The night was structured around a screening of Let the Right One In, Tomas Alfredson's vampire film set in Stockholm's Blackeberg suburb in the 1980s. Far from the Gothic trappings typical of the genre, Alfredson's film transports vampires into the unfamiliar surrounds of municipal housing.
To introduce the film, Disegno invited Barry Curtis, an academic and author of Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film, to give a presentation Let the Right One In's themes and points of interest for a design and architecture audience. The following text was written by Curtis as a reflection on the film’s use of architecture and location to contribute to its distinctive horror narrative.
Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) is based on a screenplay by John Lindquist, the author an eponymous 2004 novel. It is a realist vampire movie, a teen romance, and a revenge drama all in one, with the understated aesthetic qualities of an art film.
Set in a 1980s Stockholm suburb, the film sees cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema move the camera fluently around the stark buildings and bare, wintry landscapes. In a film about thresholds and liminality, interiors and outsides, the rational postwar suburb becomes an uncanny place.
The structures are reflected in the climbing frame where the two androgynous protagonists Eli (Lina Leandersson) and Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) meet. It is where Eli observes Oskar’s fantasy of revenge against his bullies as he stabs a tree.
Flurries of snow at night are filmed in the extreme climate of northern Sweden, conjuring an elemental realm of whiteness, devoid of comfort. Eli has “forgotten” how to feel cold – going barefoot in the snow. Oskar’s naked torso is spectrally superimposed on a window that registers the warmth of his hand as he views a taxi, delivering Eli, and Håkan, her male companion, to the apartment next door. They become neighbours.
The victims of Eli’s insatiable need for blood are local hard-drinking men and women. Håkan’s quest to extract blood for his companion is comically incompetent, and Eli is forced to intervene, becoming superhumanly agile and aggressive. The camera soars to register acts of remote, objectified carnage.
In a world of inadequate and neglectful adults, Eli and Oskar learn to fend for themselves, bonding through puzzles and codes. She is undead and not a girl, but Oskar, fascinated by crime and death, “lets her in”.
In conventional Gothic, disturbing histories are immanent in historic detail. In suburbia, the rational, insulated buildings, experienced through smooth, eerie camera movements configure an institutional unease that offers little protection against the ancient supernatural menace of a vampire child. Eli arrives by taxi, leaves by train and dwells in a provisional "Gothic" space within one of the mundane apartments. The emptiness of the mise en scène leaves the suburb more exposed to her menace.
Eli and Håkan’s apartment is the dark other of Oskar and his mother’s. The latters’ world is well-lit and furnished, while Eli’s windows are obscured by makeshift covers, packaging and wraps that swathe her tomblike sleeping place. In Eli and Håkan’s desolate kitchen, a fashion photograph serves as a poignant gesture towards normality that belies the passage of centuries within Eli's life – the “long time” of her 12 years.
The conventional, crowded mise en scène of a horror or vampire film conveys a sense of deep time: an accumulation of lives and objects . By contrast, Let the Right One In examines the horror vacui of simple, schematic interiors. The stark, cold simplicity of its mise en scène is disturbing because it dramatises a lack of comfort and homeliness. The menace of Gothic lies in a kind of congealed history that is present in objects; in this film there is an institutional a-historical emptiness.