The concept of vampires or vampire-like beings — undead who return from the grave and exist by stealing the “life essence” (flesh or blood) of the living — has existed in the folklore of virtually all cultures for centuries. In earliest times, these blood-stealing beings were considered spirits or demons, but they have always been some of the most terrifying paranormal creatures to stalk mankind.
The vampire most familiar to many of us originated in southeastern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, and counted among its reviled membership suicides, revenants, people accused of practicing witchcraft, people suspected of being possessed, or anyone who might have rebelled against Christian doctrine or Church teachings. During the Age of Enlightenment, “belief in vampires increased dramatically,” and many rituals were developed to both identify and protect humans from these undead creatures, including hanging wreaths of garlic on doors or windows, blessing people, rooms, and houses with holy water, and staking or decapitating corpses to prevent the bodies from returning.
Not only did these undead creatures harm and kill the living in order to maintain their own existence, they often appeared in their human form, albeit slightly changed in complexion and dental work, and lured their own loved ones to the grave. In the 18th century, vampire superstition in Europe sometimes reached mass hysteria, causing corpses to be staked or beheaded to ensure that they couldn’t rise from the dead to seek out more victims.
Originally, vampires were dark, gruesome beings: unattractive and undeniably otherworldly. In the early 19th century, with fiction, vampires changed, becoming less gruesome and more… shall we say, attractive.
The charismatic and sophisticated vampire of modern fiction was born in 1819 with the publication of The Vampyre by John Polidori; the story was highly successful and arguably the most influential vampire work of the early 19th century. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is remembered as the quintessential vampire novel and provided the basis of the modern vampire legend. The success of this book spawned a distinctive vampire genre, still popular in the 21st century, with books, films, and television shows. The vampire has since become a dominant figure in the horror genre.
Though vampires have long been a feature of the horror genre, there’s a strange trend in contemporary vampire fiction, and the dramas based on them, including Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series. Vampires, despite needing the blood of living humans or other animals to survive, have been romanticized to the point of being almost totally non-violent. Some of the vampires in these contemporary novels are even more humane and virtuous than most human beings, which may be the point since the novels in which these vampires appear are romances and love stories. It’s a sweet interpretation of vampires: if they love you, they won’t harm you.
But part of the terror of really great vampire stories is that the vampires can harm or even kill you, despite their caring about you. Maybe I’m prejudiced because my earliest introduction to vampires was the dreaded Count of Stoker’s classic Dracula, and horror films where vampires, be they Dracula or not, were dangerous and monstrous creatures that would kill you even if they liked you. I agree with film critic Roger Ebert when he points out that vampire stories, whether books or films, are inherently “tragic” and “brutal.”
It’s not all fun, games, and Team Edward. No lifestyle depending on fresh human blood can be anything but desperate. A vampire, like a drug addict, is driven by need. After a certain point, all else is irrelevant, and the focus is on the craving.
The horror film Let Me In (2010), a remake of the 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In, returns the vampire story to horror in its most horrifying manifestations. Though some critics describe this film as “romantic,” it is more a coming-of-age story than a romance, and it is a brutal coming-of-age tale. Despite the fact that several of the characters in the story love each other, most devotedly, Let Me In is a tale of isolation, alienation, brutality, helplessness, and the desperate will to survive by any means possible. These themes set this vampire film far above its contemporaries. It isn’t pretty or romantic to be a vampire or associated with a vampire in Let Me In. Instead, it’s downright lonely and scary.
In a fictional version of Los Alamos, a small village in New Mexico, a string of grisly murders causes the community to lock its doors and become uncommonly wary. Twelve-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a lonely social outcast, neglected by his divorcing parents and bullied by his classmates.
Owen becomes friendly with his new neighbor Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), who lives in the adjoining apartment with a man that Owen assumes is her father (Richard Jenkins), and who seems to have some unnatural, even pedophiliac feelings for Abby.
Owen and Abby communicate by tapping Morse code on the walls at night, and they become extremely close to each other, if only because each is a loner: each is isolated from everyone else at school, and each seems to have a distant relationship with the parent figure in their lives. Though Owen and Abby like each other, Abby’s father-guardian doesn’t want her to spend any time with Owen.
As the bullying against Owen increases and gets more physically violent, he confides in Abby, rather than in his own mother. Abby encourages Owen to stand up for himself, to retaliate against the bullies, and, most important, vows to protect him.
When Abby’s father-guardian kills himself, she is as alone in the world as Owen perceives himself to be, and the pair becomes closer to each other. Abby promises to be Owen’s girlfriend.
When Owen becomes violent, in self-defense, to the boys who are bullying him, the story of the local murders and of his own coming-of-age combine: the detective (Elias Koteas) investigating the murders has begun investigating Abby.
After Owen sees Abby do something violent, and she asks for his help, he is forced to re-evaluate his own morality. Owen has formed a profound and protective bond with Abby, but he must now consider the possibility that she may be responsible for the gruesome killings that are terrorizing his small community.
“[Very] close to the much-loved, critically acclaimed” Swedish original Let the Right One In, and equally critically acclaimed itself, Let Me In is a coming-of-age story about isolation and loneliness, about alienation and a need to connect, about brutality and the primitive need to exist. It’s a coming-of-age story with a paranormal twist. Featuring great performances by the child-actors, and a completely unexpected ending, Let Me In is available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, GooglePlay, and Vudu.