Monday, July 9, 2012

Let Me In: the anti-Twilight

Vampires are evil.  It's easy to forget that simple fact, given the way modern culture looks at vampires:

Vampires aren't evil, they are cool!

They have sarcastic anti-hero personalities, and make witty quips while defying authority.  They are super-sexy and seductive.  They have super strength, and can fly, and make awesome boyfriends.  They can have children, and they can half half-vampire children with mortals.

They're basically a race of superheroes, only they can't go in to the sunlight.

They aren't even necessarily undead, either.  As mentioned, they can give birth to offspring.  When I Am Legend (the book) first came out, it offered a new explanation in terms of a virus, and that has become the stock explanation of not only vampires, but zombies, too.

So it's easy to forget where they came from, and that is medieval notions of the antichrist.

Vampires are evil.

Not the cool, sexy evil.  They are the horrifying, creepy, upsetting evil.  You do not want to be a vampire, or know a vampire, or date a vampire, or have babies with a vampire.

I saw a vampire movie recently that, very subtly, I think showcased this more than anything else.

The movie is called Let Me In, and is based on a popular Swedish novel, whose English title is the same.  I have not yet read the book, and so can only comment on the English version of the movie.  If the Swedish book and movie are totally different... then I'm sorry.

In this film, the true nature of vampires is subtle.  You have to piece it together to really understand it, and the pieces are intentionally separated so that you have to piece it together to see it.  When you do, you realize a very different image from the surface.

If you have not seen the film, I recommend that you watch it first.  The movie has a lot of blood and gore, but (blessedly) no sex, and the commentary on the nature of evil in modern society is worth the shock of the violence.  It is one of the only modern movies to treat vampires as actual, classical vampires; the sort of things Russian peasants hundreds of years ago hung up garlic and iron to ward away.

There are SPOILERS ahead.

The film opens in media res, with a very startling hospital scene.  A man in an ambulance is dying of acid burns that have scarred his face and throat, preventing him from even talking or breathing.  He is wanted by the police in connection with ritualistic murders in the area.  When we arrive at the hospital, Ronald Reagan is giving a speech in the background -- the tone of the speech is important, as it concerned the religious and moral integrity of America, and what would happen should that integrity fail.  A police investigator arrives, and questions the man, who is hooked up to ghastly equipment, such as a mechanical lung.

The detective asks him, "Are you a Satanist?  Are you part of a cult?"

As the suspect's heart begins racing, the detective sets a notepad down, telling him to confess and write down everything he knows, then is called to the main lobby for a phone call (the story is set in the 80's before cell phones).  Suddenly, while on the phone (and as Reagan delivers his speech), a monitoring device goes off and orderlies rush to the suspect's room, only to find that he has thrown himself from his room's window and has splattered on the floor.

On the notepad is written "Im Sory Abby" [sic].  The handwriting is childish, the misspellings original.

Ronald Reagan, continuing his speech, says "And if America should fall-"
He's cut off.  We skip back two weeks earlier.

The beginning of the film is the most memorable and leaves the deepest impression.  The tone is set, almost overwhelmingly, that this is a story of good and evil.  This entire beginning scene will not make sense until later in the film.

We go on to a broken family.  The mother is very religious, while her young son (Owen, age 11 or 12) appears indifferent.  The first thing we know about him, after the religious conviction of his mother, is that he lies.  It's a typical preteen lie; "did you spoil your dinner", "no, I promise!", when we just saw him gorging on candy.  His mother is listening to a radio preacher, talking about revival and about America's children coming back to God.  In this scene, and in later scenes, we learn that Owen's mother has had some sort of religious conversion and become devoutly Christian, while his father thinks this new conviction is "crap"; whether it is this conversion or an affair on the father's part that has caused the split is not made clear, but they are undergoing a divorce.  Owen's father is seeing another woman, named "Cindy".  We only know any of this through overheard phone calls between Owen's parents, which shows their relationship very well.

I'm not intending to do a step-by-step walkthrough of the movie, but the tone in the first five minutes is so built up intensely for the shock of the next scene.  After all this talk of death, acid burns in your throat, Ronald Reagan speaking on the moral integrity of America, the mother saying grace and thanking the Lord Jesus for her food, and the radio preacher speaking of revival...

Owen in the movie
... now the movie turns to Owen, alone, in his room.  He is shirtless, wearing a mask, holding a kitchen knife and looking in to a full-length mirror.  He asks "Are you scared, little girl?  You're a little girl, aren't you?"

That says more about this movie than anything else.  In a slasher film, it would be almost campy (imagine Chucky saying this).  But here, it is horrifying, due to the contrast.  The sickening reality of murder (and implied rape) is very unsettling.  Maybe it's also because the speaker is a real person, who eats candy and lies to his mom about it.  But he's a real person who is considering something evil, and it is disgusting to consider the implications of this scene.

What is America's moral integrity getting it?  Are the children turning back to God?  Instead, here is a child practicing how to butcher and terrify little girls.  The fact of the moral failure is apparent, and appalling.

What we see is a child who has embraced evil, not the morality spoken of so far in the film.

Owen goes on to use his telescope to spy on his neighbors.  There is a couple who had a fight and begin physically reconciling, and he watches, until the woman notices him and draws the curtains.

After that, he moves the telescope, when he sees two people moving in, a girl and her dad.  The dad is carrying a large wooden crate.  The little girl is walking barefoot through snow.  And they move in next door.

As we continue to follow Owen at school, we learn what's going on.  He is a very small kid (actually, he's a decent size for a twelve-year-old, but in traditional movie-style, the rest of his classmates might very well be 18).  He doesn't participate in gym, and apparently can't swim.  And he is bullied.  A group of three older (or just larger) boys like to hold him down and hit him and give him wedgies, calling him "little girl".  In the first scene, they throw him around the locker room, and he actually becomes so frightened that he wets himself.

This is the setting for the discussion of evil in the film.

So when Owen was asking the "little girl" if she was scared, he was actually planning revenge on his bullies.  That is a relief.  But we still have his plan for revenge, and the interaction with the bullies will drive a lot of the plot and drive Owen to what he eventually does.  So let it be marked, that it is his own experience of physical abuse and loneliness that opens the door to the evil influences that he "lets in".

Later that night, Owen has purchased a folding knife at a convenience store (using money we learn he steals from his mother's purse), and is standing in the courtyard of his apartments, stabbing a tree, asking it if it is a scared little girl....

Abby in the movie
...when a real little girl asks what he is doing.


They speak briefly.  He asks why she doesn't wear shoes, and she says she doesn't get cold.  He asks why they moved here, since no one moves here.  Then she tells him, that they can't be friends, and leaves.

This girl is named Abby.

We are later shwon Abby's dad leaving the apartment complex late at night, smoking a cigarette and carrying some gear.  Here's what he does: he drives his truck to a store, puts on a mask, and waits.  When someone gets out of their car to go inside, he sneaks in to their backseat with the gear and lies down.  Eventually, the car will come to a four-way stop or train stop in the middle of nowhere, and then he leaps upon the driver.  Next he drags their corpse in to the woods, strings them up like a deer by their feet, gets out a gallon jug and a funnel, and slits the victim's throat, draining out all the blood in to the jug.  He does it with such precision that he has clearly done this very often.

But he slips.  He puts his foot down in ice, losses his balance, and the jug of blood rolls down a hill and spills everywhere.  As he curses, he collects himself and the jug, and begins to head back home, where some sort of beastly and demonic thing yells at him for his foolishness.

He responds, that maybe he's tired of this.  And maybe he wants to get caught.

Sometimes we forget, that vampires eat human blood.  And that in so doing, they regard humans as cattle or deer.  This is the procedure for Abby's household for how they eat; someone has to go out and hunt down a human, drain all their blood, and bring it back home.

Abby didn't get to eat, either, but she is hungry.  The next scene shows her, in the courtyard with Owen, with her stomach growling very loudly.  They talk some, becoming closer.

Abby heads off alone, to use her own wiles.  She finds a secluded part on a jogging trail, in a tunnel under a bridge, and she waits there.  A man jogging the trail finds her, and she calls out for help.  She fell down, she says.  She needs help.  He offers help.  Can he carry her out of the tunnel?

Of course he can.

He picks up the little girl, and immediately she erupts in to fury, climbing over him and striking him, finally wrestling him to the ground and drinking his blood.  When she returns home, her dad screams at her, calling her a "bitch", because now he has to go out there and clean it up.  He ends up throwing the corpse in to a nearby lake.

Let's not forget this scene, either.  Abby has to drink human blood to live.  The best way to get it is by hunting unsuspecting people, draining them of it, and bringing it home.  But the other best way is to trick good-intentioned people in to helping her, then murdering them.

As the story goes on, Abby and Owen become closer friends, though Owen is totally clueless as to her nature for most of it.  He is mostly just so lonely and bullied that he's glad for any friend, and accepts her quirks without a question.  And Abby is genuinely kind to him. He steals more money from his mom, and takes her on a date to an arcade. He convinces her to try some candy, and when he is offended by her refusal, she finally accepts.  Then she runs outside and vomits; she can't eat normal food.

She gives Own advice on the bullies, telling him to hit back, as hard as he can.  If that doesn't work, she offers to take care of them herself (and she eventually does).

So let's say something else about Abby; she is very likeable.  She is the sort of girl you wish you had known when you were a 12-year-old boy.  She is kind and sweet, she listens and cares, she doesn't notice appearances or popularity.  The audience is drawn in to sympathizing with her, and it's hard not to.  Even after seeing her rip out the throat of a man who tried to help her, the audience is sympathetic with Abby the entire movie.

Eventually, Abby's dad goes out, and it doesn't work out.  The car he has chosen picks up a passenger.  But they don't see him.  Then they go to a gas station.  But they don't see him when they get out.  As they wait there, however, eventually the passenger, who stayed behind, turns to get something, and sees the strange man lying in the floor.  Struggle breaks out.  Abby's dad wins out in the struggle and begins driving off, but he is chased and can't see out the windshield with the splattered blood.  Loosing control, he drives off of a cliff, and the car rolls over, and the car's owner catches up.  Abby's dad is pinned, struggling to turn over the car, and he can't.  The driver gets closer.  Just before they arrive, he whispers "Abby"... and pours acid all over himself, searing his skin.

This is when the movie began.

We come to the part of the hospital scene we missed.  After the detective leaves, Abby comes to his window (she can fly as a bat), and knocks, and asks "Will you let me in?".  But he can't speak.  His face is burned by the acid and hideously deformed.  They sort of embrace each other for a little bit, looking like he might kiss her but is too burned to do it.  She is stuck on the other side of the window.  Then he leans his neck out past the pane, straight out.  It is an offer.  She accepts, and drinks his blood, and then his lifeless corpse tumbles over to splatter on the ground.  Abby leaves.

So let's talk about this guy.

First of all, he is not Abby's dad.  When I watched the movie, I never really thought he was, but was rather just some older vampire.  But still it is important that vampires do not have vampire children.  There are no vampire families.

Second of all, he is not a vampire.  This is crucial.  This guy is a human.  Because he is a human, he is able to break in to cars to capture people.  Abby cannot do this, because Abby is a vampire and can only go where she is invited.

So who is he?  He is a boy who fell in love with Abby when he was younger, and follows her around and serves her.  He carries around the crate, because vampires cannot move themselves - this is made clear in Dracula.  The crate likely carries dirt from where Abby was buried, or her home country, or whatever it is that she needs to sleep in -- the legends vary from region.  The important part is that he moves her.  And he owns the house.  And he lets her in to the house so that she can enter it.  And he goes out and kills people for her to live, and makes sure she doesn't get caught.

Remember the note in the beginning, in the childish handwriting with misspellings?  That's because he never got past a 6th grade education.  He ran off with her when he was younger and wasn't able to stay on any records to go to school.

The guy is also in love with her, just as Owen becomes.  As she begins getting closer to Owen, there is a scene in which he asks her to stop seeing the little boy.  Before the reveal, this is taken as a father-like figure cautioning Juliet against outsiders; it connects to her earlier statements that she and Owen can't be friends.  Now we learn what it really was; jealousy.  That scene now makes more sense, why she reaches out and lays a hand on him; she is reassuring a lover.

While both Owen and the older man are in love with Abby, Abby is not a girl.  She isn't capable of reciprocating human love.  She says this herself several times.  She never kisses or hugs or any other behavior appropriate to middle school relationships.  She certainly seems to care about these two men, but that's as far as it goes.

This gives us another interesting point; vampires are parasitic.

In her current lifestyle, she needs a human to do dozens of things for her, and she needs humans to feed her.  The last guy to serve her never even learned basic literacy.  He spent the rest of his life murdering and running from the law, finally burning out his esophagus to avoid identification, ending by being drained of blood and thrown out a window, all out of a devotion to her and seems to have gotten nothing in return.

"For the wages of sin is death..." Romans 6:23

He doesn't even have a name.  His character is credited simply as "the father".

Why would he do it?

Owen's story explains why:

It is because Abby is kind, and the other people in his life are either neglectful (his mother and father) or abusive (the bullies).  Aside from his mother he has no one, and he has trouble connecting with her, and she seems to have a difficult job that causes her to pass out when she gets home.  In all this loneliness, Abby offers Owen friendship, something he doesn't seem to have.

She does like him, and wants to make him happy.  She enjoys spending time with him.

That is why he lets her in.

When you contrast the bullying images of the movie with the interactions with Abby, vampires emerge as a kind of metaphor for the real-world emotions that drive high school killers.  Abby is the one Owen turns to out of his despair, and she does gruesomely kill the bullies in the end.  And the life of the father figure (who really doesn't even have a name in the film), of killing every day for someone who can't really love you back until you eventually disfigure yourself and have the life sucked out of you, is exactly what Owen's future now holds for him.  The final scene shows Owen on a train with Abby's crate, heading for who-knows-where.

This says something important about evil; Owen accepts it because it offers a sort of strength and kindness that he needed.  He was empty of love -- the thing humans are made for -- and when he found it he didn't care where it came from.

In its discussion of evil, the film's title tells us of how it afflicts us; "Let Me In".  If Abby tries to enter a home without being invited, she starts convulsing and trembling and her skin erupts and bleeds.  She shows Owen this when he wonders why he must invite her in, and it is implied she would eventually die if he did not.

And this is the sort of classic discussion of evil that you do not see anymore in modern films.  Vampires are evil, and because they are evil you have to welcome them for them to harm you.  If you do not welcome them, then they are powerless.

This limitation of evil is something almost forgotten in modern cultural depictions of it, where evil is often seen as supremely powerful.  But it simply isn't.  It is all weakness and corruption.  Further, evil is not a power that can fortify, but a parasitic and decayed thing.  The lives of the men who serve Abby testifies to the decayed nature of evil, and Abby's need for human blood and use of human servitors testifies to its parasitic nature.

Evil only gets its strength from the good.

Because it only gets strength from the good, a human can only empower evil over them by turning to it and welcoming it.

I once listened to a recovering alcoholic speaker explain addiction.  He said, if he set a bottle whiskey on a stool right there, the whiskey does nothing.  It's harmless.  But if he picks it up, and if he drinks it, then he's letting the whiskey destroy his life.  After that sip, he could say "no more of this, this isn't good," or he could say "yes, more of this".  But all the time, the whiskey has no power that he doesn't give it.

That is how all sin works.  This spiritual concept is made clear through the physical presentation of a vampire.  And that is the classic purpose of vampires; to act as embodiments of sin and evil.

But there is more nuance to the discussion, because Abby is not a "typical" evil creature.  It's hard to just call her "evil".  After all, she is kind to Owen.  She is his friend.  She eats candy knowing it will make her sick because she doesn't want to offend him.  She agrees to go steady with him despite being a vampire just to make him happy, so he won't be upset.  She bolsters his confidence.  She makes him feel good about himself.

She makes him happy.

And otherwise he isn't happy.

Many people watching the movie will fail to notice that Abby is evil, because she's nice to the protagonist.  That is very sad.  Many people will fail to piece together the effect she had on the man who helped her and the effect she is going to have on Owen and connect it to the more sinister thing that it is.  She kills innocent people and takes advantage of people who love her... but she's nice and makes people feel good, and helps Owen against bullies, so she is herself "good".

That shallow idea of evil is what drives America; that it is a mode of interaction and feeling.  We have no problem identifying the bullies as evil, because they are manifestly cruel.  If Abby had called Owen names, we would have no problem seeing the rest of her nature for what it is.  If Abby had criticized Owen, we would have no problem.  But modern Americans can only look at how Owen feels, and what Abby does makes him happy, and hence Abby is good.

And this is also has spiritual application; that sometimes evil is likeable.  Sometimes evil seems very good.  Sometimes evil feels very good.  Sometimes, too, good things make us feel bad, and sometimes good things don't seem as good as the evil things we prefer.

Recently, my parents found an old dog that had been abandoned.  He stunk.  We needed to bathe him, and he wasn't keen on the idea.  It might seem mean to hold him down and spray him with a hose and soap with all his whining and complaining and whelping.  It would seem to the dog like he was being abused, and would sound like he was being abused.  But if we don't clean the dog, no one is going to take him in.  It is a loving action to wash the dog.  Whereas if we let him go on stinking, it will be much happier, and will surely die of starvation in a matter of weeks.  That isn't loving.

This is also a concept largely missing in modern morality.  Evil can wear kindness, and good can wear cruelty -- God was once praised as "terrifying".  Don't be fooled by appearances, but intention.  Love looks to better the other, while true hatred looks to please the other so as to use them for one's own wishes.

There is one more scene that bears description, in the conversation the movie presents on evil.  Owen has taken Abby to a secret hideout, and they are hanging out, and he asks her to close her eyes and he's going to surprise her.  Any sensible and not-terribly-nervous boy would kiss her then.  Instead he takes out his knife, and cuts his finger, and offers to make a blood pact with her.  The sigh of blood sets her off, and she changes appearance into a monster, and storms out, in to the courtyard, where she kills and eats a woman (the one Owen had spied on earlier), right there in plain sight.  This is when Owen knows what she is.

The revelation frightens him, and he runs home to speak to his mother... but she's asleep and won't wake up.  Then he calls his dad, and this is the most we know of Owen's father.  He calls him "pal", and asks what's up.

Owen asks if people can be evil.

His dad asks if his mother told him that.  Then he goes on, if it was part of her religious crap?  And he apologizes, that his mother is very sick and has these stupid ideas, and that things aren't good right now, but not to listen to her.  It is a rather long rant and I can't remember it, but there is very little emotional warmth shown to Owen and much derision of Owen's mother.

The whole time, Owen is crying, probably because of the way his father speaks about his mother and what it means about their divorce.  The larger message Owen seems to get is that there isn't really any such thing as evil, that it's just the stupid stuff his mom believes that is driving his parents apart.  Don't bother about distinctions like that.

Which is also a prevalent message in American morality.  Calling things evil is "religious crap", and indeed, many people would call my comments on the movie "religious crap".  It isn't right to talk about good/evil distinctions, nothing's black and white, it's personal, it's about how people feel, etc. etc.

And in this flaccid sort of moral understanding, Owen runs away and forsakes himself entirely for a creature who every day needs to send him out to kill people in order to live.

Overall, I think the movie plants a very subtle message (you have to go back over the movie to get it), of the real nature of evil in society.  I think it does a very good job of this, but I think it does it too subtly for most people to notice.  Most people will see the friendship, see that Abby is friendly, and so think that therefore vampires are good after all.  If you look, then it is there.

But it is deceptive.


Unknown said...

I found my way here because I was looking up Chandrian on the Web. Yeah. I want to know what their plan is too. ;) I don't watch horror films because I've got a crazy imagination as it is, but your description of evil in "Let Me In" resonated with me. Thanks for using scripture and story to talk about truth :)

Reece said...

Thanks Unknown! Definitely excited for the next KKC book; I wish Rothfuss would hurry the heck up.

Let Me In is definitely full of some disturbing images. More disturbing, I think, is the large contingent of people who apparently think it was a love story.

Thanks for commenting. Let me know if you think you figure the Chandrian out.

TGGP said...

I saw the original Swedish version "Let the Right One In". The Americans wanted to use the shorter title "Let Her In", but the author objected that "her" is inaccurate. The vampire ("Eli" in the original) is a boy who was castrated centuries ago, thus not a girl. The "father" is a former teacher fired when he was caught with child pornography, that is why he is fixated on Eli. Owen's relationship with Eli is more innocent, but we can imagine him following the same path. Lots of this is only fully explained in the novel, and I read to read the Wikipedia article before I fully understood.

TGGP said...

Something I didn't even realize before is that in the Swedish version Eli's voice was dubbed by an older actress in order to make it deeper.

Reece said...

Hey, thanks for commenting. Yeah, the friend who who first recommended the movie to me later read the book and told me about the castration part. I have a copy of it sitting in my "to-read" pile... maybe one day...

TGGP said...

Don't feel embarrassed about it, I haven't read the book nor do I have any intention of doing so.

Anonymous said...

This is a stellar post. This is my favorite movie of all time, and I never caught this aspect of it. Your thoughts give the film a whole new weight. Very well said!

Anonymous said...

This is a poor take on the film. " Let me in" is a completely different story line and is only inspired by " let the right one in" .It was Americanized by the director to be more widely accepted by taking all the transgendered/ pedophile content out and turn it in to a dark love story..Abby is not evil..she loves Owen and doesn't use him at the filme she clearly leaves without him to live on her own..but comes back to save him..Abby is forever trapped in the mind and body of a 12 year old and all the bad thing she does she realizes they are wrong but she cannot help it as she can't control it...there is a self loathing and a self- concesiousness about her. Yes unless she turns Owen he will grow up to be exactly like the old man but Abby can't help but fall into the same patterns because after all she just wants to be loved

Reece said...

Well, sorry you feel that way about my take on things. She seems pretty evil to me, what with the murdering strangers and romantic manipulation and killing even her closest friends and loved ones. But, if you think she's just fine despite being an undead murdering vampire, then you have the right to your own malformed opinion on things.

david Jeff said...

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Reece said...

I dunno, sounds pretty legit. I think I'll take the risk and email that guy claiming to work for a vampire. No way is this a 419 scam.

philip said...

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Reece said...

This is the most believable thing I have ever read on the internet. I have no doubt that when you ask me to wire you money via Western Union, that it is only because it is a necessary part of becoming a vampire.

Reece said...

No, seriously, anyone reading these comments:
If a misspelled and grammatically mangled anonymous comment on the internet convinces you vampires exist, so much so that you email these people and follow the instruction they give you, then they will steal thousands of dollars from you, possibly steal your identity, and you will absolutely deserve it.

Anonymous said...

I love that you left that comment there. :)

Reece said...

So, I was trying to make a point by not deleting the comment ads claiming to be from vampires. This led them to think they should keep posting ads, even minutes apart. I think two comments advertising vampirism are sufficient to get the message out. Any vampires who are offended by this censorship should feel free to turn into a bat and fly to my house and kill me.

Anonymous said...

So why comment at all. Vampires aren't real. Not in spirit, flesh or possessor of man. All the myths and legends eerily similar, what a coincidence. All the great novels, sub rosa(meaning not calling them vampires but portraying them as human), deal with their ability to manipulate time and perception, glad that isn't possible, huh? It is most joyous humans can't lose their sense of time.
The movie is not a commentary on evil in American society. It is condemnation of the sterile, banal, unsympathetic, morose, hypocritical American family that will drive their children to accept evil, make friends with evil and even romance evil to escape. On a happier note, your scene by scene description made the films overall point clear.

James Clary said...

I liked this article a lot, especially the connection with sin.

Though I am not an evangelical, I do have a more hardened vision of sin than my coreligionist (Episcopalians).

The key thing about sin is it almost always starts small. Everyone thinks there will be a big moment of temptation, but it is never so black and white in the moment. People gradually make little choices that make life easier and seem to have no consequences, but gradually these little choices build to take them to dark places where the choices are more black and white, but they have so much to lose that the choice seems smaller than it should... just as small as the original decisions that got them into trouble.

Jim C

Reece said...

Hey James, thanks for your comments! Sorry for not replying sooner, I've had a busy few weeks on the road.

If you haven't seen the movie in the post, I recommend it. It also shows how a bunch of small and innocent choices of the main character (Owen) lead to him having to make this really big choice when it comes to the vampire, similar to how you describe it.

Anyway, I appreciated your comments, and thanks for reading!

gentleramble said...

Hey, good analysis but im wondering whether you dislike all modern interpretations of vampires that have little to do with roots or just dislike the bad and ridiculous ones (twilight) where core concepts get lost?