By Matt Singer
I wouldn’t say I liked “Twilight,” but I think I get it. The action is clumsy, the acting is clunky, but the core mythos of Stephenie Meyer’s source material survives the transition to the big screen intact, and while it doesn’t necessarily appeal to me, I can see why it might to others (at least as a novel; the movie, I’m not so sure). The world that Meyer created — a teen soap opera against a backdrop of supernatural intrigue in which clans of vampires walk the earth, some protecting humanity, others methodically eating them — is a chick-lit twist on the classic formula of the “X-Men” comic books. “Twilight” was previewed for the press at a multiplex in Times Square to give critics a taste of what the authentic experience is like: the theater was packed with teenage girls. These young women, by and large, looked approximately like what I would have at that age with a gender swap: big glasses, frizzy hair, questionable fashion sense. Girl nerds, in other words — “gerds,” as we used to call them in high school — and this stuff is catnip for them.
This was true particularly in the case of teenage vampire boytoy Edward Cullen, whose name was on the Twilighters’ quivering lips long before a single frame of celluloid unspooled. The film is the story of his blossoming romance with a human girl named Bella (Kristen Stewart), who moves from Phoenix to the tiny town of Forks, Washington to live with her dad. Despite the fact that Bella is a sulky bore and a bad friend, she’s lusted over by all the boys in her new school. But she’s only interested in the mysterious Edward who, like the rest of his pale weirdo family, tends to call in sick when the weather turns aggressively sunny (a rarity in the Pacific Northwest). As played in the film by British actor Robert Pattinson, Edward’s sort of a bloodsucking version of James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” — brooding, moody, and unbearably handsome — and he walks a clever fine line of attractiveness: he’s a bad boy (what with the bloodsucking and all), but an unusually non-threatening one (Edward, like the rest of the Cullens, are “vampire vegetarians,” eating only animals to survive). In fact, “Twilight” is easily one of the least bloody vampire movies in history; it’s much more about the romantic mystique of the vampire figure than it is the day-to-day reality of the walking undead. Like I said, I think I get it. He’s a vampire James Dean — and I don’t think I’ve ever met a sensible woman who didn’t carry a torch for James Dean.
Stewart and Pattinson have good chemistry onscreen, though not so good that it justifies the titters that filled the theater whenever the pair silently smoldered at one another. The audience kept reacting to things that must have alluded to moments they savored in the novels but were invisible to “Twilight” neophytes. If, like me, you haven’t read one of Meyer’s novels, watching the film can be like a friend telling you a story that’s supposed to be hilarious and, when it proves not to be, ends with the line, “I guess you had to be there.” Sometimes the central pair look like they’re yearning for each other so hard they’re giving themselves stomach aches.
The movie’s ultimate message is one of restraint and self-control; characters are deemed heroic not necessarily for what they do, but rather for what they want to do and don’t, and Edward’s noble ability to control his thirst for human blood is clearly equated with his refusal to deflower the willing Bella (by taking either her virginity or her humanity; Bella’s so “irrevocably” in love with Edward she’s ready to give him either and both all at once). As much as the vampires’ pale skin is a narrative side effect of their fear of sunlight and strange dietary habits, in “Twilight,” it also comes to symbolize their moral purity.
That’s in stark contrast to the recently released “Let the Right One In,” another movie about interspecies attraction between human and vampire teens, where the color white is used in visual opposition to the film’s teenosferatu and her nasty habits. Sweden’s snowy landscape dominates the frame, and many of the film’s images — including a country house, a life preserver, even a Rubik’s cube — balance oceans of white with splashes of red.
In “Let the Right One In,” lonely Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) has no outlet for the frustration caused by perpetual bullying at school and perpetual disinterest in his mother at home. He strikes up a friendship, mostly out of sheer desperation, with a shy girl who moves into his apartment complex named Eli (Lina Leandersson). While Oskar dreams about killing his tormenters, Eli, with the aid of a guardian who may or may not be her father, actually kills people to drink their blood. After Oskar discovers Eli’s secret, he confronts her about what she does, and she throws his own fantasies back in his face. “I don’t kill people!” Oskar says. “But,” Eli counters, “you’d like to if you could.” He doesn’t disagree.
Oscar and Eli’s budding co-dependent relationship is both troubling and touching, which makes it even more troubling. And, to my surprise, the effects in this tiny Swedish indie are far superior to those in “Twilight,” where Edward and his cohorts running at super-speed or gliding ethereally through the air often look like human actors approximating the clunky moments of puppet action in “Team America: World Police.” “Let the Right One In” features characters convincingly bursting into flames, and plenty of gore and dismemberment, all enhanced by director Tomas Alfredson’s sense of restraint, as when Eli’s assistant blocks our view of a victim as he slices his neck, leaving us only the sickening sound of the knife cutting through the flesh to give our imagination something to quease over. The effect is a love story as unsettling as “Twilight”‘s is comforting, and the climactic “justice” in both films has the same net result (i.e. the “bad guys” are defeated), though the implications of the two actions are vastly different.
There is no doubt that “Let the Right One In” is a better movie than “Twilight” — and certainly a scarier one — just as there’s no doubt that “Twilight is the better and easier sell. Everyone in “Twilight” is so pretty — the subway posters with the whole cast scowling lustily at the camera looks like the ad for a new series on The CW — and I think we’d all like to hope that if we were to fall in love with a vampire, it would be for all the right reasons. That is fantasy, and we all love fantasy. I get that too.
[Photos: “Twilight,” Summit Entertainment, 2008; “Let the Right One In,” Magnet Releasing, 2008]