Review Date: 7-18-09
Release Date: 10-24-08 (limited, USA)
Runtime: 115 min.
Period: 1982, Sweden
Costume Designer: Maria Strid
Released a month too late for 2008’s Best Foreign Film Oscar consideration, Låt Den Rätte Komma In would have been one of the most deserving candidates for the honor. This film is a mix of the most unlikely elements – it’s a creepy horror/coming of age/vampire/love story. It may seem like a strange combination, but all of the elements work in perfect harmony here to create a moving, complex film about loneliness, friendship, strength, unconditional love and vengeance.
Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a skinny, wimpy kid who lives with his divorced mother in a downtrodden apartment complex outside Stockholm, Sweden. He lives an isolated existence, bullied mercilessly by three of his classmates. He doesn’t have any friends. Life is bleak. Oskar is driven to dreams of murderous revenge against the bullies who torture him; he sleeps with a knife under his mattress. One cold night, a man and what appears to be his daughter move into the building, lugging their belongings in the snow. They take the apartment next to Oskar’s.
A few nights later, the man, Håkan (Per Ragnar), is in his kitchen, packing up some supplies – a funnel, a plastic container, a breathing mask, a knife – some weird stuff. Håkan waits alongside a wooded area, and when a passerby stops to talk with him, Håkan gasses him using the mask, and drags his body into the woods.
It is under the cover of the woods that Håkan strings the passed-out young man up by his ankles, hanging him upside down from a tree. With one swift motion, Håkan slits his throat and harvests his blood. It pours through the funnel into the large plastic container. Suddenly, a large dog appears, barking at him. The dog’s owners soon are heard calling after him, searching for him. Much to Håkan’s frantic dismay, the dog refuses to leave. Håkan runs from the scene, leaving the body hanging from the tree, dripping blood. The dog’s owners come upon the body, and are frozen in horror.
That same night, Oskar leaves his apartment and goes into the courtyard of his building. Wielding his knife, he practices, or perhaps more correctly, role-plays, his fantasy of vengeance against the boys who bully him. He stabs a tree, repeatedly, uttering threats. From behind him, the young girl from next door appears, sitting on the dilapidated, snow-covered jungle gym. This is Eli (pronounced “Ellie”, played by Lina Leandersson). She tells Oskar, “I can’t be your friend”, and jumps from the jungle gym, landing softly in slow motion in the snow. Oskar, taken aback, asks, “Who says I want you to be my friend?” Eli turns and goes inside.
Håkan rides the train home from committing his murder, only to realize that he has abandoned his prize (the container of blood) in his panic. He arrives home to the apartment, where Eli goes ballistic on him. “I told you – you had to help me!!”
The next day, Oskar is again teased at school by the bullies. When he gets home, his mother forbids him from going out, due to news of the murder. Oskar grabs the newspaper and clips the front-page story about the murder that Håkan committed, adding it to his folder full of similarly violent articles about murder and death.
That night, at a local coffee shop, some scummy-looking locals (Lacke, Virginia, Jocke, and Gösta) discuss the merits of the death penalty. They see Håkan sitting by himself and invite him to join them. He refuses, and leaves the diner.
Oskar goes out to the courtyard to play. He is working on solving a Rubik’s cube when Eli turns up again. She seems intrigued by him, and by the puzzle cube. He offers it to her, and she takes it. Oskar remarks that she smells funny, and asks her if she isn’t cold? Eli is not wearing a coat. She states that she has forgotten how to be cold, and doubles over, grunting in pain, like her stomach hurts.
Having left the café, the scummy bar buddies Gösta and Jocke part ways in the snow. Jocke is walking through an underpass when he hears a cry for help. Turns out it is Eli, lying in wait for a sanguine victim. She attacks Jocke, and drinks his blood. Gösta has seen the incident from his window, where he lives with a dozen cats. He is paralyzed with fear. Eli seems regretful for the incident, and snaps Jocke’s neck to put him out of his misery.
Håkan steps out into the frozen night air.
Gösta returns to the café to find the rest of the scummy drinkers, and tells them that Jocke has been attacked and killed by an animal, or maybe a child. They go to the scene of the crime, and find no body. Fresh snow has lightly covered most of the evidence, but they do see a faint trace of blood.
Meanwhile, Håkan drags Jocke’s body into the woods on a plastic sled. He finds a drainage canal, and dumps Jocke’s body into the water.
The next morning, Oskar leaves for school, to find his Rubik’s cube, completely solved, on the jungle gym. He lumbers through a foot of fresh snow to retrieve it.
Later that night, he returns to the courtyard. Eli shows up, and he asks her how old she is. “Twelve years, more or less,” she says. He is baffled. “Don’t you know when your birthday is? Don’t you get presents?” Eli shakes her head, no. He mixes up the Rubik’s cube. She shows him how to solve it.
The next day at school, Oskar stays late in class to copy down the Morse code alphabet from a book. When he leaves the school, the bullies pursue him. They end up holding him in a headlock and take turns whipping him with a stick. One of the bullies hits him in the face with it, drawing blood. When Oskar gets home, he lies to his mother about the cut, saying that he tripped on a rock.
Later that night, in the courtyard, Oskar teaches Ellie Morse code. She asks about the band-aid that now covers the whip wound on his face. He tells her the truth. Eli advises Oskar to hit back at the bullies, hard. She tenderly touches Oskar’s hand, and tells him that she’ll help him. Later that night, when they are both in their rooms, they communicate with Morse code, tapping on the walls.
After school the next evening, Oskar signs up for a weight training class. He goes with Eli into town, where he buys something to eat. A cat sitting in the window hisses at Eli. Oskar offers her some of his food. At first, she refuses. Then, she tentatively takes a bite. Later Oskar finds her vomiting behind a building. He hugs her. While they embrace, Eli asks him, “Do you like me?” “Yes, A lot,” replies Oskar. “If I wasn’t a girl, would you like me anyway?” she asks. “I suppose… why?” says Oskar. Eli does not respond.
Oskar goes to visit his father, who lives in the countryside. They play in the frozen landscape. It’s a different relationship he has with his dad, a little more fun loving, than with his mom.
Back at his apartment, Håkan once again prepares the blood-gathering kit. He expresses concern that he is getting to be recognized in the community – that he has to be careful. And could she not see Oskar tonight? She touches Håkan’s face lovingly, and walks away. Eli looks quite sickly.
Håkan waits at the school gym until all of the kids have gone home. He has hung up a kid on a rack, in preparation for killing him, and has some acid in a jar that he is going to use in his killing ritual. The boy dangling from the rack, however, did not come to the gym alone. His friends begin banging on doors, looking for him. The kid on the rack slowly starts to come to, yelling for help, and knocking over the jar of acid. Håkan hides in an adjacent room, taking the acid with him. When his friends break down the door to get him, Håkan pours the caustic acid all over his face. The gig is up for him.
The next day, Oskar is at the gym, lifting weights with his coach. He returns to the locker room to find his pants soaked and lying in the urinal. Oskar walks home in the snow wearing boxer shorts and boots.
Night falls. The story about Håkan’s arrest and hospitalization is on the radio news. Eli hears the story, and walks to the hospital to see him. She is barefoot. She asks the reception nurse if she can see her father, but the nurse tells her it’s a restricted area. Eli turns to leave, and the nurse sees that she’s barefoot. Pitying her, the nurse gets up to chase after her, but can’t find her in the parking lot. Eli has flown up to the seventh floor, and is tapping on the window for Håkan.
Håkan, at this point gravely injured and breathing through a hole in his trachea, opens the window to let her in. He pulls the breathing apparatus from his trachea, and Eli goes in for the kill. She sucks his blood, and Håkan collapses, his body falling out the window. Håkan plummets seven stories to his death. It is then that we see his face – flayed open, eaten by acid, totally disfigured. It’s great makeup work – dimly lit, for sure, but scary and grotesque.
Eli comes to Oskar’s apartment and asks to be let in through the window. She instructs Oskar not to look at her. She disrobes completely – there is blood on her face and feet. Eli climbs in bed with him. Touching him, Oskar remarks that her skin is so cold. Oskar asks her to be his girlfriend. Eli tells him that she is not a girl. He asks if he has a chance? After some negotiation, Eli agrees to be his girlfriend. She strokes his arm and they hold hands into the night.
The next morning, Oskar awakens alone, looking out the window into the frozen morning. He finds a note from Eli, written on the inside of a flattened, open box. It says: “To flee is life, to linger, death. Your Eli.”
That day the school takes a field trip to a frozen lake, where the kids are ice-skating. The bullies threaten Oskar again, and Oskar, wielding a pole, hits the main bully Conny (Patrik Rydmark) in the ear so hard that it knocks him down and draws blood. Conny cries and screams in pain. Oskar exhales, vindicated. A high-pitched scream from the other side of the lake is heard. Two small girls have discovered Jocke’s frozen dead body next to the drain. Police arrive and cut the ice around the body, removing Jocke’s body with a crane.
Oskar lifts weights the next day at the gym. In the swimming pool, one of the bullies teases him. Eli is there at the gym, watching. Oskar takes her to a back room; she appears very sickly at this point. He tells her how he fought back against the bullies. Sidebar – at one point her pupils appear as slits, like a cat’s, but then snap back to being round. Eli pushes “play” on a tape deck, playing some music. Oskar pulls out his knife, and cuts his hand, wanting to initiate a “blood pact”, sealing their friendship. At the sight of Oskar’s blood, Eli goes weak. She drops to her knees and sucks his dripping blood from the floor. She runs away. Oskar is despondent – has he lost his only friend?
Gösta, the cat guy, has some of the scummy drinking buddies over at his house. They are remembering Jocke. One of the buddies, Lacke, says something that insults his lady, Virginia. Pissed, she takes off. Lacke chases after her. After telling him off, Virginia marches up some steps, where, lying in wait, is a ravenous Eli. Eli attacks her, and Lacke is close behind – he hears Virginia’s cries for help, and kicks Eli away. The rest of the scummy drinkers arrive, and Eli runs away, unseen.
The next day, Virginia awakes to the pain of her skin burning in the sunlight. She has been turned into a vampire. She looks at the bite marks on her neck in the mirror, and is terrified.
Oskar goes to visit his dad, and they play a game in the kitchen. Soon, a greasy-looking guy shows up, and his dad breaks out the vodka, pouring shots for both adults. Oskar wants to continue playing with his dad. The greasy guy smokes and looks irritated at Oskar, that he’s ruining his potential for a good time.
Cut to: Oskar, in the pitch-black of night, in the middle of a cold, frozen, snow-covered road, hitch-hiking back to his apartment.
That night, Virginia goes back to revisit the scene of the crime – finds some blood. She stops by Gösta’s house, and all of his cats attack her. The attack unhinges her to such a degree that Lacke takes her to the hospital.
In the dark corridor of the apartment building, Oskar knocks on Eli’s door. Eli, barely dressed, lets him in to her apartment. Oskar asks Eli if she’s a vampire. She tells him that she is. She changes into a sweater that also barely covers her, and shows him her cache of treasures, including a valuable puzzle egg. It seems as though Eli is trying to show Oskar that she can take care of him, showing him her world, and showing him perhaps that he doesn’t have to be poor.
In the hospital, Virginia is not doing well. She suspects that she’s been infected by Eli. Virginia is strapped to her hospital bed with wrist restraints. Later, when the sun has risen, Virginia asks the hospital orderly to open the blinds. As the sun hits her skin, she explodes in a plume of fire, self-immolating.
Meanwhile, at school we meet the bully Conny’s older brother, an even bigger bully.
Later that night, Oskar’s doorbell rings. It’s Eli. She asks to come in. As we all know, vampire rules state that a vampire has to be invited into a house in order to come in. “And if I don’t?” asks Oskar. With a sad face, Eli walks in. She is soon hemorrhaging blood from every orifice and pore. Oskar quickly invites her in, ex-post-facto. He realizes how serious this is for Eli. She notes that he has a homicidal streak, that he would commit murder for revenge. She says that she does it (murders) because she has to. They get close. “Be me for a while,” she whispers. They find themselves in each other.
Oskar puts on a record, and Ellie appears, wrapped in a blue blanket. She is holding her bloody clothes (from hemorrhaging) in her hand. He tells her that she can borrow one of his mom’s dresses. As she changes, Oskar peeks in, and what he sees is frightening. We see a shot of what would be her hoo-ha… that is, if she was a girl. Instead of normal hoo-ha appearance, there is a big red lateral scar across the area.
She emerges, wearing a red plaid dress, barefoot. Oskar’s mom rings the doorbell. Eli scurries out the window, and plays forlornly by herself in her empty apartment.
The next morning, Oskar awakes fully dressed, having slept on Eli’s floor. Eli has left Oskar a note saying that she’s in the bathroom, and not to come in. Lacke shows up, looking for Eli, looking to avenge Virginia’s death. He picks the lock on her door, and enters the apartment, ripping open the window coverings to let in the light. He finds Eli in repose in the bathtub, windows covered by lightproof paper. Oskar sneaks up behind him. Lacke rips the window coverings open, and Oskar pulls out his knife. Suddenly Eli comes to life, and attacks Lacke. Oskar backs away, hearing the struggle, and seeing Lacke’s bloody hand clawing out from under the door.
Covered in blood, fresh from the kill, Eli walks to Oskar and embraces him. She thanks him and solemnly says that she has to go away. She leans in to Oskar and kisses him with her glistening bloody mouth.
Some time passes. A new day dawns. One of the bullies calls Oskar to see if he’s coming to the gym. It’s clear that the bullies are planning a prank.
In the pool, the coach instructs Oskar in aqua aerobics. Meanwhile, the bullies create a distraction by starting a fire in a dumpster. The pool area empties. The oldest bully threatens Oskar with a switchblade, and endeavors to extract revenge from Oskar – poking out his eye for having mutilated Conny’s ear. The only way he won’t poke Oskar’s eye out is if Oskar can hold his breath underwater for three minutes. The older bully grabs Oskar’s hair and forcibly holds him under water. The clock ticks. The younger boys look worried. Oskar continues to hold his breath. We see him underwater, squinting, lips pursed.
Suddenly, a pair of small, besneakered feet glides (as though dragged along from above) through the water. A dismembered head plunks into the pool, streaming blood. A dismembered arm drops in front of Oskar’s face, floating downward. A small arm grabs him and pulls him up; Oskar surfaces. He sees Eli’s bloody face. All of the bullies are dead and in pieces around the pool. Eli has saved him.
Cut to: Oskar riding on a train, with a small suitcase on the seat and a large trunk at his feet. On the lid of the trunk, in Morse code, he taps out the word “puss” (which in Swedish means “kiss”). He is leaving town with Eli. The end.
This film is based on a novel of the same name, written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also adapted the screenplay. The novel contains a lot of informative back-story that, while not necessary for the enjoyment of the film, serves to clarify some of the details. Like: who was Håkan to Eli? Her servant/slave? Her lover? In the film, we don’t really have a clear picture of this. How old is Eli? And what’s with the scar in the hoo-ha area?
The short answers: Eli finds Håkan when he was 45 years old. The book hints that Håkan is a pedophile, and his relationship with Eli is mutually (and disgustingly) beneficial on some level. He kills so she doesn’t have to, and he sticks around for, well, you know. Bleaugh. In the FAQ on imdB, here’s how they explain it:
At the time of the story, Håkan was 45 years old. He was a former schoolteacher, who “liked children a little bit too much.” He quit the school “voluntarily” after people found out about his persuasion, after which he became chronically depressed and suicidally addicted to alcohol. Eli then found him and called him into service. The movie has toned down Håkan’s impact on the plot, removing his pederastic attraction to Eli and a subplot in which he becomes undead and evil after being bitten and apparently killed at the hospital.
The book also states that Eli is approximately 200 years old. And as for the nasty scar in the hoo-ha area, here’s how the book explains it (according to one who has read it):
From the novel: Eli’s real name is Elias. He was a 12-year-old peasant boy in Eastern Europe centuries before. A number of young boys were called to the castle of the nobleman who controlled their lands. Eli was selected by the nobleman. He was tied to a table with his manhood protruding through a hole. The organ was cut off and his blood caught in a bowl, which the nobleman drank. Then Eli was made a vampire, so the place where his member used to be sealed over when he healed. He has no genitals and is smooth like a Barbie doll.
Now THIS is useful information that further informs us of the relationship between the two kids. It would never have occurred to me, on first viewing, that Eli was anything but a girl. The scar-on-the-hoo-ha thing made me tilt my head, so it was only after reading accounts of the book that the scar really made sense. When Eli makes mention that “I’m not a girl”, we initially think – oh, she is “other” – a vampire. But not exactly, right? He is not a girl because he was first a boy, and then he was deprived of that definition – “boy” – by torture. Eli was then made a vampire, immortal, so not really even human, either. It starts to make more sense.
As far as the costumes go, this gender-assignment issue really changes things. Because s/he is twelve years old, the fact that Eli has no gender-identifying physical traits (breasts, hips, Adam’s apple, broad shoulders) makes it a lot easier to establish the androgynous nature of the character with costume. In this film, Eli always looks greasy and disgusting. Her costumes are always aged down and sort of dirty looking. As a vampire, weather conditions don’t really affect her, so she doesn’t wear a winter coat in the snow… until she starts to fall for Oskar. Check it out.
Initially when we meet Eli, s/he is wearing a pair of print pants (looks like polyester), and a white/light-colored button front loose top with sleeves rolled up to the elbows. It is freezing cold, the dead of winter, at night. This should be a red flag to Oskar right away, but for some reason it’s not.
The second time we meet Eli, she wears the same thing. This time, Oskar asks her if she’s cold with no jacket. Eli replies that she’s forgotten how to be cold. Hmmmm. When you watch the film, look at the beautiful age/tech on this shirt – it’s really good.
Next, we see her wearing a short-sleeved sweater and pants, sitting in the snow. This costume is during the time when she tells Oskar that she doesn’t know how old she is. Note that she is wearing a sweater, even short-sleeved. It’s a transition into wearing warmer clothing.
Next, we see her having solved the Rubik’s cube, telling Oskar that he should fight back with the bullies. This is also the costume she wears when she sucks Håkan’s blood and kills him. She is getting closer and closer to Oskar. And notice, she’s dressing more appropriately for the weather (with the exception of her bare feet) with this sweater. The sweater is remarkably feminine, though, compared with her first costume change. This demonstrates that the costume department has made an effort to gender-code her as “female”.
It appears that she wears the same print polyester pants throughout most of the movie. This was the 1980s in Sweden, and this character is poor. I can tell you that in California, no one in their right mind would have been caught dead (or undead) in those pants in 1982. Sweden may have had a different sensibility at that time, and certainly given the fact that she’s poor, we have to consider that she may not have had a choice. Further, she’s 200 years old and probably has been the same size for centuries. She could have owned those pants in the 1960s or 1970s. Polyester lasts forever, honey.
When Eli shows up at the gym, she has made the transition to “looking human”. She wears a ski hat, thick gloves and a warm winter coat, even thought she doesn’t need the clothes to keep her warm. I think that she does this for a number of reasons: 1) to not embarrass Oskar; 2) to look more incognito, and to blend in; and 3) in a costume-arc kind of way, to let the audience understand that she is letting herself be a part of Oskar’s world, connecting to his reality to the best of her ability.
When she removes her jacket in the back room, we see what she’s wearing underneath. And here’s where it gets interesting – it’s really feminine. It’s a light orchid-colored sweater with a delicate stitch to it – it looks soft, and has a ladylike boat neck. She wears heavy wool pants with it – they look quite old and manly. The contrast is amazing, as it points to both sides of her gender issue.
When she lets Oskar into her apartment, she wears a next-to-nothing t-shirt. This is Eli at her most vulnerable. She admits that she is a vampire, and her guard is completely, totally down. Notice the fragile colors and fabric.
Once she has told Oscar she’s a vampire, she puts on the red sweater. This costume change is not motivated by any other action in the scene. It’s like she stops, gets something else to wear (strong color, strong fabric) and puts it on. It barely covers her little buns, though, so it is still a vulnerable garment, but may have been a purposeful shift in her costume to mirror her state of mind.
She turns up at Oskar’s door, and he asks her what would happen if she enters without permission. This (below) is a nice choice, because it is light enough in color to show the bright red blood when she hemorrhages, and it’s girlish enough to make her look like an innocent victim of her circumstance. We feel sorry for her.
Changing into the blanket and holding her bloody clothes, she looks even greasier and more exhausted than ever. She looks like she stinks, or at minimum, never bathes.
Once changed into Oskar’s mom’s dress, she stays in this costume until the end of the film. It’s a girlish cut, this dress, kind of a 1960s-shaped shift, to my eyes. With its classic red plaid and timeless silhouette, the fact that the dress is so oversized, Eli looks like a doll. Just a dreadful, bloodthirsty, vampire doll, is all.
So, to sum up the treatment of Eli – the costume department had a hand in manipulating the audience into thinking that Eli is in fact a girl. When the scar on her hoo-ha is revealed, it’s a real “Crying Game” moment, because we never had a clue she could be, or could once have been, otherwise.
The rest of the cast is dressed very well to describe their socioeconomic situation. Oskar is heartbreaking in his jacket and scarf. He doesn’t have too many pieces in his closet, so most of the time, he looks like this:
And, poor buddy, when they put his pants in the urinal, he has to walk home like this:
I thought it was very effective to have Oskar wear the same clothes over and over again. When he lives with his mom, he wears mostly earth tones, and some blues. With his dad, he adds a red fuzzy oversized coat, but I could not correlate a meaning with the red oversized coat, other than some kind of exuberance at being with his dad, who (at least initially) seemed like a fun guy.
The scummy bar people are perfectly drawn. There is Jocke (L) and Virginia (R), below, who wears a fuchsia suede overcoat and has some of the worst hair (in a good way) in cinema. They did a great job of pulling no punches. The eighties were ugly, yes they were!
And here is Lacke, below, Virginia’s husband, in all of his greasy, acid-washed-jean-jacket-wearing glory. He didn’t change too much in the film, and it’s just as well. If he is really a poor boozer, he might not have the inclination, funds, or clothing to change much. I like the depressing color palette, as well.
Here is Gösta, below, when he comes to tell the scummy bar people that Jocke is dead. I love this costume, because it tells us so clearly who he is – he looks like a big fussy cat-collecting Swedish queen. Maybe I am reading into it, but this costume, this one in particular, struck me as totally inspired.
Håkan, below, looks like a freaky weird dude – I guess it translates into every language. He wears mostly light-colored dress shirts, but with that cotton-candy-like hair, puffy ski jacket and that crazy shearling hat, he is a big pile of weird. See for yourself. This is great character costuming. Well done.
I would also like to mention that costume designer Maria Strid is credited with doing all of the makeup in the film, as well. Now THAT’s a duel-card-holder for you. I can hardly believe she was able to do it all – this is a makeup-FX-heavy show, and it all looks really good. I am trying to track her down for an interview, so stand by and hopefully I will have something for you in the weeks to come.
I loved watching this movie, and after learning a little bit more about the back-story, I love it even more. It would be better to see this film in the theater, because it is dark, and so much of it takes place at night. However, don’t let that stop you from renting or Netflixing it. It’s not so much a scary movie as it is a creepy movie. There is so much to enjoy, visually, and the performances are so nuanced and compelling, it is really a treat.
The crazy thing is that Hollywood came a-knocking and is going to do a remake of this film for the American market. I hope that whomever they get to design the costumes will have the same attention to character detail as Maria Strid and her team. Hey, did I mention I’m available?