Vampires are the new black. These days, you can’t swing a dead virgin without cold-cocking one of the pasty-faced undead. From Twilight to True Blood, everyone is getting in on the act.
It’s too bad none of them have been as good as Let the Right One In.
Occasionally gruesome, often unsettling, and always compelling, this Swedish import chronicles the strangely sweet romance that blossoms between a lonely 12-year-old boy and the mysterious girl who moves into his apartment complex. A girl who happens, of course, to be a vampire.
The only thing worse than being a friendless 12-year-old is being a friendless 12-year-old in a dreary blue-collar Stockholm suburb, circa 1982. Just ask Let the Right One In’s maladjusted hero, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant). Oskar’s life will make you appreciate your own dysfunctional childhood, no matter how much it sucked. A poorly socialized misfit, he is set upon daily by a trio of prepubescent haters whose turn-ons include bad haircuts, paraphrasing the more infamous scenes from Deliverance, and finding new ways to torment poor Oskar. Whether they’re stuffing his pants into a urinal or savagely beating him with a switch, the vicious little bastards never miss an opportunity to make Oskar’s life just a little more horrible than it already is. Oskar seems helpless to stop them; revenge fantasies aside, he is a victim, and he knows it.
Things begin to change when the enigmatic Eli (Lina Leandersson) moves into the apartment next door. Oskar immediately realizes there is something very different about Eli: She’s immune to the frosty Stockholm winter, seems wise far beyond her years (she tells Oskar she’s 12, “more or less”), and she’s deathly pale, even by Swedish standards.
In spite of Eli’s admonition that the two of them cannot be friends, they quickly bond over a Rubik’s Cube. Soon, Oskar and Eli are spending all their time together—that is, when they aren’t busy getting beaten up by or eating the locals, respectively. But Oskar is on the verge of crashing the puberty party, and his feelings toward Eli are more than platonic. The relationship that develops between the two outcasts is the meat of the story, and takes center stage over the more grisly goings-on.
While Oskar is busy dealing with his bully infestation, Eli has her own problems. With one gloriously notable exception, all of the film’s traditional horror elements, including its sparse but effective and occasionally graphic gore, come from the subplot concerning Eli’s search for sanguinary sustenance. This littlest vampire comes equipped with her very own Renfield: Old enough to be her grandfather, Hakan (Per Ragnar) prowls the salted winter streets in search of prey. When he bungles a kill early in the film, we wonder how long it will be before Eli’s secret is revealed.
Director Tomas Alfredson has crafted a remarkably subtle film that embraces many of the classic elements of the vampire tale, even as it defies traditional horror conventions. Rather than exploit the obvious sensational aspects of the story, he dwells on the emotional gold mine of Oskar and Eli’s relationship. Their romance is singularly captivating, and the film never shies away from the pricklier aspects of this strange love affair. Oskar is most definitely a little boy, but Eli is a young girl in appearance only. She might be 12, but, as she points out, she’s been 12 for a very long time.
Alfredson can’t take all the credit for this wonderful film, of course. He had some damn good source material in the form of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel of the same name, which the writer adapted for the screen himself. Dutch cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema renders the flick in icy whites and frigid blues, with the occasional jarring splash of vivid color. (Bet you can guess which one.) All of the actors turn in fine performances, but the two young stars are exceptional. It’s amazing that neither has acted professionally before.
The one thing this beautiful movie couldn’t do, sadly, is dodge the American remake bullet. Cloverfield director Matt Reeves will call the shots; if you listen closely, you can almost hear the pitter-patter of little Dakota Fanning feet. Sigh.
Let the Right One In is a strange and wonderful movie that is more concerned with touching your heart than turning your stomach (though it might do a little of that, too). Don’t worry, though—there should be no noticeable effect on your spleen, and at a running time of 114 minutes, things look good for your kidneys, too.