It has been so long since I’ve seen a vampire movie that I actually liked. My problem with the entire category is that it has been stuck in two modes for what seems like decades. You either get the gothic romance of an Anne Rice style approach where our vampires are essentially tragic humans struggling with their bloodlust and power or you get some hyper-active Buffy movie where the vampires are natural martial artists and dressed to kill. There are a few winners in those groups, but for the most part, vampires fucking suck, and I really don’t mean the pun there. If there’s one thing I really want out of life, it’s a vampire movie that takes wild departures from the genre and plays it own game.
I found that movie in Thomas Alfredson’s jarring, somnambulistic Let The Right One In, one of the most remarkably original horror movies that I’ve ever seen. What sets it apart is how eager it is to distance itself from the leather and fishnet crowd. It sets out to tell the kind of horror story so heavily steeped in alienation yet without a note of Bauhaus that usually sets the pace for these kinds of movies. It’s as authentic as a vampire movie gets without being your typical vampire movie and, quite frankly, it’s about god damn time.
Oskar is a fragile 12 year old boy living in the burbs of Stockholm. His life is suitably apocalyptic as he is the object of constant bullying, the third wheel in his divorced parents’ lives and desperately lonely. His life changes when new neighbors move into the apartment next door, a creepy old man and a little girl who Oskar only sees outside at night greatly under dressed for the Swedish winter. As it would turn out, the old man is Eli’s, the little girl’s, caretaker, who goes out in the evening trolling for victims in order to provide blood for Eli. However, his latest attempts to kill are constantly thwarted and he is ultimately captured by police but not before disfiguring himself with acid in order to obscure his identity. His capture and ultimate death means that Eli is now alone and left to fend for herself for the first time in god knows how long. What this means is disaster and difficulty for Eli to exist if she can’t quietly get the blood she needs. As all of this happens, she develops a relationship with Oskar that provides each with the companionship and relief from their awful lives that they so desperately need. But Oskar is still being bullied and Eli can’t stick around for much longer.
Truth be told, Let The Right One In isn’t exactly a horror movie. Yes, it’s about a vampire, it’s steeped in European atmosphere most likely to be found in a Roger Moore Bond flick and there’s a good deal of gore and violence, but all of this is overshadowed by the romance and coming of age angle. The violence almost stands in as a metaphor for adolescence as a whole. Let The Right One In takes place in 1982, yet it’s never entirely clear why that is. To the Swedish, the setting may play an important role, culturally, but to outsiders it doesn’t seem to impact the story at all. As a matter of fact, aside from the anachronistic fashion, there’s little about the movie to suggest when it takes place at all.
Kåre Hedebrant, who plays the tragic Oskar is absolutely arresting in his role as a child out of place. At twelve years old, he stands on the precipice of puberty and his lonely road through life is going to take him to some very dark places. Director, Alfredson, in a distinctly European fashion tells Oskar’s life story without using a single word. Through subtlety and nuance it becomes clear who he is, where he comes from and where he is going. Eli, on the other hand, is a much more complicated character. Seemingly unaware of the scope of her own power, her only instinct is to survive, and while most child-vampires in fiction are, in fact, adults trapped in the body of children, Eli is a twelve year old trapped in an immeasurably old body that doesn’t show a single sign of its age. It is even brought into question, through a split second of shocking footage, whether she is even a she at all.
A good horror film keeps its audience off balance as often as possible and Let The Right One In does that in spades, constantly playing with perception, particularly when Eli’s true nature shows through, altering her appearance for a brief, shocking moment. It may even call your own sense of morality into question when Oskar’s bullies are called on to pay the bill for their bullshit. But themes of violence and powerlesness aside, Let The Right One In is bittersweet adolescent romance about a pair of kids struggling to survive in a world full of absent adults. Wrapping such a heartbreaking love story in a movie saturated with blood may be the movie’s ultimate act of horror and a scene of decapitation and dismemberment may never ring quite so beautifully ever again.
Let The Right One In suffered from a bit of word of mouth hype but it’s unlike any vampire movie you’ve ever seen. It’s remarkably true to the vampire mythology but plays a game unlike anything else. Playing out almost like a fairy tale, it manages to weave violence, revenge and loneliness into a love story that is, at times, as sweet as your memory of your own first kiss. It sells such an offbeat, horrifying tale through unbelievably intense performances from its preteen cast and quietly disturbing direction. This movie is not to be missed under any circumstances.