Låt den rätte komma in
Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 13 November 2008
Source Magnet Releasing 35mm print
They’re like us, just not quite. Vampires are perfect for manifesting our fears about our fellow humans and ourselves because they don’t just kill; they corrupt. And unlike zombies or werewolves, they don’t so much maul their victims as they seduce them. Perhaps unavoidably, bloodsucking love stories are a hallmark of the horror genre, sometimes grim and affecting, sometimes embarrassingly rote. Let the Right One In, the acclaimed vampire film from Sweden, falls happily into the former category, but don’t mistake it for being instantly or even easily embraceable. Director Tomas Alfredson has crafted a beautiful and atmospheric film, rife with haunting, wintry imagery and fine performances from his stars. But as enjoyable as it is, as compelling as it is, it’s a gnarly picture and a troubling one, where questions are left unanswered and the viewer is left uneasy. I have the sense that this is the type of film that one returns to, one that will seem to shift and change with each viewing the way the central vampire character’s voice and facial features subtly morph at key moments in the film. (Trick of the light? I wondered at such moments, caught somewhere between the urge to lean in closer and the impulse to recoil.)
As others have observed, Let the Right One In melds horror with the conventions of coming-of-age stories and pangs of youthful romance. Nothing new, that; but Let the Right One In is wonderfully worrying because it doesn’t attempt to deny the horrors perpetrated by its unavoidably parasitic vampire figure. It doesn’t layer on pretty gothic trappings, nor does it work to smooth the way for its star-crossed lovers by offering (as one of my favorite films, Near Dark, unabashedly does) an attainable, happy late-inning solution. It allows us, to the very last, to doubt. This is a story that could have gone on long after the film wraps up, a story that does go on in one’s mind long after the theater lights have come up and everyone’s gone home.
The story begins with Oskar, a picked-on twelve-year-old who hums as he assembles a scrapbook collection of newspaper clippings detailing grim killings. He’s lonely and unhappy until the night he meets Eli, a mysterious figure who he takes to be a girl his own age. Alfredson trusts us to know better; Eli’s first appearance – perched on a jungle gym in a way that’s just odd and precarious enough to convey a certain otherworldliness – is strange and striking, balancing innocence and menace. It’s quite the image, and actress Lina Leandersson keeps us off-balance as Eli, invoking contradictory qualities throughout her excellent performance. Leandersson can play the predator as well as the nervous adolescent, and her contribution to the film is immeasurable.
Just as vital is young actor Kåre Hedebrant, who plays Oskar with a similarly engaging mixture of winning guilelessness and burgeoning disturbance. It’s in seeing Eli through Oskar’s eyes that we grow sympathetic to the vampire’s plight (I can’t forget the sweetly smitten look that spreads across Oskar’s face following some early interactions with Eli involving a Rubik’s cube.). and his acceptance of a creature of the night into his life carries something admirable in it, as dubious as that may sound outside of the context of the film.
Consider Oskar’s handling of Eli’s ambiguous gender, an element that screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist has quietly held over in adapting his own novel. (The underplayed implication is that Eli is a castrated boy.) One of the most striking developments in the story is how unconcerned Oskar is with which body parts Eli has, or has had, or has forcibly removed from someone else. Oskar is simply in love, and his shrugging devotion is endearing, if also pretty unsettling when it comes to that whole draining-humans-of their blood aspect of Eli’s life. (Is pairing gender ambiguity with genuine monstrosity potentially problematic? Yeah. But Lindqvist treats Eli’s gender as something of an incidental. Plus, the macho, more traditionally masculine bullies who torment Oskar ultimately come across as the story’s most sadistic characters.)
Alfredson and Lindqvist have fashioned a marvelous love story here because it does not deny how damaging love can be. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis has lengthily discussed the relationship of the film’s English language title to Morrissey’s song “Let the Right One Slip In,” and the film pulses and sparkles with the wry humor and pointed sadness of your favorite Smiths song. The title also aptly refers to the vampire’s traditional inability to enter a room without being invited, which becomes a metaphor for that most anxious aspect of human relationships—deciding who to let into to your heart. What could be more terrifying than that? Mixing tenderness with savagery, Let the Right One In gains great power from its refusal to soothe our fears.