MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka


If every vampire that’s appeared in a movie or television show were laid head to toe, the line of blood-starved bodies would stretch from Hollywood to Transylvania.

The Internet Movie Database lists more than 1,100 productions in which vampires play prominent roles or are the central focus of documentaries. Other sources put the number closer to 3,000. Of these, fewer than 100 are variations on the Dracula legend, as delineated by Bram Stoker.

As Bugs Bunny might have observed in the original Transylvania 6-5000, “That’s a lot of vampires.”

Released in 1922, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu the Vampire is generally acknowledged to be the first movie to put a face to the myth, even if it was preceded by a half-dozen others simply titled The Vampire. Absent the permission of the Stoker family, Murnau’s Dracula went about his nasty business under the transparent alias, Count Graf Orlov.

Max Schreck’s silent portrayal of the vampire remains one of the scariest in cinematic history. Thanks to the introduction of sound to the medium, however, it was Bela Lugosi’s decidedly less horrific interpretation that has been mimicked and quoted by generations of actors, impressionists and comedians. If Lugosi, who originated the role of Count Dracula on Broadway, had been born on the banks of the Thames, instead of the shadow of the Carpathians, the character’s hold on our imaginations might be quite different.

Now, of course, vampires come in all shapes, sizes and demographic groupings.

The HBO mini-series, True Blood, dares to imagine how vampires and humans might interact if synthetic blood were as readily available as beer and Red Bull. In one Louisiana parish, vampires are allowed to roam freely at night and socialize with mortals. There is resistance to equal-rights legislation, of course, but vampires appear regularly on television to promote their cause. Violence perpetuated by bigots and extremists on both sides of the debate prevent True Blood from drowning in sea of liberal sentimentality each week.

In Catherine Hardwicke’s upcoming Twilight, an alienated Washington teenager falls in love with a smart, witty and buff vampire, just as the blond barmaid Sookie Stackhouse did on True Blood. The primary difference between the two young men is that one is required to keep his true identity a secret, while the other isn’t.

While contemporary vampires tend to blend into the fabric of America’s teenage wasteland, it will be interesting to see if Tim Burton and Johnny Depp require their Barnabas Collins to don a high-collared cape in a 2011 remake of Dark Shadows. It worked for them in Ed Wood, after all.

Meanwhile, a chilly little thriller from Sweden has crept its way into the hearts and bloodstreams of American arthouse audiences, embarking this weekend into the hinterlands. Let the Right One In describes how a bullied 12-year-old Swedish boy finds solace, strength and finally love in the arms of a mysterious newcomer to his drab, concrete-block apartment complex, circa 1982. Tender and brutal in equal measure,Tomas Alfredson’s film demands of viewers not only that they consider the implications of eternal life, but also the possibility of love without end.

Pale, blond and fragile, Oskar is the perfect candidate for hazing by brutish classmates. A shaggy Brian Jones hairdo hides the boy’s masculine features, opening him up to the kind of abuse typically reserved for gay and androgynous classmates. Nothing outrages a homophobic bully more than androgyny, if only because it challenges his ability to parse sexual stimuli.

Oskar rehearses bloody revenge at home, in his frequently parentless apartment. It isn’t likely, however, that the boy could muster the gumption to execute such a crime with his weapon of choice, a knife. (With their easy access to firearms, American youths make far more efficient serial killers.)

One night, Oskar observes from his window the arrival of a child about his age and a much older man. Suspicions arise after the parent or guardian immediately shields the windows of the apartment with cardboard and the boy drops out of sight. Inside the apartment, the old man loads a traveling case with an odd assortment of cutlery, tubes, containers, chemicals and a gas mask. We, the audience, know that he’s up to something sinister, but only a sadist could predict what it would be.

In the guardian’s absence, the waif introduces himself to Oskar, who’s playing with a Rubik’s cube in the snow covered playground outside their apartments. They are very tentative, at first, but eventually grow attached to each other. Certainly, Oskar’s impressed by Eli’s ability to solve the puzzle after only one lesson.

After declaring that she can’t become his friend, and doesn’t know how long her stay will be in Blackeburg, Eli allows that she doesn’t know her birthday, celebrate Christmas or have parents. She resembles Kristy McNichol in a scraggly tomboyish way, but, for all we know, it might be Jimmy McNichols of whom we’re thinking. Even though Eli makes no attempt to camouflage her lack of appetite for food, aversion to natural light, imperviousness to cold and snow, and feline agility, it takes a while for Oskar to snap to her true nature. Until that happens, it’s enough for him to know that she’s becoming a wonderfully assertive presence in his life, and her worldly experience and physical strengths complement his youth and frailty.

John Ajvide, author of the novel and the film’s screenwriter, has said, “My script is about being lifted out of the darkness by love … about going under and suddenly being rescued by a totally unexpected helping hand.”

For the first time, Oskar has someone in his life he can depend on being there when he’s lonely, frightened or endangered. It doesn’t matter if Eli is a girl or a boy, living or undead. He can grow old with this person, even if she remains 12, “more or less.”

Harvesting blood for a vampire proved not to be a job for an old man. He attempts suicide after botching the murder of teenage boy in nearby suburb of Stockholm, but the acid only eats away half of his face. In Oskar, Eli has found another mortal with whom she can share a segment of her eternal life. Standing up to a bully, and murdering in the name of love, are two very different things, however.

Before they can truly let each other “in,” Oskar and Eli will have to meet one final challenge, at least. With the sun inching its way closer toward the Arctic Circle — bringing with it 24 hours of natural light — time suddenly is of the essence. If placing such a burden on the shoulders of a pair of 12-year-olds seems an especially cruel trick to play, it’s likely that Eli has already been down this road before and knows the drill.

If all this talk about sacrifice and romance makes Let the Right One In sound as if it might be a better fit for the Lifetime Channel, think again. Between the inevitable comeuppance of the bullies and the collecting of blood, the makeup-effects team more than earned its pay. When Eli gets hungry, there’s hell to pay.

In Alfredson’s hands, Sweden’s long February night serves both as an anesthetic on the populace and a black-velvet backdrop for murder most cruel. Even as the body count mounts, and suspicions about the newcomers grow, the absence of alarm among the sodden locals is bizarre. Few take precautions, even knowing that a child-like creature has attacked a close friend.

In 1982, the working-class suburb of Blackeberg would have appeared uninviting even in the sunlight. The apartment complex looks as if it was designed by graduates of the Joseph Stalin School of Architecture and any talk of post-Cold War prosperity would have been considered laughable. Winter or summer, the daily routines of its residents are executed with mind-numbing precision.

“It was a very different Sweden, then … very social democratic,” Alfredson recalled. “Swedes communicate through silence a lot. Not answering a question was a way of answering a question … so was turning your back on someone,” which is what Eli’s guardian does when patrons of the neighborhood pub ask him to join them for a drink.

The misterioso look and tone of Let the Right One In was achieved by employing decidedly analog methodology. The most ritualistic of the murders was performed on a carpet of prominently lit snow in an otherwise dark urban forest. Alfredson staged it to resemble a specific Renaissance painting … the victim hanging upside-down from a tree, being drained of blood like a pig or deer.

“Actually, I wanted it to look like a photograph of a painting,” noted the director. “The butchering had to feel as if it were an everyday thing … boring. The lighting had to be soft, with few shadows.”

The naked branches of the frozen trees stand out from the opaque background as if they were shot in 3D on the stage of a great opera house. The stark contrast between the pitch-black sky and hyper-white snow will bring chills to anyone who’s logged time in northern Wisconsin and has been required to walk more than a block or two in 20-below weather. The effect was mesmerizing … right up to the point where a puffy white poodle wandered away from its walker and intruded on the frigid tableaux.

Let the Right One In is getting the kind of rave reviews most filmmakers would kill to include in their scrapbooks (as they pretend not to pay attention to critics). Its’ success has opened doors in Hollywood, even if Alfredson’s previous features and television projects had next to nothing to do with the paranormal.

“My background is in comedy and drama,” said the 43-year-old Stockholm native. “I’ve never been particularly interested in vampires and knew very little about them. All of the questions I had were answered in John’s book.”

Alfredson considers himself to be a “slow mover,” so any offers for work in Hollywood will undergo close scrutiny. If the performances he extracted from first-timers Lina Leandersson and Kåre Hedebrant are any indication, his talents won’t be best served by churning out vampire and zombie flicks for the straight-to-video market.

One project Alfredson won’t be helming is the American remake of Let the Right One In. It’s already been revealed that Matt Reeves, director of Cloverfield, will tackle it for Overture and Hammer Films. This news wasn’t greeted with much enthusiasm by fans of the original. The bombastic, CGI-heavy Cloverfield could hardly be less like Alfredson’s meditative thriller.

Alfredson has been quoted as saying he was apprehensive about the likelihood of a large-budget remake, if only because the news might discourage subtitle-phobic American audiences from checking out the Swedish original.

“I hope he will personalize the movie … do it his way,” Albertson allowed. “The worst thing would be an English-language duplicate.”

Amen, to that.

November 5, 2008
– Gary Dretzka

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon