Monday, October 11, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 11: Let the Right One In

First off, I want to apologize for not posting over the weekend, and to let loyal readers know that that will probably be the case for the rest of the month, too. So, expect the Halloween Countdown posts only during the week.

For the first movie this week, I decided to watch Let the Right One In (2008), a film that had been recommended to me over and over, but for various reasons, I never got around to seeing.

I generally tend not to get enthused about contemporary horror movies. I've enjoyed some of the j-horror movies I've seen, but otherwise, most contemporary American horror movies tend to leave me cold. There are a lot of reasons for this, but Let the Right One In managed to highlight one in particular.

First off, I want to be clear that I was blown away by Let the Right One In. The concept of the vampire stuck in eternal childhood is fascinating, and it's one of the things I love about my favorite vampire movie, Near Dark (it's also one of the more interesting elements in the otherwise flawed Interview with a Vampire). Let the Right One In manages to be haunting, emotional, and deeply unsettling in ways that are genuinely rare for most horror movies.

However, I really can't add much to a discussion of this movie that hasn't already been addressed in the well-deserved praise it's received. I do, though, want to highlight a particular element of the movie that I found works tremendously well, and it's a technique that's almost never used.

For the most part in this film, violent scenes tend to appear in long shot, recorded by a static camera. The image below gives a sense of the kind of shot I'm talking about, though the violence--when Eli's "father" hangs a victim upside down and drains his blood--takes place a bit before this moment:

One particularly effective example of this type of scene occurs about halfway through the movie, when Eli suddently drops out of a tree from above frame onto Ginia (there is a quick clip of this scene in the preview below). Within the same shot, we see Ginia walking up the steps and away from her husband, with whom she has just had a fight. So, the shot is held for a bit before Eli drops out of the tree.

Most contemporary horror movies would depict such a scene in a series of close-ups, punctuated by quick cuts and utilizing loud music and sound effects to heighten the shock. The effect, in such a case, is to prepare the viewer for the shock of violence--to warn us that it's on its way, and we should feel scared now.

Here, in Let the Right One In, however, the long shot with the static camera creates a sense of innocuousness and safety, so that the sudden intrusion of violence on the scene is truly disruptive. Nothing prepares us for what is about to happen, so there is no safety net of music or quick cuts to warn us that scary stuff is about to happen. Therefore, it also makes the viewer wonder, for a moment, about what is really happening.

Such an approach to violence has a practical side as well: big special effects aren't needed because the action is taking place off in the distance, and the audience has to use some imagination to figure things out.

This technique is so much more unsettling than the more common ways that violence is depicted in horror movies. Director Tomas Alfredson puts the audience on insecure ground like this throughout the movie, building to a climactic scene that is one of the best I've ever seen in a horror movie. The popularity of this film gives me hope that other filmmakers will dissect this movie for what works and borrow it for their own horror movies.

Here's the trailer, which shows some of what I'm talking about:


Mike V. Scholtz said...

Val and I watched this last night. Now she wants her own "vampire best friend." (I worry about what these horror films are teaching her.)

David Campbell said...

I loved this movie for the same reasons you cited, Dr. K. When done right, those long, static shots during scary scenes can be really effective. If I recall, Carpenter uses a long shot for a kill in Prince of Darkness. My all-time favorite horror movie scare - the nurse murder in Exorcist III - is shot from a detached, dispassionate perspective, which makes it so much more shocking.

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