Vampire crazes have been with us since the Roman Empire but a different kind of Dracula hysteria is sweeping audiences at Let The Right One In, the National Theatre of Scotland’s adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel that twists the Transylvanian legend for the teen crowd. On the night I attended John Tiffany’s spare but gory production, which makes its North American premiere at St. Ann’s Warehouse, the audience was enthusiastically transported to the heights of voyeurism and sadistic pleasure. Aided by gushing reviews, the production had just announced a three week extension. But the vampire in question, a centuries’ weary specimen masquerading as Eli, 12-year old Oskar’s new neighbor and love interest, ends up as the story’s heroine, even after brutally killing five people and messily feasting on their blood.
For villains, it’s true, Let The Right One In has more than a healthy share. Oskar’s divorced parents start the list: Mom is an alcoholic who likes to get under the sheets with her boy and Dad has little patience for his son. A pair of bullies taunt the shy and awkward Oskar at every turn, and Eli’s “father” has to commit a series of murders in the woods to provide her with fresh blood. When Eli and Oskar finally blow town leaving a wake of desolation behind them, Lindqvist’s adolescent audience could only cheer as the meanies get their due, a phenomenon repeated with the stage adaptation.
In comparison perhaps, Eli appears to be a dark angel, and Rebecca Benson’s feral performance, all twitches and growls, tempts comparisons to the canine (or werewolf) world rather than the realm of the Undead. Benson’s diminutive size and tiny voice also render Eli more sympathetic than she might deserve, but this is in line with Lindqvist’s characterization, which relies on tried and true “vampyre” lore (vampires cannot enter a house unless invited, are weakened by daylight, cannot eat human food, etc.) to appeal to his teen readers’ distrust of rules and humanize Eli’s fight to survive against the police. Respectfully reproduced in Jack Thorne’s adaptation, these unexplained trivia tidbits read as a vampire code for the initiated.
As the beleaguered Oskar, Cristian Ortega searches to find his place in this disappointing community of failed adults, the creepiest of which is Hakan, Eli’s murderous companion (Cliff Burnett, whose unsettling performance is upended by melodramatic dialogue and direction – and frightful makeup – in the show’s second half). Steven Hoggett’s choreography, which periodically freezes and jerks the actors, probably aspires to psychological depth but this doesn’t help the barely sketched, even cartoonish characters, particularly the bullies, Jonny (Graeme Dalling) and Micke (Andrew Fraser). Christine Jones’ flat set – a forest of elegantly soaring birch trees that is more Robert Frost than Halloween howler – adds to the unreality of this tale meant to scare us by introducing the supernatural into the quotidian. The rest is atmospheric folderol that relies on wolfish growls for foreshadowing and sticky buckets of blood for horror (cue screams).
Let the Right One In feeds on our collective vampire fascination but rather than scandalize Dracula, as Bram Stoker did for Victorian audiences, the novel and its stage adaptation celebrate the instincts and skill of a killer in child’s clothing for the interests of a teen romance. It evidently hits a nerve with modern audiences, and so begs the question where, in our own societies reflected back by the play’s dully menacing world of unsympathetic characters, the real monsters are lurking.