Oskar is bullied at school and at home tends to retreat into his own violent fantasies. Oskar’s life changes when he makes friends with the mysterious and unkempt twelve-year-old Eli. However, when locals start falling victim to a series of gruesome murders, many drained of their blood, Oskar starts to put two and two together and realises Eli might just be exactly what she seems.
Hollywood had a brief craze for remaking Japanese horror films a few years ago and now it’s the turn of Scandinavian cinema. Witness such recent US studio reworkings as Brothers, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Let Me In, the latter based on Swedish cult horror favourite Let the Right One In.
This week SBS is giving viewers a chance to see the original young vampire story, based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist.
Tomas Alfredson’s suburban vampire story knocked out not only hordes of horror aficionados but also many cinephiles with no special interest in the genre, a category that includes this reviewer. It also hit the film festival and independent cinema circuit before the hype around the Twilight movie series had made the phrase 'teenage vampire romance" synonymous with 'bloodsucking corporate franchise".
Not that the male and female characters at its centre are quite teenagers – pale adolescent Oskar, a victim of school bullies who lives alone with his mother, and the mysterious dark-hair girl Eli who moves in to the flat next door, are 12-years-old. Well, kind of. (She memorably tells him, 'I’ve been 12 for a very long time"). It’s also arguable whether it’s strictly a horror film. While it features many of the elements common to the genre – shocks, blood, violence, a creeping sense of doom – the extent to which it sets out to scare or repulse the audience is arguable.
At its heart this is a touching, pre-teen and essentially non-sexual love story in which one of the lovers is scared of what her instincts may force her to do against her will – harm or kill the one she cares for. This contradictory tussle between free will and the forces of determinism structures everything that happens and explains the unusual blend of tenderness and creeping dread that gives even the quietest scenes a knife-edge degree of tension.
An experienced filmmaker with no special interest in, or knowledge of, the horror genre, Alfredson ignores all the usual vampire tropes and clichés to treat the developing relationship between his two young outsiders utterly seriously. By grounding the tale in realism, he makes its fantastic elements, such as characters suddenly bursting into flames or leaping up the side of a building with preternatural agility, firmly grounded.
The basic spine of the story thus proceeds in the relatively uninflected style of a European art film in which human emotions are treated with a great deal of subtlety. Yet masterfully this is done without compromising the tale’s more gothic elements; Alfredson proves himself a master of shock and spectacle, weaving into his scenes of quiet deliberation a handful of coups de cinema, moments that cause a sharp intake of breath and have the viewer rubbing eyes in disbelief. The film suggests great violence without ever wallowing in gore, using instead a brilliant sound design and allowing the flesh tearing to happen in darkness or off-screen in ingenious ways I guarantee you have never seen before. A truly brilliant and deeply memorable film.
Read an interview with director Tomas Alfredson here