Tomas Alfredson’s stunning Swedish love story has re-invented the vampire film.
Tomas Alfredson has defied all expectations. He’s taken the most self-reflexive of genres and re-invented it with a single, stunning film. Unquestionably subversive, at times transcendent, Let The Right One In reintroduces the vampire – that creature of myth and madness – to the real world. Gone are the clichés, replaced by a story of uncertain friendship and fragile love, of social reality and dark fantasy.
Based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Alfredson’s film takes us deep into the heart of Sweden’s frigid suburbs. Blackeberg, 1982; the cold settles like a steel weight, expelling warmth and life and hope. Scuttling across concrete streets, rundown people lead rundown lives – inmates in a frozen cell.
Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a 12-year-old boy out of kilter with this world. So pale he’s almost translucent, so physically unimposing he’s practically invisible, one strong snowstorm could blow him away. But escape is elusive for Oskar. Bullied at school, he buries himself in a scrapbook of violent murders, friendship substituted for fantasy.
And then one night Eli (Lina Leandersson) enters Oskar’s life and changes it forever. Eli is… different. Her hair is black and matted, her face smudged with dirt. Only a thin pink shirt protects her against the snow. “Don’t you feel the cold?” asks Oskar. “No,” she replies. “Why not?” “I think I’ve forgotten how.”
They meet in a shallow pool of light cast by a streetlamp, a sickly halo thrown over a rusting playground. Outside that light lurks the thick, unknowable night, but inside Oskar finds someone to protect him from the world. Even though there are questions about Eli he can’t answer. Even though a serial killer is stalking the streets of his town. Even though the dangers of that dark night beyond the street lamp have already stepped into the light.
In a genre that fetishises death, Let The Right One In is a film invested with life. It’s an anti-horror movie, a period piece grounded in the struggles of social reality.Adapting his own book, Lindqvist has been forced to smooth out the kinkier creases. Much of what’s permissible in print is simply too extreme for cinema (like an attempted-rape scene that would land the filmmakers in jail if they put it on screen). So compromises have been made – Alfredson only addresses the novel’s homoeroticism in a single shot, a blink-and-you‘ll-miss-it image that’ll leave you gasping. Likewise, Eli’s accomplice, Håkan, a paedophile in print, now has a more ambiguous (even sympathetic) motive to explain his actions.
But if some of the book’s more conventional horror elements – its Stephen King moments – have been wisely excised, elsewhere it’s harder to explain why certain material has been left out. No reference is made to the fact that Oskar wets himself, and while it’s clear enough that he’s a victim, it’s crucial that we understand the depths of his humiliation before he meets Eli for his later actions to ring true. But if the film is a more timid beast than the novel, Lindqvist and Alfredson have largely succeeded in capturing its essence while tuning out its excesses.
Most importantly, Alfredson’s film mirrors the subversive quality of Lindqvist’s book. This is no ordinary horror movie. In a genre that fetishises death, Let The Right One In is a film invested with life. It’s an anti-horror movie, a period piece grounded in the struggles of social reality. When Lacke (Peter Carlberg) and his girlfriend Virginia (Ika Nord) discuss nuclear hysteria and the upcoming elections, these aren’t just real life details (in 1982, a Soviet sub ran aground in sight of a Swedish naval base, and Thorbjörn Fälldin’s government was on the verge of defeat); they’re the kind of details that provide the backdrop to real lives. The town of Blackeberg may be populated by drunks, drug addicts and two-time losers, but they aren’t just stereotypes waiting to be fed to the meat grinder.
So when it happens, when this world lurches on its axis and the killing starts, you won’t – you can’t – disconnect yourself from these characters. Unlike films at the seedier end of the spectrum, you’re not invited to share in the anticipation of death – idly wondering how inventive or aesthetic or exciting it might be – you’re forced to fear it.
This emotional maturity brilliantly strips the film, and the audience, of its moral compass. Without a clear sense of good and evil, Alfredson is able to orchestrate our sympathies with masterful misdirection. Yes, it’s manipulative, but by the time the motive for the killing becomes clear, we feel both Oskar’s sympathy for the killer, as well as Lacke’s anguish for the victim.
That the film is able to enter such murky moral territory is due in part to the fact that it divests the vampire of its glamour. However conflicted screen vampires have been, the image of the undead speaks to our most seductive fantasies – power, immortality, sexuality. But Let The Right One In flips that on its head. Not just because Eli preys on our assumptions of innocence – who, after all, could fear a little girl? – but also because her existence is a small, squalid and lonely one. Eli may be the first vampire you wouldn’t gladly trade lives with.
It’s this juxtaposition between the domestic and the diabolical that gives the film its power.But if you’re going to introduce a vampire to the real world, sooner or later you have to address an awkward issue: what do you call it? Because we know about ‘vampires’ – we’ve seen them in films – but nobody believes, nobody could believe, that they’re real. Not even if you saw one in an underpass sucking blood from a corpse. And especially not if this vampire was your only friend.
By forcing his characters to face the absurdity, the impossibility, of what they see in front of them, Alfredson deftly crosses a fourth wall. It’s as if, by uttering the word ‘vampire’ out loud, some taboo is shattered, and all the barriers between the real and the unreal, the possible and the impossible break down completely.
Let The Right One In takes us beyond the comfort zone of horror, and perhaps that’s why it isn’t so much scary as disconcerting. The fear of the unknown, the fear of the unseen, the fear of evil – all have been subtly undermined. In fact, the film’s ‘scariest’ scene sees Håkan washing a bucket, tubing and funnel in his kitchen. There’s something about his quiet determination that’s far more disturbing than seeing the same tools employed after he’s strung a young boy to a tree and cut his throat.
It’s this juxtaposition between the domestic and the diabolical that gives the film its power. The classroom, the home, the local pool: these are the tawdry, tedious spaces of normal life. That the word ‘vampire’ should shatter their illusive sanctuary is like a physical violation. And if, on occasion, the scenes of violence that occur here seem almost comically inappropriate to the audience’s eyes, we’re simply sharing the reaction of the film’s characters, struggling to accept what they’re seeing.
At all times, Alfredson’s focus is not on the aesthetic but the realistic. Which is not to say that his film isn’t beautiful. It opens on an image of snowflakes falling like silent angels, conjuring the icy otherworldliness of this innocent, isolated town. It’s these moments of beauty that lift Let The Right One In out of oppressive darkness. At it’s heart, after all, it’s a love story between two people on the brink of childhood; one learning to reclaim it, the other to let it go. It’s in those quiet moments between Eli and Oskar that the real meaning of the film’s title is revealed, referring to the heart, not just the home.
Oddly evocative of Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, this love story is all the more heartfelt for its faltering, adolescent uncertainty. When Eli comes to Oskar’s room one night, fresh from feeding, she climbs in behind him. Unable to see her face, he asks her to be his girlfriend. “Will anything change?” she wonders. “No,” he replies. “Then okay.” As they lie there listening to Eli’s heartbeat, the film reaches a moment of pure transcendence where innocence, horror and love each dissolve into the other.
Alfredson and Lindqvist have crafted a modern fairy tale that stands comparison with the work of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. In its collision of fantasy and reality, darkness and light, love and loss, Let The Right One In has simply swept aside the rest of the genre, and proved conclusively that horror thrills don’t have to come cheap.
Racked up festivals awards all over the world, picking up unprecedented word of mouth.
A true original: love story, horror film and social drama. At once brilliant in its parts, and more than the sum of them.
Perhaps could have gone further in exploring the book’s psychosexual subtext, but everything that’s made it to the screen will stick with you.