Let the Right One In (2008, Tomas Alfredson)
It’s possible to be pretty reductive about this movie while retaining basic accuracy about its story essence. In the misleading abstract you can call it any of the following: a Swedish supernatural thriller; a vampire movie; and most desperately, a “romantic” horror film. All three are true and none actually hint at the tone or appeal of Let the Right One In. It does indeed contain vampires, and a fair bit of the gore and Gothic dread you’d expect from a conventional horror tale. But the honest assessment would be to call it a coming-of-age love story, capturing if not the reality of first love then certainly the enormity of what it feels like — and to boot, the respite such a feeling can provide from the constant torture of adolescence. Or if you want to really scare people, you can call it a combination of Martin and Welcome to the Dollhouse — which is still pretty much on the money.
We are introduced to young Oskar, played with mumbling understatement by sad-eyed Kåre Hedebrant, who endures constant badgering and physical abuse from a spate of local bullies, led by a sneering boy named Conny. In between enjoying this misery and sporadically communicating with his parents, Oskar nurses a fascination with a series of bizarre murders near his home, then befriends his new neighbor — a mysterious, world-weary girl named Eli. After not much time at all, which is only too proper, Oskar falls head over heels for Eli, an expression communicated through Rubik’s Cubes and attempted blood-merging. That last act of overexcited affection leads Oskar to discover that his new confidante, whose presence comforts him, who sneaks into his room and sleeps next to him, who advises him on how to fight back against Conny and the other bullies, is a vampire. The phantom killer in the woods had been Oskar’s predecessor as her adoring caregiver, finding blood for her so she wouldn’t have to. After he’s forced to mutilate himself to avoid being identified and leading authorities to Eli, she begins to kill on her own — and as forces close in on her, it’s Oskar who saves her, as much as she saves him when the bullies attempt to enact revenge on him for an attack on Conny. We close with the pair running away together, Eli hidden in a chest tapping out silly romantic messages in Morse code to Oskar.
A lot of things about Let the Right One In are refreshing, perhaps above all the seriousness with which it takes the hearts of its young lead characters. Their mutual adoration isn’t trivialized, it’s presented as the force of wonder and comfort that takes hold in them, Oskar especially, and it’s all treated with the sparse, dreamlike seriousness young love deserves and is seldom allowed to exhibit on screen for fear of accusations of naivete. Most anyone will recognize these emotions, though, and they retain a raw power long after the specifics have been forgotten; who doesn’t recall the total release and relief of an escape provided by the person we once felt understood?
The screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of the novel on which the film’s based, does a quite phenomenal job of playing everything through the emotions of the children — and saying just enough to make the story sparklingly clear, never overstating or sacrificing its ruthless and wondrous economy. Every scene is a piece of the puzzle and is entirely needed. What is unnecessary, though, is the entirety of the film’s bizarre subplot involving one of Eli’s victims. Nearly all of the tropes of the horror genre are reserved for this time-filling soap opera, which has nothing to do with the story we care about. Unlike the other victims we see, the lady is kept alive and thus becomes a vampire, and there’s all that stuff vampires have: sunlight problem, wanting to suck blood, etc. Unlike Eli, she ceases to be a living breathing human, not that it matters because we never knew her anyway. She’s attacked by cats (!) and eventually burns alive quite melodramatically when she asks for the blinds to be opened. All this clutters up the film and makes it all too conventional; whereas the use of vampire “tradition” in Eli’s story is rather elegant, especially her strict need to be invited into a room, this is just a horror-pastiche mess and doesn’t belong here. Sadly, it takes up a hugely unfair amount of screen time and completely takes you out of the spellbinding moment. It’s as if the children are real people, people you come to know rather deeply even as spare and subtle as their scenes are, and the adults are Movie Characters, utter plastic death.
In turn, the two central performers overshadow everyone else in the cast. Hedebrant is wonderful at capturing the sullenness and curiosity of a bright young alienated kid; but Lina Leandersson is the prize here, exhibiting such wisdom beyond her years it’s no trip to believe she’s a five hundred year-old vampire. It’s difficult to imagine where this young actress might be pulling her emotions from, but she’s utterly haunting, convincing, unforgettable — you fall in love with Eli as much as Oskar does, no matter how many times you watch her suck the blood out of people.
Alfredson shoots all this with aching care and precision; the film is overrun with snowy, stark beauty that it faces with utter nonchalance, the camera constantly keeping a safe distance and operating emotionally, gradually, so that what we have is a horror film that works from quiet and detail and melancholy, not unlike George Romero’s similarly sad vampire story Martin. The concentration here is all on places and people, the crunch of snow under the feet and the florescent dread of a school building against the escape of outside. The lone showpiece, though, is a firecracker: the climactic scene in which Conny’s brother holds Oskar’s head under the water for what seems like an eternity until he’s saved by Eli is masterful. Without leaving Oskar’s struggle, we see what happens through mere suggestion from under the water. We hear the children being killed and watch the body parts sink and Oskar set free without so much as a musical flourish or camera jolt. Like everything else, it just happens, it’s horrible and wonderful (children being killed! and we’re overjoyed!) and part of life — even though it’s vampire bloody killer stuff that has nothing to do with actual life on this planet. That’s superb staging, superb filmmaking, superb storytelling. If we could have just dropped the CGI cats and the Swedish Thirtysomething sequences, maybe it could be as entirely seductive as we wish. At its best, Let the Right One In lives in that strange place we knew as children and long to know again — where magic things can happen and love actually can reign over the things that torment us.