Videotheque Vault series, Ruby Katz brings us Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish horror film, Let The Right One In (2008).

Director Tomas Alfredson gracefully delivers in this Swedish horror, Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in), released worldwide in 2008, and later remade in the U.S. under the title Let Me In (Reeves, 2010). The film is centered on Oskar, a lonesome twelve-year-old who is no stranger to being bullied, and Eli, the daughter of a mysterious man who has recently moved in next door. The two soon bond over their shared penchant for isolation and games. And, while their friendship manages to survive despite Eli’s need for blood, the small town has definitely started to notice the rising body count. This film amazingly mixes together aspects of pure comedy and horror as Alfredson projects the complications of vampiristic murder and the seriousness of violence into one cinematic experience.

Let The Right One In is comparable to other films in its use of ‘spectacle’; the film uses absurd elements to punctuate the acts of horror interspersed throughout the plot. However, Alfredson combines this technique with another to create an unforgettable viewing: He intricately intertwines exaggerated on-screen moments with fueled character development, essentially using a character’s shown personality as a way to further the on-screen action. More specifically, Alfredson provides the audience with a clear sense of his characters’ motivations that explain the need for these events to take place in the dramatic way that they do. Presenting the character motivation helps to prove that these moments are genuine to the plot instead of being solely part of the spectacle of cinema. These moments are visually striking just as much as they are essential to furthering the plot, and here is how….

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The Killing Scene

Eli’s need for blood pushes her caretaker, Hakan (Per Ragnar), to go out and procure some for her. He gathers together his rudimentary murder gear and waits along a forest footpath for a fresh victim. He finds a young man and quickly sedates him, stringing him up a tree by his legs. The scene itself is quite horrifying as the viewer is shown Hakan’s victim drained of blood. Humor enters the scene in the form of a large white dog, literally running into the action. Hakan tries to get the dog to leave by throwing a handful of snow at him, and suddenly the absurdity of Hakan’s situation is brought into the light: he can sedate and kill a man but cannot stop the barking of a dog. He flees the scene, packing up his things and almost forgetting the jug of blood. He waddles off in the snow, leaving the dog’s owners to find the body, and the dog licking at the remaining leakage.

The moment the audience is no longer experiencing horror but is, in fact, amused, is indispensable to the thematic mood of the film. What Alfredson is doing, essentially, is creating a scenario in which suspense is deflated by comedy. His actions are terrifying, but in a way that portrays his character as being clumsy, his plans half-baked, and his predilection towards dogs quite low. The combination of the murder and Hakan’s blunder create a truly amusing horror scene.

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The Fire Scene

Admittedly, the fire scene is not very humorous. However, what leads up to this scene is quite absurd in the most satisfying of ways: Locke, the friend of Eli’s first victim, becomes fixated with his friend’s death. His obsession makes him harsh and he begins treating his girlfriend, Ginia, with disdain. She runs out of the house one night into the hands of the bloodthirsty Eli. The attack takes a campy twist as the viewer watches Eli fall onto Ginia’s back from above. Locke hears the attack and runs towards it, trying to interrupt the feeding. After a few moments of him standing there not doing much of anything by ways of heroism, he lurches forward and kicks Eli in the side with an impressive blow, rescuing Ginia for the time being.

The situation gets worse. Ginia wakes up and soon realizes she has been turned into a vampire. She seeks solace at a friend’s house, although she doesn’t get very far after discovering the house is home to a hoard of cats that don’t hesitate to attack her all at once, causing her to run and writhe around the living room as they bite into her flesh. The two men stand there in shock as she runs through the house with cats hanging off her every body part. She staggers through a door and falls down a flight of stairs. The next thing we see is Ginia being brought to the hospital, where she decides to commit suicide.

Ginia’s storyline can be broken down into three deeply unfortunate, absurd moments, each of them successfully creating what could be considered a vehicle for the ‘spectacle’: 1) Eli’s attack, 2) the rabid cats, and 3) her death scene. These moments are horrifying in consequence and yet somehow campy in their execution, partially taking away  the seriousness of Ginia’s story. Alfredson creates this absurd style by shaping the film’s characters as equally absurd. Locke is depicted as goofily upset, not taken seriously by anyone else. While, at the same time, his girlfriend Ginia is made to seem absurd by association. Their consequent actions match their character development in the ways in which they react to violence, horror, and so on. We can see this in the way Locke proves almost entirely ineffective at saving Ginia and in the way she so blindly gets herself into trouble. All of this is mixed in with the dramatics of the plot, the sheer craziness of what is unfolding on screen. And, while these moments can be horrifying, comical, or downright exasperating, they somehow all seem to fit harmoniously together.

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Character Causality: Eli and Oskar

Ideally, an ordinary boy would reject the fact that his friend is a murderer. However, the film puts a hefty significance on the similarities between Eli and Oskar, making Oskar’s acceptance of Eli genuine and believable. Oskar is able to accept Eli because he is also interested in killing; while Eli kills for survival, Oskar finds the process of and stigma around murder exciting. While Eli is out killing, Oskar is inspired to take on his tormentors, making their unlikely friendship a catalyst for mayhem. They are violent and extremely conspicuous, their friendship causing a dangerous undercurrent to stir the town. The key to the authenticity of their friendship is the notion that they need each other. Their personal circumstances create the opportunity for connection.

At the end of the film, the two are seen running away together. It is implied that Oskar will take the place of Eli’s first caretaker, Hakan, and the cycle of friendship will continue. Oskar will grow old while Eli remains the same age, and he will kill for her not only because he loves her but because, for some reason, he gets a certain pleasure from it as well. Alfredson successfully places these two characters on a separate plane from the outside world. He creates a bond between them that removes them from the constrictions of reality, as if their relationship were magic. When the two of them are together, there is a sense that they are unstoppable. Alfredson does this by proving Oskar to be scared, alone, and helpless in a way that only Eli can help him with – as it is apparent that his teachers and parents could not. Oskar goes further to prove that Eli is in need of companionship, in need of love and, ultimately, in need of acceptance. The two characters receive these things from each other, creating a world for themselves.

The way in which Alfredson sculpts these scenes creates a blend of senses, ranging from campy horror to absurd spectacle. These moments are striking in the way that the tension of horror is punctuated by the simple arrival of a dog or a hoard of cats. The scene retains its integrity as part of a horror film, but allows the viewer to focus on something else. No longer engulfed in the action, the viewer is directed to consider the characters themselves. Character motivations are developed through understanding the emotions and incentives affecting each character– understanding Hakan’s love for Eli as his motivation to selflessly kill, understanding Ginia’s devastation as she runs out onto that dark street, and, lastly, understanding Oskar’s sense of belonging as he makes the ultimate decision to run away from his family and everything he’s known to start a new life with his vampire friend.

Author: Ruby Katz is a fourth year at Case Western Reserve University, completing a degree in English Literature and Film Studies. This summer she is the Programs Assistant Intern at Facets.  

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