ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Swedish Death, American Style

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Erich Kuersten

"A film by Matt Reeves" (Cloverfield), Let Me In (2010) barely even acknowledges it's a remake of a 2008 Swedish film, Let the Right One In (dir. Thomas Alfredson), which was an adaptation of a Swedish book by John Ajvide Lindqvist. The American version keeps the snowy, desolation via a wintry Los Alamos, New Mexico, with Kodi Smith McPhee as the human boy, and the startling Chloe Grace Moretz as the vampire. One of the changes from the original are scenes where Moretz morphs into the CGI silhouette of a pit bull to attack her victims (seen in silhouette). In quieter moments she's startlingly ageless and we're forced to contend with the idea that she could be five or five hundred; she may not even be a she, may have picked her young girl form for maximum lure effectiveness the way a Venus flytrap uses a sticky sweet scent. She could be a thousand year old shapeshifting venus fly cactus. This mystery enhances the bizarre love story at the film's heart. It's one we all know- the old lover making way for the new - but in this case, oh man, we're talking some serious age differences, and some childhood sexual undercurrents that American cinema wouldn't dare try on its own without Sweden and critical acclaim for the original to guide its way.

Part of Bergman's legacy is the association of Swedish cinema and fearlessly Freudian chamber drama, contextualizing aberrance such as Let the Right One In provides. Having a Swedish original to work from enables American filmmakers to explore the darker side of childhood in ways it never could on its own, allowing us to discover anew the sensitive time of early childhood when empathy and compassion begins to replace infantile sadism. It's a delicate transformation, and easily drowned by the desire for companionship, safety, validation, power, and revenge against one's enemies. If the motivation for so many American remakes of Swedish films boils down to middle America's hatred of subtitles, the ability to depict things American films never could otherwise is surely a close, unspoken second. Ever since Spielberg's E.T., American filmmakers have shied away from portraying kids as anything but saints or, occasionally, evil demons... if the horror comes it does so via demonic possession or skeevy male abductors. Never are kids depicted as complexly sadistic and/or ignored - is neglect 'worse' than 'physical' abuse? Is there even a difference?

Having these topics come from Sweden washes the blood off our hands as nervous Yanks. We can do more dark stuff with kids, because hey, it's a remake, of a Swedish film. I have a feeling the same marker of moral responsibility exemption will accompany the sexual violence in Fincher's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake. Thus the Swedish cinema has re-attained its status as America's go-to taboo breaker, a status it won back in 1967 with I am Curious... Yellow, a film that dared to not just show sex, but to show realistic sex, as part of the experiences of a young leftist blonde girl and her older lover filmmaker. The protagonist's sexual openness isn't 'titillating' as much as a provocation . Americans were allowed to see it as 'art' and since it made money, the stage was set for the XXX boom. The leftist politics and new wave handheld style was forgotten but the sex was kept. The phrase 'Swedish erotica' became a redundancy, like American jazz, or Argentine tango.

The original Let the Right One In (2008) dared to assume the American art house market would abandon prurience and moral outrage over the whole child sexuality angle and remember instead the mix of loneliness and exalted terror that is being a child, those pre-empathic Lord of the Flies, Over the Edge kind of feelings from the days when we were sent to our rooms for trying to rebel, and we rolled around in bed and wished we could just kill our parents and be free to eat candy all the time; the agony of being called in by your parents, right when you were about to play a game of 'doctor' with your hot neighbor. When you ran outside after wolfing down your warm milk and yucky vegetables, she was gone.

And of course there's the promise built into such longing that if you wish really hard and pine adequately, your pain will have a correspondingly momentous gratification. That's a myth of childhood innocence, a delusion destined to be crushed, except in the shadows of cinema. We expect once we're old enough to do what we want, all these woes will cease. Til then we believe that the harder we pine for our heart's desire, the more inevitably it will become ours, and oh how great our joy will be when we get it. Thus we pine, and it becomes a hard habit to break until you're old enough to learn it's a sucker's paradise.

American media spends its waking hours devoted to making us think that dream still will come true, but usually it ends up making us think we should act like the dream already has, to appease it, to show it yes we're ecstatic, so stop shoving luxury sedan and Miller Lite commercials in our faces. Since we don't remember dying we never will remember if this lost childhood desire, the one game of doctor we never did get to play thanks to that call for dinner--ever came true, in this or any other life we've lived. We never remember catching our dragon by anything but the tail, yet chase we on. At least at night, when castrating moms all slumber, what frozen Swedish dreams may come to our screens, hopefully not dubbed?

So I stuck Lisa Sherzinger with a Santa Clause pin when I was five, on purpose, after the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day parade. Her parents came over and with my parents they sat me down and told me how cruel that was, that it was the wrong thing to do, and I cried. Why tell you this? Because I grew out of it, but if I was abused as a child maybe I wouldn't have; or if I never got caught or Lisa liked it or her parents didn't come over and rat me out. All children are born sociopathic, and emotional arrest can occur at any age. Around the same time we were inundated by Japanese beetles and parents paid us to pick them off trees and throw them into soapy water we carried in jars and buckets... some kids got into burning them, torturing them. One day I saw one twisting in pain, bleeding black blood, and the empathy kicked in and I grew sickened even by the sight of deep yellow water we drowned them in.

These issues of empathy and how easily neglect can arrest its growth are fearfully avoided by mainstream cinema. Meanwhile child sexuality has been so demonized in our country that we put our kids in a dangerous position, for to quote Lou Reed, "the first thing that they see that allows them the right to be / why they follow it." So the only sex they know is coded into the breakfast fibers of MTV.

It's our bad luck (but Stephanie Meyers' great fortune) that our over-mediated adult brains can't grasp the childhood sexual desire for what it is, something that exists on a far weirder plane than normal 'genital phase' biology; a love that is more Jungian than Freudian; a love that roots kids to Twilight, to Let the Right One In, and to Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and anywhere they can fantasize themselves into a situation free of the horrible drama of reproduction and physical enslavement for corporate paychecks. These aren't stories or films but alternate realities wherein lies the only chance to experience love and acceptance free of conditions and biological punctuation. In cozy mansions full of wizardry and crushes, or old growth Pacific Northwest hideaways we are safe from the romantic desire that tortures children through the long nights before cartoons come on again and cereal commercials wash the pain away.

Let Me In sinks its teeth into these ideas, though in my opinion it would work far better if the bullies were made a little less over-the-top despicable, or if Kodi's character had some hobby or interest other than Rubik's cubes and paranoia, or if some of the offenses made against the good kids were merely routine harassment rather than sadistic brutality related with intense shots usually reserved for disturbing rape-revenge films. Still, that was an issue with the original, so I won't knock it too loud... I don't know if this film improves on the original or not, but I'm glad it's here if only for Moretz as the vampire, who I like a lot better than the admittedly more lupine looking Lina Leandersson. Actually, Moretz's appearance seems to echo the boy in the Swedish version, which was perhaps intentional. He's the blondest.

American Cinema may hopefully learn from Scandinavia to be more brave in its future teen and tween horror movies and attempt to delve into the minds of under-parented children and--for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo English language remake-exploited women, from a farther outside perspective than the sensationalistic moral outrage approach its been falling back on since the 1980s. What made the Swedish versian an art house hit was its willingness to go in a dozen directions most vamp films fear to tread, with kids no less--America's most idolized demographic!-- even as it tore vampire mythologies down to logical anachronisms as if embarrassed by them.

Let's hope producers of the future realize new, brave directions are what gets notice, and don't think it's some alchemical combination of supernatural lore and teenager angst, bonding together while enduring harsh environs to alt emo hits. It was never about the sex and violence, or the brooding, it was always about the blissful moment when one is presented with the option of the first bong hit, the first drink, the first sexual encounter, the first realizations that one might do and experience things outside the known parameter of one's parents' knowledge, including dying before them. If your parents' world sucks, you don't have to live in it - being made into a monster can set you free. It's not just an affliction, it's a cure on a level that always seems just out of reach. If the Swedes can admit that, maybe we can too. Maybe we can finally remember that childhood isn't a Norman Rockwell miracle, and that we too have at times been so lonely that we no longer feared the monster under the bed, but climbed down under and joined it.

c.2011 Acidemic

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244