“Are you old?”
“I’m twelve. But I’ve been twelve a long time.”
Sweden appears to be the new hot spot for vampires, and why not? It’s night most of the winter, and the cold is no concern to a creature that doesn’t feel anything. So when bullied schoolboy Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a loner so blond he looks albino, finds another loner, Eli (Lina Leandersson), hanging around the snow-covered playground of his Stockholm suburb in short sleeves, unfazed by the frozen night, we worry for him.
Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish vampire film is a young love horror piece full of moods and twisted allegiances: we can’t justify the killing of these victims (although I did get some satisfaction out of the bullies getting theirs as they torture Oskar in the final scene), but we like this girl and enjoy their friendship. I wrote “young love” above, but it’s really about a powerful friendship in a world where they are both outcasts.
The scene where the neighborhood drunk, part of the group that gathers every night at the pub, finds Eli under the bridge, has a lovely delicacy to it as he picks up the girl to carry her to safety. But the lighting and composition evokes the scene in A Clockwork Orange where the droogs beat a tramp. Eli is no droog, she’s a predator and this is a “wounded animal” trap. The vulnerability and tenderness turn feral when she does.
The film draws upon much of vampire-movie lore: the cats that hiss in her presence, crawling up the side of a building, unable to enter a home without being invited (when she shows why to Oskar, it’s horrifying – she starts to bleed out), and sleeping her days away in a kind of coffin (wrapped in blankets in a bathtub). When she attacks, she sounds like a jungle cat on the kill, completely feral, and when Oskar cuts himself (for a childhood ritual of sharing blood, Indian style), her inability to resist is marvelous. When she’s outside in the snow, she doesn’t feel the cold, even when in short sleeves at night. And her suspicious “guardian” who scurries around at night looking for victims is a great take on the “Renfield” servant/slave in thrall to the vampire. Yet his feelings are paternal as well.
The film can’t sustain its tone. It wanders through the almost two-hour running time and loses some of its power in side stories which, though interesting, are distracting. The local woman who survives the attack and turns into a vampire herself is a little too self-aware of a nightmare situation. It’s a fascinating perspective on the ordeal of a human transforming into monster, but it’s a different movie and a distraction.
But Alfredson’s icy thriller casts the vampire lore in an evocative setting and adds new edges (Eli sounds like a jungle cat on the kill when she attacks), unusual moods and a skewed sensibility to the genre. The film is both innocent and feral and offers a smart and satisfying reworking to the vampire thriller.
I review the film in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.