[This is an essay I did for my Twentieth-Century Supernatural Fiction course. Some people might find it interesting. It compares the horror novel Let the Right One In with its two film versions]
Tomas Alfredson, who directed 2008’s Let the Right One In, says in the audio commentary regarding the differences between book and film, “You don’t have to compare them, really. They are autonomous pieces of art.” This is by way of heading off criticism of the film for its very necessary “disloyalty” to the source material. But the omissions and reinterpretations of both film versions- Matt Reeves’ Let Me In and Alfredson and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2008 adaptation of the latter’s novel- shed a lot of critical light on all three as “autonomous pieces of art”. Rather than being three presentations of the same story, with differences only in length, depth and accents, each presents a qualitatively different experience.
Both the Alfredson- Lindkvist team and Matt Reeves choose to focus on the love story between Eli and Oskar, with Håkan’s paedophilia, for instance, “an unnecessarily lurid distraction” for a two-hour film, left out. The two biggest omissions, however, the sub-plots concerning Tommy and Håkan which come together in the book’s most horrifying scene, are part of the thematic bedrock of the novel. We might be forgiven for thinking that “the archetypal monster”, as a journalist at one point calls the undead Håkan, only shambles into view towards the end. But this essay is intended to show that on a thematic level the monster is lurking in the background throughout the novel, and sometimes bursting to the foreground. The films, therefore, have to compensate for a very important but necessarily absent element. The radical re-imagining necessitated by this has produced two very interesting pieces of cinema.
Stephen King in his 1981 (good year…) book on horror fiction, Danse Macabre, separates the majority of horror stories into three categories represented by three monsters: Frankenstein’s creation, Dracula and Jekyll/Hyde. According to King’s definition Eli, interestingly, seems to have more in common with Frankenstein’s monster than with Stoker’s. King, observes that Mary Shelley in Frankenstein splits the reader in two: “the reader who wants to stone the mutation and the reader who feels the stones and cries out at the injustice of it all.”
Let the Right One In features a similar conflict. One critic has pointed out how we are simultaneously shocked by Eli’s atrocities and sympathetic to how Oskar draws new life and purpose from their relationship. The trick that Let the Right One In, in both media, plays on us is how Eli’s “desolate” and miserable life and her awful past awaken our sympathy and, like Oskar, we see past her monstrosity. However, our sympathy with Eli goes deeper than that.
King characterizes Vampirism in fiction as an excuse to re-enact “the primal rape scene”. This is sex cleaned-up, freed from all responsibility by being totally oral. Vampirism is about sexual domination, and allows adolescent viewers and readers who are scared of sex but have sexual desires to “vicariously exercise” their feelings. Eli, a 12-year-old girl (apparently) who preys on older men and women, is a total reversal of this standard relationship of sexual domination. This is partly why she is so sympathetic: we are accustomed to sexual overtones with regard to vampirism. We need not try to understand Dracula’s lust for blood; we already understand, on some animalistic level, his evident sexual urges. A simple change of age and sex makes us re-examine the vampire and ask what her motives are.
However, when Mark Kermode says that Let the Right One In “really isn’t to do with sex at all” he is clearly not thinking of the scene in which Håkan ejaculates onto a cubicle wall while spying on naked young boys. Kermode is mainly commenting on the film version with which “they’ve gone to some trouble to take out the sexual element that’s in the novel”. Here we depart briefly from the movies, chiefly to examine this major sexual element whose absence has massive implications for the film versions.
With the undead Håkan, Lindqvist utterly de-sanitizes the vampire, presenting it in its true form: as a sexual predator. But Håkan also transcends vampirism and becomes “the archetypal monster”, taking on a new form in Tommy’s eyes when the teenager is “locked into a sound-proofed room with the thing he [is] most afraid of.” Oskar, early on, finds himself in front of the door of that same sound-proofed room and drifts into one of his characteristic reveries:
Oskar stood in front of the massive iron door and a thought appeared. That someone… someone was locked in here. That’s what the chains and lock were for. To restrain a monster.
In fact, the world of the novel is crawling with monsters long before Eli arrives. Lindqvist did not originally intend to write a vampire novel- he simply wanted something horrible to happen in Blackeberg. Tommy is haunted by fears of zombies after his father’s death. Newspapers take “ghoulish delight” in Håkan’s gruesome exploits. Gösta lives amid a horde of freakish, inbred, deformed cats. Oskar’s father’s friend Janne looks like he has “deformed flippers” and suffers from a skin disease which makes his face turn “rotten blood orange” in summertime. The father himself is called a werewolf. Between Eli and his father, Oskar is forced to ask himself “which monster do you choose?” Or in other words, which is the right one to let in?
This is because the real horror in Let the Right One In and is not Eli but is inherent in society. King talks about the “nice” American small town into which something terrible intrudes in the typical horror film. Lindqvist, similarly, calls Blackeberg “a good place”, but his purpose is equivocal and ironic: “It makes one think of coconut-frosted cookies, maybe drugs.” Historians and sociologists agree that many of the suburbs of Stockholm, particularly Vällingby, which features heavily in the novel, are ill-conceived, ill-designed, depressing, alienating communities.
Staffan, a church-going policeman whose house is decorated with cutesy ornaments and figurines, has a thin veneer of “niceness” that covers a real cruelty, rage and desire for control. Another cinematic omission, he complements the undead Håkan. Like the monster hiding in the basement under “a good place” like Blackeberg, he shows his true self when he threatens to hit Yvonne, Tommy’s mother. Tommy disturbs Staffan seriously by asking him, perhaps innocently, whether he has ever shot anyone, and then by pressing the issue: “But you’d like to, wouldn’t you?” Staffan may be hunting for monsters like Håkan, but there is another monster lurking inside him.
Lacke’s drunken outburst is the culmination of this paranoid sense that something monstrous is lurking behind calm, everyday life in Blackeberg- the drugs behind the coconut-frosted cookies:
Something went wrong. They thought all this out, planned it to be… perfect […] And in some damn wrinkle it went wrong […] like they had some idea about […] the angles of the buildings, in their relation to each other […] So it would be harmonious or something. And they made a mistake… so that it was a little off at the start and it went downhill from there. So you walk here with all these buildings and you just feel that… no. No, no, no. You shouldn’t be here. This place is all wrong, you know?
In his 1927 short story “The Call of Cthulhu” HP Lovecraft describes the sunken “corpse-city” of R’lyeh in a way that sounds strikingly similar to Lacke’s impression of Blackeberg: “the geometry [of the city] was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.” Deep beneath its “crazily elusive angles” lurks Great Cthulhu, a monster every bit as grotesque and disturbing as the undead, deformed, sexually aroused Håkan.
The eventual appearance of the Håkan-monster, masturbating in the basement doorway, produces a similar effect to the emergence of Cthulhu. A horror that has only been hinted at is revealed in its entirety, to be confronted at last. There is little to suggest that the echo is deliberate, but the use of geometry to express something deeply and horribly wrong- see also Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House- is nothing new to horror fiction.
Eli and Håkan have been wrestling with their respective desires for most of the novel, while the orderly environment of school is the arena for Oskar’s constant struggle with his bullies. The horror of the 12-year-old toothless prostitute in the public toilets points to an evil underworld with which the novel will have to come to terms. Predatory paedophilia, inhuman urges, total alienation in an inhuman society and the paranoid sense that a monster lurks behind every respectable facade all culminate in a Lovecraftian climax of pure horror. This is a scene which shocks far more than the blunt revenge scene at the pool. Indeed, it shocks so much that it was “more or less unfilmable”, in the words of Alfredson.
The films are left with the task of representing the horror story of Let the Right One In without its most horrific, climactic situation and most of what leads up to it. The two films, despite almost identical plots, are radically different because they take opposite approaches to this problem.
Matt Reeves, director of Cloverfield, comes to the story with a solid horror-movie pedigree and employs the tropes of the genre throughout Let Me In. Lindqvist and Alfredson, the latter “unfamiliar with the horror genre in general”, craft a film with elements of horror, but which moreover is about romance and loneliness. The contrasting approaches of the two films are visible in the opening shots of the two films: Alfredson shows us blocks of flats squatting in absolute stillness, Oskar staring out his window, miserable; Reeves fast-forwards to a more intense part of the story, emphasizing speed and panic as Håkan’s ambulance rushes him to hospital. His heavy, laboured breathing through a machine is disturbingly loud. Medics inform the hospital and the audience that he has just thrown acid over his own face.
Throughout Let Me In, horror and disturbing content are to the fore. The early bullying scenes are shockingly violent, and the murder scenes are spectacularly bloody, the camera lingering on open wounds and following Eli’s swift, inhuman movements. Not only are Owen’s parents split up, they often argue loudly on the phone and his mother drinks heavily. In Let the Right One In, on the other hand, an early bullying scene which looks tame next to Owen’s brutal ordeals was removed from the film’s final cut because its violence upset the pace of the narrative. But the bullying scene we do see happens in the full view of a busy school corridor, and the real horror is on Kåre (Oskar) Hedebrant’s face. The difference between the two films is between understatement and overstatement. Bullying, for instance, need not involve violent kicks to the stomach in order to be truly disturbing.
To return to Håkan as an example, Lindqvist in the screenplay moderates the former’s drinking habits. In the Chinese restaurant he is gulping down milk rather than the novel’s double whiskies. Håkan becomes a somewhat touching, tragicomic figure. This man clearly was never meant to be a killer- he rubs his hands together, a futile gesture attempted to convey normality and enthusiasm; he wears a very un-stylish cap, something Alfredson says was meant to make him more sympathetic, his “murder kit” is badly-cleaned, stained with blood. In the midst of the murder scene, we hear small change rattle in his pocket, reminding us of his normality. The grim and the mundane are emphasized: look out for the picture of the singing man and the dancing woman on the wall of Eli’s kitchen, a cheerful commercial contrast that only serves to heighten the misery of the bare apartment.
Reeves makes Håkan decidedly scarier without making him a paedophile. This version of Håkan kills wearing a mask, with swift efficiency, striking from the back of a car seat while a train is roaring past. His explanation of his failure is that he is tired of his life and on some level wants to be caught. Michael Giacellino’s score has its own sinister cues for “Håkan”, and his appearance and behaviour, and the scene where Abby strokes his face, suggest the novel’s theme of paedophilia. This is suddenly contradicted, however, when Oskar sees the sepia-toned photographs of Abby with what appears to be a young “Håkan”. That Håkan is simply an older version of Oskar is suggested by both films, a solution to the problem of exorcising the Håkan-monster, and one which creates a lot of pathos.
However, Let Me In employs both “versions” of Håkan, playing up the paedophilia initially, looking for “phobic pressure points” here as elsewhere. Religion as a theme is played up, importantly for a film set in nineteen-eighties, moral-majority-era America, which is why we see Ronald Reagan on TV saying, “If America ever ceases to be good…” followed by a dramatic sound effect of a car (or wings?) and the caption, “Two Weeks Earlier”. Reagan here acts like one of the quotations Lindqvist includes before chapters in the novel, a thematic signpost containing elements that will spring up later- and later we see the oath of allegiance being sworn in school, the TV slogan “10pm: Do You know where your children are?”, the religious devotion of Owen’s mother and the spectre of satanic cults that haunts the dogged, nameless policeman. Like in the novel, Reeves employs this theme to suggest superficial facades of respectability, while evoking contemporary fears of religious fanaticism.
This is a horror show with splattering blood, gory wounds, car crashes and a colour scheme of oppressive darkness- in the final pool scene, Oskar’s tormentors even see fit to switch off the lights. Let Me In takes the horror movie approach and thereby compensates for the absence of the final emergence of the monster. Playing up the blood, violence and emotive themes, Let Me In takes a “shock and awe” approach to solving the problem of the missing showdown.
If Reeves takes this fortress by storm, Alfredson and Lindqvist subtly undermine its foundations. The scene in which Håkan is caught in the act of attempted murder is, in the novel, one which foreshadows the later monstrosity- Lindqvist presents us with an aroused, naked Håkan in a ski mask, leaping out on a naked young boy. The equivalent scene in the film has a terrifying moment when a shadow appears in the window behind a clothed, agitated Håkan- but our fear, perversely, is entirely for the attempted murderer. Blurring the boundaries like this really gets under our skin. Since the worst violence and horror in the novel is un-filmable, Alredson and Lindqvist have created a film where what violence and fear remains stands out far more. This means the production must adhere to a standard of grim and miserable realism, even in the course of the most horrific scenes, which accentuates the shock value of the horror elements.
The novel Let the Right One In is about monsters behind harmless facades- Eli’s, Oskar’s, Håkan’s, Blackeberg’s- and about letting these monsters into your life. Virginia puts it this way when she despairs of Lacke’s love for her: “Don’t let them in. Once they’re inside they have more potential to hurt you.” Let Me In, unable to present the culminating monster of the story directly, instead bombards us with the “ambient fear” of the fin-de-siècle USA and presents the story with a pounding intensity. Let the Right One In, meanwhile, in Lindqvist’s radical re-interpretation for the screen, takes on a new life. This social realist interpretation not only re-emphasizes the horror when it breaks through the surface but leaves space for Eli and Oskar to connect in a real and moving way, and allows us to connect with them. In saving the bare essentials of what was apparently a horror novel, Lindqvist and Alfredson transform it into a love story.
- Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, Monster Theory, Minnesota 1996
- King, Stephen, Danse Macabre, Berkeley, 1981
- Lindqvist, John Ajvide, Let the Right One In (novel), trans. Ebba Segerberg, Quercus 2007 (2004)
- Lindqvist, John Ajvide, Let the Right One In (film), directed by Tomas Alfredson, filmed in Stockholm & Luleå, Sweden, produced by John Nordling, Carl Molinder, 2008
- Lovecraft, Howard Phillips, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Tales, Penguin Modern Classics, 2002, original publication of short stories 1917-1935
- Reeves, Matt, Let Me In (film), directed by Matt Reeves, filmed in Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA
 John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let The Right One In (film), dir. Tomas Alfredson, Sweden, produces by John Nordling & Carl Molinder, Special Features, Director/ Writer Commentary, Chapter 5, 45:31
 Philip French, Review, Let the Right One In, The Observer, Sunday 12 April 2009
 Reeves’ Let Me In includes vague hints early on, which are later contradicted, to powerful dramatic effect. This will be discussed later.
 Lindqvist, John Ajvide, Let the Right One In, trans. Ebba Segerberg, Quercus 2007 (2004), p. 378
 Stephen King, Danse Macabre, Berkeley Books, 1981, p. 68, 85
 French, The Observer review. For the sake of simplicity, references to Eli and Oskar can be taken to refer also to their opposite numbers in Los Alamos, Abby and Owen.
 King, pp. 75-77
 Of course, Eli is neither the first child vampire nor the first sympathetic vampire- look up Darren Shan or Anne Rice
 Lindqvist, pp. 130-131
 Interview with Mark Kermode, “The Power of Kermode Compels You!” Glasgow Guardian, February 22nd 2010
 Lindqvist, p. 445
 Lindqvist, pp.107-8
 Commentary 5:29
 Lindqvist, p. 282-3
 King, p. 109, Lindqvist, p. 2
 Lindqvist, p. 398
 Lindqvist, p. 127
 Lindqvist, pp. 368-369
 HP Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, Penguin Classics, London 2002, pp. 165-166
 Lindqvist, pp. 48-49
 Lindqvist (film), Commentary, 15:53
 Lindqvist (film), special features, deleted scenes- number 1, main film, chapter 1, 6:26
 Lindqvist (film), 17:30
 Lindqvist (film) 13:23, 42:39
 Reeves, 22:09
 Reeves, 01:18:56
 King, p. 18
 Reeves, 7:54
 Reeves, 1:26:52
 Lindqvist, pp. 4, 91, 203, 321, 487
 Lindqvist, p. 242
 Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, introduction to Monster Theory, Minnesota 1996, p. vii