Twelve-year-old Oscar (Kare Hedebron), bullied at school, lonely and silently revengeful, befriends his new neighbour, palely androgynous Eli (Lina Leandersson) also twelve. She encourages him to fight back against his schoolboy tormentors, and gradually they realise their love for each other. But her arrival coincides with a series of bloody attacks and murders, and she displays strange characteristics which cause Oscar to realise she is a vampire. Local suspicion of the girl grows, and she prepares to run, seemingly abandoning Oscar as he prepares to face up to the bullies’ leader. The climax, involves a grisly outcome in the local swimming baths, and a brief suggestion of a fantasy world constructed from unhappiness and an empty apartment next door, before it ends with questions raised regarding the possibility of a life together for the strange couple, whether they can escape the consequences of Elie’s nature, and the price that Oscar will pay.
Former Swedish TV director Tomas Alfredson’s first feature film mixes the teen fantasy vampire genre with a realist strand of teenage romance, and one of school bullying, and turns these apparent mismatches into an unexpectedly visual, emotive and affecting version of the horror genre. The chill beauty of the location and cinematography acts metaphorically for the theme and dialogue, producing a remarkable original take on the vampiric norms, by a director who claims no previous knowledge or interest in the genre yet has skilfully reinvented its use of iconography, for a twist on audience expectations.
Alfredson’s wry description of his film as ‘Romeo and Juliet, written by Strindberg’ neatly combines two key aspects of the focus put on this adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel and screenplay. Alfredson places the emphasis firmly on the developing pre-teen love story between the meekly pale and lonely Oskar, and his strange, equally pale, new neighbour Eli, his mirror image, dark, active and strong. But there, despite the romance focus, the ‘Twilight-esque’ comparisons end, since Eli’s undead status is more Swedish than Hollywood vampire-light; a coolly semi-realist depiction of the fantasy myth.
Critic, Philip French, points out that the vampire pervades Swedish art, from Edvard Munch’s ‘Vampire’, through to numerous Strindberg heroines, indeed the remix in this version links back to Dreyer’s Vampyr with its strangely androgynous, yet female-named, undead one, here reworked in the ambiguous sexuality of Eli, whose appearance seems to belie her declaration that, ‘I am not a girl’; one of many moments left open for viewer interpretation of unresolved verbal or visual hints.
Alfredson’s re-Vamp of the genre turns on this light establishing of the factual or fantasy status of events. The combination of the horror myth with the well-trodden themes of coming of age narratives, make both new. To this end, Oskar’s state as a passively bullied 12-year-old is placed at the centre of his characterisation; opening scenes depicting his violent knifing of a tree and his collection of newspaper cuttings of murderers and suicides making clear his revengeful powerlessness.
The location is detailed through the cold barriers and concrete structures of suburban Stockholm; ostensibly the Blackeberg housing estate of the novel, but mostly filmed further north, in Leth, to increase the metaphoric and the actual, coldness of the urban snowscapes. The realist stylistics can be discerned in a narrative centred on domestic and school settings, and played out in the various parental failures surrounding the young couple, from Oskar’s non-communicating divorcing parents to the elderly man Hakan, who cares for Eli, and who later proves to be another area of unexplained ambiguity, perhaps a former lover. Yet, even these day-to-day elements are imbued with a Gothic air, from the horror techniques used in the shooting of some of the school corridor scenes, to the betrayal through casual neglect of Oskar’s visits to his father. They are more explicit in Hakan’s grim though inexpert blood-gathering excursions, yet conversely the filming remains observationally matter-of-fact. The objects and locations, 1980s blocks of flats, the playground where Oskar and Eli meet, and the Rubik’s cube which he presents to her, increase this realist air, seen too in the naturalistic dialogue of the young people’s developing relationship: their exchanges as Oscar slowly takes in the uncanny aspects of his companion, notably seen in the scene where, lying side by side in bed, they discuss, without resolution, the nature of Eli’s life, her age, and questions over her gender and humanity.
The horror aspects of the stylistics, though given less prominence than the genre might suggest, are none the less highly effective when they occur. Hakan’s failed blood gathering in the forest is paralleled by Eli’s own bloodletting, narratively minimised through emphasis on its necessity due to Hakan’s ineptitude; when it comes, it is surprisingly graphic, animalistic and shocking – a jump onto her prey from the bridge of an underpass with the location carefully chosen for the greatest effect of height. A school skating trip combines the icy stillness of location with the generic expectation of frozen corpse discovery, set up through Hakan’s disposal of victims, and skilfully combined with an early incident of Oskar’s revenge on his persecutors; both a neat dovetailing of narrative strands and a precursor of the anticipated but withheld final bloodbath – aptly continuing the low-key re-inventions of genre in its placement in the municipal swimming pool.
These generic set pieces serve as a contrast to the downplayed hints of Eli’s vampiric nature, only gradually revealed, to the audience as to Oskar; her incapacity to feel cold, ‘I’ve forgotten how –’, added to her inability to match Oskar’s precise statement of his age, in years and days. To visit Hakan in hospital we glimpse her scaling the walls like a veteran of the Murnau Nosferatu tradition. But some aspects of mythic convention receive further twists, as when we see a glimpse of her lapping blood on the ground to avoid giving Oscar the vampiric bite, while the titular necessary invitation to enter receives full focus as vampire lore, in Eli’s demonstration of the consequence of entering without invitation, shown in an affecting scene as her eyes stream with tears of blood, described by critic Peter Bradshaw as ‘a haemophilia of rejection’.
Perhaps the most graphic of the horror moments is connected only indirectly to the main couple through their older counterparts, the local Lacke and his love Virginia. She provides the most direct evidence of Eli’s gruesome effect, detailed for us at her vampiric transformation after being bitten and in her choice of death by sunlight. Lacke’s later attempts at revenge, in his pursuit of Eli and Hakan, ultimately drives Eli to flee: ‘I must go and live, or stay and die’.
The haunting quality of the cinematography is the result of a design which enhances the mixing of the generic horror conventions with the realist. Some of its shots are rooted in the minimalist filmic interventions favoured by the Scandinavian Dogme group of filmmakers – highly influential in Scandi film largely due to the Trollenberg location of von Trier’s studios. When Oskar runs out on his disastrous visit to his father, and decides to hitchhike home at night, the scene is made more affecting by being lit only by the headlights of passing cars. Similarly, the highly effective, and critically acclaimed, sound design is based on real sound, even when later given some digital enhancement; biting into sausages becomes the sound of the vampiric bite, emphasising Alfredson’s intention to bring out the animalistic in human nature. This is ratcheted up a level in the cat attack scenes; even here real cats are used in the mix with stuffed and CGI ones. The lighting again epitomises the effect as cinematographer Van Hoytema invented a technique they called ‘flat light’ to spread and dull rather than to pick out features; this is enhanced by the process of using mostly fixed camerawork, and minimal editing, to produce a pervading effect of frozen stillness.
For the most part, the filmic point of view remains determinedly mid-level, observational, and distanced. This is enhanced by Alfredson’s emphasis on eyes, their level and focus. He has commented on the influence of portraits by Holbein, where the eye direction is slightly out of the frame. In his own use of this technique the focus is initially at some distance, coming into close up as the film progresses. This can be seen to great effect in a culminating moment, the scene of Oskar and Eli’s first kiss, which is deliberately held back by the director for fullest impact. Significantly, this is the moment when Oskar decides for Eli, and against humanity, despite her necessarily murderous lifestyle, having just witnessed her dispatching of the vengeful Lacke. Consequently, the kiss takes place with the blood of the kill still on her lips; the eye level is over the shoulders of both, rather than locking, yet the effect, if coolly depicted, is full of pathos, suggesting loss as well as gain.
Critic Peter Bradshaw has commented that perhaps the film concentrates on horror effects to the detriment of its generic narrative suspense. Yet, the determined ambiguity creates its own suspense, through the gaps and questions left; those regarding Eli’s long undead life, occasionally brought home through hints such as her production of a Faberge egg, and especially in the gradual realisation of the likely outcome of pursuing the relationship for Oskar. Most strikingly, a narratively playful ‘false ending’ scene precedes the final outcome: Oskar is apparently left alone, as Eli prepares to run for her life, and the possibility of her as an entirely imagined solution, situated in the empty apartment next door, is briefly presented to us, only to be subsumed by events.
A shot described by the director as ‘Hitchcockian’ presents a bird’s eye view which alerts the viewer to a presaging of a bloody outcome, as the culmination of both the mismatched love plot and the bullying theme takes place in a nail-biting bathing scene, when Oskar is lured by one of the bully gang, for a head-on underwater challenge. The scene does not disappoint, presenting a stunning underwater view of the dismembered results of Eli’s eventual keeping of her earlier promise ‘be stronger than you dare – and I will help you’ – disturbing close-ups of Oskar’s head held under widen out to reveal the consequences of Eli’s superhuman nature; much as the narrative of the film as a whole has done.
In a switch of mood back to the more continuous low-key atmosphere, the lovers are reunited in a setting reminiscent of the pursuit in the nineteenth century version of the myth in Bram Stoker’s novel, as a train journey effects the couple’s removal from the bloodletting, reinstating the emphasis on the lovers. It also adds to the effect of ambiguity, in both the generic suspense generated through waiting to reveal the next location to be infected, and the emotive suspense of Oskar’s hurtling, perhaps knowingly, towards a Hakanesque future. The vampiric icon of the coffin is cleverly reworked as a trunk onto which Oskar makes use of the Morse code previously used to communicate through the barriers of walls between their neighbouring apartments. Now, from the protection of the trunk the encoffined Eli taps ‘kiss’, to which Oskar’s tapped reply is ‘small kiss’. The force of genre has overridden our briefly encouraged suspension of belief, while the ambiguity of the situation enhances rather than lessens its emotive effect, in the viewer’s knowledge that Eli’s decision to ‘leave and live’ may well be self-destructive for Oskar.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Sweden. Production Company: EFTI, Sandrew Metronome, Filmpool Nord, Sveriges Television, WAG. Director: Thomas Alfredson. Screenwriter: John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapted from his novel). Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema. Sound Design: Per Sundstrom. Cast: Kare Hedebrant (Oskar), Lina Leandersson (Eli), Per Ragnar (Hakan), Peter Carlberg (Lacke), Ika Nord (Virginia).]
Mariah Larsson and Anders Marklund, Swedish Film: An Introduction and Reader, Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2010.
Elizabeth Miller and Dacre Stoker, eds, The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker, London: Robson Press, 2012.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.