Monday, June 06, 2011
Sympathy for Monsters: Reflecting on the Film 'Let Me In'
by Tauriq Moosa
In his treatise, On the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke wrote: “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” The extent to which this is true is beyond our concern, but there is little doubt fear often puts rationality in a cage, chains the door and kicks it into a silent corner. It is this reaction that great horror writers, from Edgar Allan Poe to Clive Barker and Stephen King to John Ajvide Lindqvist, have sought in their works. It is not the alien beings or giant monsters which terrify us as readers, but often human characters portrayed in vulnerable positions fighting to escape the horror of their sudden environment.
Consider a world populated by giant monsters. Giant monsters who hunted other giant beasts, as non-human animals do here ‘in the wild’. A book that described this might be interesting, but hardly terrifying if it made no reference of threats to humans or creatures with vague properties of personhood (emotions, consciousness, etc.). It would be about as terrifying as a nature documentary on whale sharks. And think of the corollary: a house. Houses on their own hardly seem interesting places, but in the right kind of light, penned by a master story-teller, they can become the most terrifying of places.
It is thus the relation to humans or beings with personhood that matter. The wonderful movie ‘Wall-E’ has a robot title-character who displays emotions, actions, self-consciousness (i.e. properties of personhood). We identify with Wall-E because of these properties, showing that we care for persons not necessarily or only for humans. That is why any robot or alien – or even toys – have to display personhood for us to care: they need not even be shaped like humans for us to care about them. As long as they display engagement with their environment, there is reason for us to care about their well-being (since they display a care for their individual well-being and others’).
This why the movie ‘Let Me In’ has come to replace ‘Inception’ as my second favourite movie of the decade (my list will be at the end for those who care).
Overview of ‘Let Me In’
‘Let Me In’ is an American version of the Swedish film ‘Let the Right One In’, itself based on the Swedish novel of the same name by John Lindqvist (if you’re interested in how to pronounce his name, see here).
The story relates the relationship of Owen, a bullied loner, and Abby, a centuries’ old vampire in the body of a bare-foot twelve-year old. In the beginning, we are introduced to Abby and her ‘father’ when they move in to the same dilapidated, dirty apartment building as Owen. Owen spends his time outside, in the dark and snow, contemplating murder of his bullies and other normal, preteen boys’ thoughts while singing a ditty in his girlish voice. One night Abby introduces herself by announcing they can never be friends. Of course, this changes rapidly due to their contrast and similarities. Like pieces of broken mirror, they fit together uneasily but when together reflect their world to greater degrees.
My description does little justice to the beauty of the film. The visuals alone are striking: the harsh contrast of snow at night; the violence and brutality emerging from the body of an innocent-looking girl; the notable femininity of Owen and the strength and silence and watchfulness of Abby; Owen’s mother whose face you never see and might as well be absent in terms of parental duties, serving only to irritate Owen and be a bedrock of confusion and isolation. The acting is remarkable but the ability to pull through stretches of silence without losing the audience’s interest more so.
However, reflecting on this, one is drawn to a number of incredible conclusions. There is nothing simple or easily outlined: Abby is not clearly evil, Owen is not a strong character but retains your empathy, the bullies are awful but not clearly bad people. The only contrast is the visuals and in-between this is a thousand shades of grey called character profiles.
Monster and Man
I’ve said Abby isn’t clearly evil. She is a vampire and vampires traditionally are evil. However, what makes this classification difficult is the clear similarities to humans. Movies that transform the vampires into clearly horrific creatures miss out on doing something more terrifying, which movies like ‘Let Me In’ and ‘Interview with a Vampire’ pulled off: creating vampires with, whom you sympathise, battling humans, with whom you do not.
George Romero has done this successfully by creating the zombie genre, but displaying the awful things humans – live, not undead ones – are prepared to do in order to survive. Betrayal, murder, revenge all arise despite the need everyone has to survive.
But this is apparent even when not fighting for survival. In one of Romero’s later movies, ‘Land of the Dead’, we see a community of zombies shuffling, not harming anyone. They have learnt to interact, hold hands, put gas pumps into cars. The audience is led to believe these disgusting creatures are gaining some form of intelligence; they are also not harming anyone since humans are sealed off in a protected city (consider our planet of giant monsters above where similarly there was no threat to humans). Suddenly, with hooting and tooting and typical macho bravado, cars with gun-toting marines drive through the streets shooting the zombies. Limbs fly as the hapless creatures struggle to turn or even run – since they are too slow. The audience feels revulsion at the senseless violence: after all, these are human-like creatures – ugly yes but not harming anyone – and showing something akin to intelligence, too slow to react in ways to protect themselves. And here they are outmanned, outgunned and ‘out-vehicled’ by macho marines clearly enjoying pumping bullets into these miserable creatures.
Sympathy for monsters is a difficult move to pull off but Romero and other good writers/directors can. This occurs in ‘Let Me In’. We are supposed to feel sympathy for Abby, despite her monstrous nature. She clearly cares for Owen, who has no one else. Abby, too, clearly has the ability to care as displayed by her affections to her ‘father’ – who is actually her familiar.
But there is a further move. In ‘Let Me In’ we have moved beyond simply dubbing monsters as ‘not entirely bad’ and human people as quite evil, with Romero, Stephen King and others blurring the line between monster and man. ‘Let Me In’ uses this blurred line as the baseline. Then it leaps over it into murkier waters. The rest is not clearly explained by the movie, but is an argument for why Abby is in fact a greater monster than most vampires, even in B-Grade movies.
Why Abby is Evil
When we first meet Abby, she is with an older man. We are meant to assume this man is her father. As we come to know what she is, we realise it’s impossible, since Abby is probably a few hundred years old and this man is not immortal. He is therefore her familiar; which according to some vampire traditions is a human tied to the vampire; a human who obtains blood and other necessities for the vampire, in exchange for some kind of reward. Often the reward is illusory, such as an unsurpassed affection and love from the vampire.
Again this touches on human vulnerability: being in love. What stupid things do people do ‘in the name of love’? There is a reason why many think murders committed as ‘crimes of passion’ should not be ranked as equal to those of, say, a serial killer (not because of number but of kind). Passion dulls the mind, in an attempt to fulfil itself. Everything else is simply an obstacle in the way of obtaining that which is strongly desired. Thus, it’s not unheard of for apparently normal people to do uncharacteristic things to obtain the affections of someone he or she desires. The vampire tradition simply plays on this.
True, sometimes the reward is of a supernatural kind: sometimes the familiar is himself granted immortality, great strength, etc. But that ruins the obvious vulnerability the vampire-familiar pact is playing on. The vein is already open and being sucked dry; there’s no need to add magic to this already powerful idea. In ‘Let Me In’, it’s not obvious that Abby’s familiar has any kind of power; he carries out his murders in a sluggish, slightly reluctant fashion. It’s not often we see Abby convey affection toward the older man. When she does, he is overcome by her touch and her approval. Again, this is no different than any other abusive relationship, where we see signs of Stockholm syndrome: the beaten woman who claims she loves her fist of a husband but remains.
What we notice about Abby's familiar is his age. If he is mortal, he is at an age where performing feats to feed Abby is becoming more burdensome. Sneaking and murdering is not for the old or unfit, which this man clearly is. His failure is apparent when Owen often hears screaming from Abby’s apartment.
When the audience first hears these shouts, screams and heavy thumps, we are – along with Owen – supposed to assume it is the older man, Abby’s ‘father’, yelling because of the deep-sounding voice. However, in a brilliantly filmed shot, we see Abby’s ‘father’/familiar slouched uncomfortably in a corner, covering his head and being yelled at. That deep-sounding voice, that heavy thumping – we are witness to Abby’s demonic side.
Again, this is no different to people revealing abusive, horrible sides. The tradition of possession by demons, the reason it is still often believed, is because of the remarkable change in someone’s character. It is almost as if something external has ‘possessed’ this person. We even talk about love and hatred as something external: I was in love, hatred was in my veins, etc. We don’t like to acknowledge that extremities bring focus to the million shades of grey that mark our personality; after all, to make grey you need black and white.
Anyway, the point this raises is that the familiar has been failing at pleasing Abby. His age, his reluctance, and his regular failure – evidenced by the constant yelling by the demonic child – tell us his usefulness is coming to an end. Seen in this light, with this realisation, suddenly Owen’s role is not as simple as it first appears. Owen may at first be a loner who is ‘saved’ by Abby; Abby may appear as fortuitous in Owen’s life but with the degradation of her current familiar’s usefulness, is it any wonder Abby does everything she can to save Owen despite the obvious ramification of being discovered?
Abby is evil precisely because the whole premise is not about friendship but usefulness. Abby used friendship to obtain him since she recognised that she could get another human to love her, given that he is the right age and would therefore be with her as long as he would be alive.
Indeed, we see the advantage of Abby being in the body of a young girl. Being young, she appears more innocent but, furthermore, she can acquire a familiar her own age and use him longer. True, if she was, say, in her thirties, she could just acquire a young familiar and call him her son; but it would probably be more difficult. It is easier in movement, in obtaining a familiar, to be a young girl.
Abby is evil in that even before Owen has a chance to be a free adult, he is already in her clutches. Considering he would be looking after her, he could never have a life which was not completely devoted to her: her security, her safety, her feeding. And if he fails, he will be punished. She has all the worst aspects of a pet and a monster and all the manipulation of a lover. A worst combination of monster – well, it’s hard to consider anything much worse, though there are a few.
Again, a Contrast
Yet, this is not remarkable. There are couples who exist exactly like this: bound by marriage, children, familiarity; perhaps they are bound by a dream, gagged by a lie and have tied themselves to a train-track called a relationship. Wherever their heads are placed, there is nothing so far removed from the supernatural relationship displayed by the evil Abby and her victim/familiar Owen.
To think this relationship is something special, only akin to vampires, would be to miss out on the contrast to, again, human relationships.
The most terrifying thing we experience is not the monster’s roar, the slithering tentacle. It’s not the sudden bang or the swinging lights. What keeps our blood pumping, what turns our hands into white knuckled fists, is the realisation that the things we call monstrous are found in our lives, amongst each other; horror is the light behind us putting shadows on the cave wall. At first, we call the shadows evil until we turn to see the light is merely reflecting our shapes and forms. This is what good horror does. This is indeed what ‘Let Me In’ performs beautifully.
There is nothing so monstrous as a man who thinks himself incapable of being a monster. Recognising this, it’s hard to say what is truly otherworldly about ‘Let Me In’. And that is what makes this movie so terrifying.
favourite contemporary movies
1. The Dark Knight
2. Let Me In
4. Life is Beautiful
Posted by Tauriq Moosa at 09:37 AM | Permalink