The Swedish movie, Let the Right One In takes the elements of a vampire movie and sifts it brilliantly and unflinchingly through the harsh troubles of a pre-adolescent. I never imagined a movie could remind me of the at times merciless cruelty of junior high kids in Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse and the oppressive fatalism of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu at the same time. But this one did in its brutal yet heartfelt study of two 12-year olds, or more accurately, a 12-year old boy and a girl vampire stuck at that age, who are brought together by need, loneliness and the alienation from others.
The boy is Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), who lives with his divorced mother though neither she nor his father really wants or pays attention to him. In school, he gets picked on by a sadistic bully who does not just call him names like “piggy” but also coerces his friends into whipping his body and across his face. Leading such a dreary life, one can see why he is almost driven to befriend Eli (Lina Leandersson), even if she is a vampire.
The best vampire movies understand that living forever in a fallen world feeding off other humans’ blood is an eternally dooming curse and so it is for Eli, whom we later realize has lived at the age of 12 for about 200 years. She also cannot go out into sunlight, of course, and Oskar first sees her sitting in solitude at a jungle gym outside their apartment at night while he is acting out with a knife on a tree a pretense of revenge towards his cruel bullies. It is certainly peculiar that he does not observe sooner that she is sitting so comfortably in the dead cold of a Swedish winter in just her pajamas and we sense that perhaps he has been so lonely and beaten down by life to notice. They find out that they live next door to each other although she warns him, “You can’t be friends with me.”
But they do become friends and even deeper although romance may be too simple a word to describe their strong bond. Perhaps it seems that way for Oskar initially as he coyly asks her, “Will you be my girlfriend?” to which Eli replies, “I am not a girl.” It is far deeper than romance in many ways, however, because it is forged by their urge to find a degree of trust and comfort away from their bleak despair – with one caused by external circumstances and the other by their internal violent nature (unless one considers being turned into a vampire after being bitten circumstantial, too).
The relationship so impeccably and naturally acted by Hedebrant and Leandersson brings a center of warmth and some humor in a movie that has an overall suitably bleak tone (and the film is no doubt inappropriate for most pre-teens). I have not gone into the grimmest elements including a subplot involving a serial killer, Håkan (Per Ragnar) who targets teenage boys at night. The gloom of everything around only accentuates the symbiotic relationship that Oskar and Eli build. Initially, of course, we vaguely fear for Oskar whom we sense may be playing with fire but he is well past the point of being surprised, and when he is so neglected by his parents or physically beaten by his peers, befriending a vampire may bring safety and even empathy (albeit it could also possibly encourage some darker, pathological deeds as well).
The movie is directed by Tomas Alfredson and adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel and is certainly one of the most atmospheric and visually stunning films of the year. One shrewd artistic choice I particularly admired in their de-saturated color palette is how it uses the hues of red against our own expectations. We know that we will see blood in a vampire story but Alfredson and his cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema drain out its color to border on black so that the brighter, truer reds are left to Oskar and particularly Eli’s sweaters that reflect the warmth that the two share in their friendship. Also, the violence and shocks (including a subtle moment when Eli suddenly scales up the walls of a hospital building at night) are executed for maximum effect because they are always seen with a static, level eye and never in cheap close-up. One memorably horrific sequence in particular in which severed body parts fall underwater is sure to become a classic cinematic shot along the lines of similarly remarkable ones in Jaws.
Despite that this is one of the best vampire movies ever made and also one of the best of the year, I am afraid that any description of the movie will drive away many audiences who will feel the movie is too dark and rather go for a more conventional teen romance like the movie adaptation of the book, Twilight. And yet again, the rights of the original book have been bought for another remake to be directed by Matt Reeves of Cloverfield fame. Although the remake will reportedly be another re-interpretation of the original source novel, Alfredson has said that he fears the movie will become too mainstream and I share those fears, too. One of the movie’s really great qualities is its methodical pacing to let the film’s characters and developments never obviously explain themselves and silently creep up for us to piece together and understand like Eli herself. That is a trait Hollywood seems either unable or unwilling to exercise in most dramatic horror movies these days (and even the last good vampire movie, Interview with the Vampire fell short of greatness because it concentrated too much on mood without much of a story).
The movie’s title, Let the Right One In is one whose meaning we do not quite understand until later in the film when it puts an interesting spin on the old myth that a vampire cannot enter a room until a person invites them in. A closer study of the title may warrant more than one viewing: One through Oskar’s eyes and the other through Eli’s. Then we can see how each one’s needs are so very different, making their emotional understanding of each other so profound and their bond either rewarding or just fleeting.
Bottom line: What are you waiting for? Go see it!