Let the Right One In
If the teenage vampire romance Twilight had been handed to the late great Krzysztof Kieslowski and he’d been told he could do anything he wanted with the basic premise, the result might’ve been something like Let the Right One In. Though this film is from Sweden, not Poland, it shares with Kieslowski’s Decalogue a certain gritty, working-class beauty; disruptive humanity in the dead center of a stark white landscape. The compositions are wintry-immaculate, the sound design amplifies leather boots crushing wet snow. The 43-year-old director Tomas Alfredson has made a gorgeously bleak film, though never at the expense of the story. Quite literally, Sweden in winter in 1982 seems the only possible setting for this tale, which is why the forthcoming American remake sounds absurdly pointless. No American multiplex movie would be allowed to breathe this much, to work its dark magic in silence and ambiguity.
Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a 12-year-old with a bone-straight bowl haircut, lives in a housing project with his distant mother. Next door, a girl, Eli (Lina Leandersson) has moved in, along with an older man, Håkan (Per Ragnar), who could be her father or could be something else. Whatever he is or has been to her, we soon discover what he is now: a procurer of fresh blood to keep Eli alive. The solemn-faced Eli is a vampire, with the usual unearthly powers and aversion to sunlight. Oskar is drawn to her, and his innocence appeals to her.
I was reminded not only of Kieslowski but of Philip Ridley’s 1990 cult film The Reflecting Skin, in which a boy’s fearful fixation on a local lady he takes to be a vampire is part of a surreal fable about loss of innocence. Here, though, we see that Oskar is really not as innocent as all that, and Eli is not as dangerous as we assume. Oskar is being bullied at school; he has a lot of pent-up, impotent rage. He fantasizes about getting his tormentors where he wants them, helpless at the point of a knife. Eli kills people, but only out of necessity. Alfredson, working from a screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also wrote the source novel), is able to construct a strange and absolutely original relationship between these two that takes off from a horror premise.
Alfredson’s control is generally so pure and strong that I regret a couple of discordant moments, such as a probably-unintentionally funny scene involving a bunch of dismayed cats and a supporting character’s fiery fate. For a moment or two, the film feels demoted to a standard horror flick with standard horror tricks. But for the most part, Let the Right One In deals in subtle chills, including a revelation about Eli much clearer to readers of the novel than it probably will be to many viewers. This love story goes beyond everything normal, which may be why we can relate to it. We may not buy the sparkly love between Bella and Edward in Twilight, but we believe in Oskar and Eli.
Schlock can be fun and even transporting, but these days — particularly in the arena of horror — Hollywood seems incapable of giving us anything but schlock, and it’s usually sad, flaccid schlock without the transgressive charge it used to have in the days of grindhouse and drive-ins. But when a filmmaker takes horror seriously, as a launching pad for a human story that couldn’t be told as effectively in any other genre, we horror fans are reminded why we fell in love with horror in the first place. Let the Right One In reacquaints us with real, classical horror, and it’s about damn time.