There will be blood at the movies, but don't let it scare you. Sometimes there is more to gore than meets the eye. Sometimes, in fact, what looks on the surface like a horror movie proves to be something far more intriguing. One case in point is the mesmerizing Swedish vampire movie "Let the Right One In," in which dead bodies are hung like pigs after slaughter, a body is decapitated and a woman bursts into flames and goes up in smoke. Though many of the traditional paraphernalia of the bloodsucking genre are present and accounted for in Tomas Alfredson's movie—teeth sink into necks, windows must be boarded lest the vampire expire in the light of day—this is a vampire movie like no other. Horror is not the objective.
The same is true of Clint Eastwood's "Changeling." Its ingredients are the stuff of gothic nightmares: a kidnapped child, a sane woman incarcerated in a mental institution, a serial killer who slaughters young boys. The sensationalistic aspects of "Changeling" are not, however, what really interest Eastwood. Though the true, shocking story it's based on has enough melodrama to sustain a season of soap operas, Eastwood's classical repose lifts this lurid tale to a different level. Like "Let the Right One In"—a vampire movie reinvented in startling and tender ways—he embraces horror-movie conventions en route to transcending them.
"Let the Right One In" is both a coming-of-age tale and a love story. The pale, lonely, 12-year-old protagonist, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), is a serious, solitary boy constantly picked on by his schoolmates. He retreats into fantasies of revenge, collecting newspaper clippings of violent crimes. Then, in the snow-banked courtyard of his apartment complex in the suburbs of Stockholm (circa 1982), he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), a strange, unkempt, raven-haired girl who walks barefoot in the snow and doesn't feel the cold. "I'm not a girl," she warns him, skittish of starting a friendship. Indeed she's not—she's a vampire, eternally frozen at age 12, and dependent on an older man who's not a vampire (perhaps her father, perhaps not) who kills for her, and brings her the blood of his victims to sustain her eternal life.
Before he realizes what she is, young Oskar falls in love. He asks her to go steady. Wanting to seal his love, he cuts his hand to share his blood with hers—and we freeze in anticipation of how she'll react to the sight of his bleeding hand. It's a breathtaking scene but, like everything in this haunting film, it tilts genre expectations on their sides. By the time Oskar figures out Eli's true nature, it's too late to turn off his feelings. She's transformed his life—she teaches him to defend himself, she's pierced his solitude and there's no turning back. Grave, melancholy, romantic, with bursts of off-beat comedy, "Let the Right One In" unfolds with quiet, masterly assurance. It's based on a bestselling Swedish novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also wrote the screenplay. He and his talented director don't deny us the genre's grisly thrills (strikingly but always obliquely staged), but it's their psychological acuity that draws the deepest blood: this is a prepubescent love story for the ages.
The love of a mother drives "Changeling." In 1928 Los Angeles, the single mom Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) returns home from her job as a supervisor at Pacific Telephone to find her 9-year-old son, Walter, missing. She turns to the police, who five months later announce that her missing son has been found in Illinois and is coming home. Except the boy who gets off the train, she realizes with horror, is not her son, even though he claims to be. She's urged to take him home and "try him out." So begins an astonishing saga with far-reaching personal and political ramifications. Brutal and corrupt, the LAPD is a fascistic organization led by Chief James E. Davis (Colm Feore). Under siege from a crusading clergyman (John Malkovich) who is using his radio show to rouse the public against their corrupt ways, the department needs a success story to shore up its scandal-ridden reputation, and they weren't going to let a woman ruin their PR campaign. When Collins fights back, Capt. J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) has her arrested, and incarcerated in the loony bin.
How the tenacious Collins took on the L.A. political establishment forms the backbone of the story. (Once you get over the distractions of her fame and beauty, Jolie plays her with admirable restraint and slow-burning ferocity.) If "Changeling" were fiction, you'd accuse it of being over the top, and it just gets more baroque when the Collins case intersects with that of serial killer Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner), who trawled the streets for boys he'd lure out to his remote ranch. This is where Eastwood skirts the edges of the horror film: though the worst of Northcott's atrocities are left to the imagination, what you do see leaves you shaken.
J. Michael Straczynski's copiously researched screenplay is a model of sturdy architecture: each layer of the plot builds our horror into a fine fury, but his dialogue tends to hit everything on the nose. "Changeling" doesn't have the moral nuances of most recent Eastwood movies: the characters come neatly fit in black or white hats (or cloches). Then again, some stories really are about the good guys and the bad, and when the tale is this gripping, why resist the moral outrage? Eastwood tells his haunting, sorrowful saga with such a sure, steady hand, only a very hardened cynic could fail to be moved. For all the horror in both these movies, they are in the end profiles in courage—human and not quite human.