When was the last time a vampire was truly scary? No, not gory, or gross, or given over to fits of faux romanticized rage and revisionism. Really, genuinely and utterly frightening? Underworld? Buffy? Near Dark? Anytime Hammer’s Christopher Lee arrived onscreen? Blade made the bloodsucker into a staid action hero and villain, while numerous post-Anne Rice adjustments have turned the one time fiend into a tragic, almost Shakespearean scourge. In fact, if something like Let the Right One In hadn’t come along, Nosferatu would remain a non-issue in the world of horror. But thanks to Tomas Alfredson’s amazing new movie, the bloodsucker gets a new lease on life – at least, temporarily.
Oskar is a pale, frail little Swedish boy barely into his teens. Hopelessly tormented at school by a bully and his lackeys, he longs for revenge. One night, a young girl named Eli moves into the flat next door. Instantly curious, he keeps an eye on his new neighbor and her elderly guardian. After a few confusing conversations, Oskar and Eli become friends. In the meantime, her caregiver goes around Stockholm killing innocent people and draining their blood. Eventually we learn that Eli is a vampire, forever stuck in a child’s body. Yet Oskar is not afraid. Instead, he senses the power she possesses, and wonders how he can utilize it for his own, less than noble needs. Elsewhere, the locals are starting to suspect something evil is in their midst.
With its bursts of horrific violence and stark, matter of fact mannerism, Let the Right One In instantly becomes one of the few outright foreign fright film classics. It uses routine to unholy ends, and takes the standard coming of age and turns it right on its pointy, perplexed and paranormal little head. Rare is the movie that can take the trials and tribulations of peer pressure and personal awareness and make it into something both celebratory and sinister. But thanks to the efforts of Alfredson and his collaboration with source novelist John Lindqvist, we wind up with a compelling companion to every story of overlooked and alienated youth ever told. It’s like A Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace with night stalkers.
Alfredson has a very unique style – call it the slowburn calm before the terrifying torrents of chaos. Much of Let the Right One In plays out in long, silent takes, the camera covering personal details as we wait to see what happens next. Suddenly, the director will offer up some explosive bit of horror – a violent confrontation, an animal attack, a post-sunrise personal immolation – and we definitely understand the aesthetic choice. Let the Right One In wants to lull us into a sense of sobering everyday complacency, focusing on the terror of a young boy being bullied more than the presence of a possible vampire. Yet once the supernatural stuff begins, we get the clear connection between the two.
Pain is at the center of this film – Eli’s physical sickness and need for blood as well as her overriding desire for simple human connections. The issue of immortality is often explored within the genre, but Let the Right One In finds simple, dignified ways of explaining the solemn sadness of living forever. In Oskar’s case, we get the more basic boyhood trauma. With a mother that smothers him and a Dad who apparently passes his time doing drugs (and his male friends), this is one kid getting the full blown dysfunctional family mixed message treatment. He can’t confide in either parent, and as a result, sees Eli as a like minded youth who uses silence acceptance as a way of understanding his plight. She’s also very strong, and blessed with a killer instinct.
If this kind of misery loves company companionship sounds like dozens of other formulaic family fare, Let the Right One In is guilty. However, thanks to Lindqvist’s novel approach to the material, the decision to set everything within the stark cold realities of a Swedish winter, and Alfredson’s way with tone and talent, we wind up with something quite extraordinary. Of course, it takes capable child actors gifted enough of bringing this material to life, and in the case of Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, we have totally believable, completely unmannered individuals. As the first film for both, we can sense a slight streak of amiable amateurishness in their open, honest performances. In each case, the untested attributes work wonderfully for them.
Since they have to carry the film almost exclusively, the rest of the cast kind of fades into the woodwork, and that’s crucial for Let the Right One In to succeed. We don’t need to know more about the group of drunkards frequenting the local hangout, or the cat man living near the scene of a gruesome killing. We could care less about the bully’s far more evil older brother, or the sloppy, slutty woman who becomes an unwitting part of the plot. The main focus of the film stays on the growing infatuation and interlocking need between Oskar and Eli. Everything else is just wicked window dressing. Even better, Alfredson doesn’t skimp on the gruesomeness. The fate of Eli’s first “handler” is illustrated in graphic, gory effectiveness. And one fiend in the making gets a pair of particularly nasty comeuppances.
Indeed, Let the Right One In is almost perfect in its execution and expanse. It’s like watching a work of art come to life before your eyes, minor flaws and ambiguous imperfections intact. It’s the kind of experience that stays with you, growing more and more meaningful as your distance from it dictates. Naturally, Hollywood has stepped in and is currently planning an Americanized remake, complete with CW level talent and, more than likely, a happier, far more upbeat ending. But like other foreign films given over to the unnecessary Tinsel Town treatment, Let the Right One In might survive the translation. If it managed to make it through the literal wasteland that is the vampire genre, it can probably endure anything.