“I’d say you were within your rights to bite.” —Morrissey, “Let The Right One Slip In”
Though the Swedish film Let The Right One In concerns a vampire and doesn’t shrink from the traditional mythology (eternal life, blood, neck-biting, resistance to sunlight, etc.) of other vampire tales, it isn’t really a horror film. In fact, its staunch resistance to—if not outright animosity toward—the expected genre thrills makes it difficult for an unabashed horror enthusiast like myself to get behind it completely. It’s an arch, “classy” piece of work, something critics who regularly turn their noses up at the likes of Takashi Miike, Rob Zombie, and Eli Roth can recommend as an antidote. And while there’s plenty of grisly mayhem on display, director Tomas Alfredson isn’t inclined to goose the audience with big shocks or nerve-jangling suspense sequences; he keeps his distance, as if he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. At best, the film could be called “creepy,” but even that’s a stretch, because it mistakes general moodiness for something more sinister and disturbing.
In essence, Let The Right One In is an emo vampire movie, Twilight for the arthouse set. Its tone is far more muted and its aversion to action beats deliberate, but it has the same devotion to outsized adolescent emotions and anxieties, dealing in tragic first love and intense feelings of loneliness and alienation. Based on the popular novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also scripted, the film doesn’t add to the vampire mythos so much as it takes enough away from it to reinvigorate another subgenre—the coming-of-age story. It catches a boy at the most vulnerable period of his life—12 years old, picked-on, friendless, curious but uncertain with girls, socially retarded—and introduces him to a presence that gives him unlikely confidence and companionship, but at a steep price. In other words, it’s closer to My Bodyguard than Nosferatu, but vampirism raises the stakes and suggests that the road to both fulfillment and eternal damnation can begin at an early age.
The child of a broken home, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) lives in a nondescript apartment building in Blackeberg, a working-class suburb of Stockholm. As the film opens, he’s fighting off imaginary bullies with his pocketknife, but on the playground, it’s the bullies who have the upper hand. One night, while retreating alone to a snowy courtyard, Oskar meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), a pale, mysterious girl who engages him in conversation, but warns, “I can’t be friends with you. Just so you know.” Not surprisingly, poor Oskar isn’t easily discouraged; he has no friends, and he’ll take whatever non-beating-related attention he can get, especially from a girl. Eli and Håkan (Per Ragnar), an older man viewers are intended to presume—wrongly—to be her father, have moved in next door in the dead of night, which would be odd enough even before Håkan sets about covering the window with cardboard. (We trust that Eli and Håkan move around a lot, because they aren’t exactly stealthy operators. Their household is conspicuously odd even before the bodies start to pile up.)
Though the full nature of their relationship, like many elements in this film, remains fairly ambiguous, Håkan acts as a human caretaker of sorts for Eli, who we learn soon enough is a vampire. Whenever Eli needs blood, Håkan heads out with what might be called an abduction kit: A tank of gas for knocking out the victims, some rope used to hang them by the legs for butchering, a funnel and a jug to collect the blood, and a plastic raincoat to keep the spatter off. It’s an unnatural, laborious way of doing things, reminiscent of the great George Romero movie Martin, in which a kid who may or may not be a vampire uses a razor blade in lieu of fangs. In the past, Håkan may have been a more efficient killer, but now he seems out of condition and error-prone, as in this NSFW scene where he tries to draw blood in the woods:
Of course, the heart of the movie is the strange kinship between Oskar and Eli—one 12 years old, the other perpetually 12 years old, a possibly centuries-old creature trapped in eternal adolescence. It’s hard to say what, besides loneliness, boredom, and maybe pity, draws her to Oskar, but she provides him with formidable support in his battle against the bullies. (“Hit back harder than you dare,” she advises.) Naturally, he takes an interest in her, too, and goes so far as to learn Morse code to tap messages back and forth to her from his bedroom. He eventually learns that she’s a vampire—via a fantastic scene where he slashes his hand for a “blood oath” and she helplessly drops on all fours, licking it off the floor—but he’s willing to overlook it. And maybe that’s another reason for Eli to befriend him: A kid that young, unformed, and desperate for companionship stands to be less repulsed by her than an adult with a sliver of self-possession and moral rectitude.
I haven’t read Lindqvist’s novel, but there are some gaps in Let The Right One In that seem like they’d be accounted for in the book, but are left ambiguous here—and not necessarily in a good way, either. For one, why does Eli need Håkan to kill people for her? She’s not like Martin in the Romero film, after all; she has fangs, she bites necks, and we see her swiftly dispatch a few victims once her caretaker goes away. Does she feel guilty about killing innocents firsthand? Is she insufficiently stealthy? Then there’s the matter of Eli’s gender, which is also handled with too glancing a touch, especially when you consider the reasons she keeps Oskar at a distance. The script tries to plant the seeds for the big revelation later when Eli tells Oskar “I’m not a girl,” but I’m sure I’m not alone in not taking that literally—if she’s perhaps centuries old, then in spite of appearances, she really can’t be considered a girl anymore. When Alfredson finally spills the secret, he does it through a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cutaway shot below the waist, but Eli’s castration scar could just as easily be read as someone who’s merely prepubescent—and even if it were perfectly clear, the full depth of that discovery remains woefully unexplored.
But whatever its narrative lapses, Let The Right One In works beautifully as a mood piece, with a gorgeous wintry atmosphere that makes you feel the anguish of characters who are literally left in the cold. Of course, the cold doesn’t bother Eli, who prowls around outside in short-sleeved shirts and thin pants, but conversely, when she slips into Oskar’s bed, she can’t be warmed by the contact, and neither can he. As frustrating as some of the film’s ambiguities can be, the back-and-forth between Oskar and Eli has just the right air of mystery, because they both crave intimacy, yet don’t know exactly how their differences (in age, in experience, in gender, in species) can be reconciled. It’s like they’re forging a new kind of relationship—one that salves their loneliness, but also promises misery and damnation of the sort Håkan must have experienced. In the most moving scene, a callback to the title, a petulant Oskar refuses to give Eli the verbal recognition she needs to enter a room:
Though I’m not entirely convinced by Let The Right One In, it has another rare and important element in its favor: It ends beautifully. In the climactic scene, the bullies (led by the even more sadistic older brother of the chief bully) hold Oskar’s head under water at a pool, and Eli comes to his defense. It’s an example of Alfredson’s elegant, non-visceral style paying off in a big way. It’s strange, terrifying, and oddly beautiful to see all the action from under the water, where it’s peaceful and quiet, and Oskar is shielded from experiencing the true horror of what Eli is capable of doing. And then the coda—which finds Oskar on a train during the daytime, tapping Morse code to Eli, who’s curled up in a box by his side—feels remarkably bittersweet. Their destinies are now entwined, and they aren’t alone any more, but for how long? Someday, Oskar will also be a middle-aged man, trudging out in the snow with a funnel and a jug, collecting sustenance for his beloved.
The Newest New Cult Canon Month continues…
Next week: The Fall
February 18: Synecdoche, New York
February 25: The House Of The Devil