Tuesday was the first day of the rad horror class I’m taking as part of my final semester in grad school. I’ve been SO excited about this class since I found out my school was offering it, and became even more thrilled when I saw the syllabus. The class is primarily focusing on the genre in relation to disabilities, how they are/can be depicted within horror, and how they are commented upon within the genre. The films we are watching are prime, and the cohort in the class seems awesome (the class makeup is pretty much entirely women with the exception of one very sweet dude). I’m pumped about this class, to say the least.
As if I weren’t already excited enough about the class, the first film we watched is the brilliant 2008 Swedish vampire film, Let the Right One In. I have a soft place in my heart for vampire flicks, but this one nears the top of my list (right behind A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and The Hunger). This brilliantly patient horror film directed by Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson follows 12-year-old Oskar, a bullied kid who meets Eli, a young girl who moves into his building. The two develop a friendship that turns romantic as Eli helps Oskar stand up to his bullies. However, as the two become closer, Oskar discovers Eli’s dark secret: rather than being a 12-year-old human girl, she is in fact a vampire who’s god knows how old. Set against the snowy, eerily desolate backdrop of an early 1980s Stockholm suburb, Let the Right One In is a gently brutal study of violence in relationship to both masculinity and femininity.
I’m fairly certain the last time I watched Let the Right One In was during my undergraduate studies, likely in the last horror class I took. I loved it then, and love it even more now. At the time, the term “toxic masculinity” was barely creeping into our social lexicon (at least to my knowledge), let alone at the time the film was made. However, this term is extremely apropos to this film. The character of Oskar conveys the innocence that is often lost when young boys endure serious violence for the first time in their lives. While the first scene we see of Oskar is him practicing standing up to his tormentors with a knife, it becomes instantly clear that the child is only doing this as a form of self defense. Oskar doesn’t fight back whenever his bullies attack him, whether it be verbally or physically. However, the question of whether or not violence becomes a necessity soon arises when Eli tells Oskar to hit back. This question manifests when Conny, Oskar’s main tormentor, and his cronies approach Oskar while on an ice skating field trip. Conny tells Oskar that he plans to harm him while slowly approaching the nervous boy, but never gets the chance to even raise a hand; Oskar quickly strikes Conny with a pole before he can get too close, splitting his ear. While Oskar has every right to defend himself and was indeed outnumbered, the question of whether Oskar displayed too much violence is raised. Despite Conny and the others having previously harmed Oskar (they hit him with a switch in an earlier scene, leaving a thin gash along Oskar’s cheek), he takes the violence to the next level in this incident. Conny is to the hospital, making this injury by far the most serious between the four boys. While it is debatable whether or not Oskar had the right to display such forceful violence, there is no arguing that this moment in his life has a lasting impact. In one of the following scenes, Oskar boldly takes the knife that he had been keeping on him for self defense and casually slices the palm of his hand, offering for Eli to do the same so that they can make a “blood pact.” While this seems minor in comparison to the violence he committed against Conny, Oskar’s nonchalant demeanor in which he slices his hand open is fairly alarming. While in previous scenes he had kept the fairly minor cut from the switch on his cheek bandaged for a number of days, Oskar almost proudly displays the large laceration that spans his entire palm.
Though we never quite see the full cycle of violence play out with Oskar in the film itself, it is highly implied that his use of violence will only escalate as he grows into adulthood. Throughout the film, we learn that Eli has an adult human male caretaker (with the implication that there have been others prior to her current one) who murders humans so that he can gather their blood for her to drink, allowing her to avoid the violence that is inherent to being a vampire. By the end of the film, Eli decides to skip town in fear that she will be discovered by the townsfolk. Rather than allowing her to go, Oskar decides to join her. The film ends with Oskar sitting “alone” on a train, a large trunk in front of him. We soon realize that Eli is in the trunk, and that he is transporting her to wherever their new home is. It becomes clear that he is her new caretaker, suggesting that he will eventually murder innocent humans for Eli’s consumption like the caretaker(s) before him. While Oskar is indeed a child, he is at an age where he absolutely understands the lasting damage of violence, and more so death. Oskar chooses to become friends with Eli (despite her telling him that she cannot be his friend), Oskar chooses to fight fire with fire when Conny bullies him, Oskar chooses to follow Eli, and it is implied that Oskar will ultimately choose to become a murderer. What I love so much about this film is the bold statement on the relationship between masculinity and violence that film’s director, Alfredson, makes: while violence is alarmingly common in men, it is absolutely not inherent.
Alfredson does not limit his views on violence to men, however, as he demonstrates with Eli. Even in 2019, women are often looked upon as “sugar and spice and everything nice.” Our society rarely discusses murderous and violent women, and when we do we see them as “abnormalities” or “freaks.” However, just like men, women are susceptible to violent acts. The main difference between men and women in regards to violence is why women who commit violent acts do so. In the case of Eli, violence is a necessity to her survival as a vampire; she must drink human blood to live. Unlike most vampires in pop culture, however, Eli employs men to do her bidding so that she does not have to get her hands bloody (literally). This poses a crucial question: just because Eli is not committing the violence (for the most part, but more on that later), does that make it OK? At the end of the day, a victim still dangles upside down from a tree, the blood spilling from his throat staining the pure snow beneath him. Does her hand not being at the end of the knife that slit the throat make her any more justified in the victim’s murder? Or because she didn’t necessarily pick the victim? She still deployed the order to kill. Worse yet, she had a non-vampire do the killing. While we do not know whether or not she coerced her original caretaker, Håkan, into becoming her companion, we do know that Oskar becomes her new caretaker on his own volition. But does that make it better? He is still a young, susceptible boy who does not understand the gravity of his decision to go with her. How can he at his age? Regardless of her male companions’ choices to follow her, she is ultimately the deciding factor in whether they are allowed to kill for her or not.
Rather than leaving us with just these questions, Alfredson complicates Eli’s morality when she takes the reins herself and harms not one, but multiple victims by her own hand. When Håkan is unable to provide her with a sufficient amount of blood, she becomes starved and decides to hunt on her own out of desperation. Later, when Håkan is caught attempting to murder for Eli, he decides to pour acid on his face to prevent the authorities from identifying him and finding Eli. While in the hospital, Eli “mercy kills” him, as he no longer serves any purpose to her. Finally, Eli saves Oskar from being drowned by Conny’s older brother by brutally decapitating his head and disemboweling the other young boys who watched on. While all these brutishly violent acts are arguably committed out of “necessity,” the definition of “necessity” is raised. Did Håkan really need to die? While his facial injuries are severe to say the least, he could arguably live on to lead a life beyond his new disability. Did Eli need to decapitate Conny’s brother, or could she have scared him off with her supernatural powers? Were the other boys’ deaths necessary? Finally, the ultimate question is posed: does Eli need to kill humans at all? For her to live, absolutely. However, does Eli need to continue living? While we never learn her actual age, it is implied that Eli has lived far beyond the average human lifespan. Why should she be allowed to live multiple lifetimes over while the lives she feeds off of are cut short? Despite rooting Eli and Oskar on as the heroes of the film, should we be?
Violence, with few exceptions, is a choice, not a natural instinct. There is a certain dignity in this assertion that is not often given to men; many (if not most) forms of art and media that depict male violence often assumes that men are violent by nature, and that that violence cannot be contained. Alfredson instead insists that no, men have a choice in violence just as much as women do. Similarly, Alfredson asserts that women are just as capable of violence as men, a notion that is rarely explored. There are numerous reasons for this, part of which he implies is linked to women’s relationship to blood (a topic I may further explore in another blog post), but ultimately comes down to the fact that like men, women are human. Of course the woman we see committing violent acts in this particular film happens to be a vampire, but for all intents and purposes, she is representing human women. While Eli may be supernatural, she looks and feels the emotions of humans. At the end of the day, Alfredson seems to conclude that violence is not a male or female issue; rather, it is a human issue. While that conclusion may seem fairly evident to some, it is quite a bold statement to make, even today. It’s this honest (albeit dark) verdict that is the reason I still keep coming back to Let the Right One In, and always will.