Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is a 12-year-old loner, from the Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg, who is often on the receiving end of many taunts and pranks from the bullies at his school. While the bullying appears to have no end in sight for the boy, things begin to look up for him the moment he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the new girl who moved into the next-door apartment with an older man named Hakan (Per Ragnar).
That does not seem odd at all.
Oskar and Eli’s friendship develops, but as socially awkward as he is, even he begins to realize something’s not exactly right with his new girl friend. Over time, he soon realizes that Eli is a vampire responsible for a few recent murders in the town.
“Are you dead?”
“No. Can’t you tell?”
“But… Are you old?”
“I’m twelve… But I’ve been twelve for a long time?”
By 2008, the vampire genre was in dire need of – pardon the pun – new blood. Blade: Trinity brought a disastrous end to an entertaining film series. The Underworld franchise could only come up with one good film out of the four, and it was the first. Ultraviolet and 30 Days of Night were forgettable, and Uwe Bol’s BloodRayne series was – well, that should be self-explanatory. The once legendary monster, whose folklore existed long before Bram Stoker popularized the creature, spanning millennia before it, was in jeopardy of over-saturating Hollywood. And bursting on the pop culture scene soon after or just around this time, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and a certain franchise based on a book series about pouty vampires and werewolves weren’t gonna ease the problem any either.
So leave it to Sweden – yes, Sweden, home of nude beaches, Absolut Vodka, Volvos and ABBA, to be that breath of fresh air for the genre with Let the Right One In.
Directed by Tomas Alfredson and written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, adapting the screenplay from his own novel of the same name, Let the Right One In is not only the best horror film of the past 20 years, it’s one of the best foreign language films of the 21st century (though fans argue it was snubbed for a Best Foreign Picture Oscar, in total fairness, the film was released past the submission deadline, so Sweden submitted another film to be nominated).
Although one might initially assume so, this is not a vampire film. To be sure, the main character Eli is a vampire and Alfredson brings some familiar aspects of the folklore, with as much grounded realism as having a vampire character will allow, to the table (feeding on blood, aversion to sunlight and not entering an establishment before being invited in, the latter of which the film title refers to), while leaving some off for good reason (no crucifixes, fangs and wooden stakes). However, this is not a film about a vampire; this is about two outcasts, one of which just happens to be a vampire. The fact that Eli is a vampire certainly adds color and an extra layer to the character (here her vampirism isn’t glamorized, but treated as if she’s a terminally sick cancer patient), but you can take the vampire elements out, and still be left with the two great character studies that are presented in this movie.
Oskar and Eli are both outcasts for different reasons. He’s bullied by classmates at his school; her situation demands she live in seclusion like a prisoner. He dreams of getting back at his bullies in true Travis Bickle fashion that have you worried he’s a Columbine killer in the making; she doesn’t like to kill, but does so reluctantly at times simply ’cause she has to (we realize this from her reaction after she’s forced to find a victim for herself following another botched job from her help). Despite coming at it from different angles, both are cold and lonely products of the environment they live in, and the more their bond with each other deepens, the more they discover how much they need one another.
Even though this is not what I’d consider a “vampire film”, Alfredson still makes no effort to hide the film’s violence in regard to Eli’s need for human blood. Yet as strong as the violence is, and rest assured it is, there’s something both beautiful and heartbreaking in how Alfredson captures it through cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s (The Fighter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her, Interstellar, and this year’s Spectre) lens. It’s not every day that arterial blood sprayed on a gorgeous Swedish snowbank can look as artful as it does here.
I don’t wanna give the impression to those that are turned off by excessive violence that this is a two hour long blood orgy. The violence may be strong, but it’s not present throughout the entire film. As I previously stated, this film is about the relationship between Oskar and Eli, and Alfredson’s focus is on those two. In turn, since we find ourselves becoming more and more invested in these two characters, when blood is shed, it packs an emotional punch you won’t find in something done gratuitously for the sake of shock.
For as much care as Alfredson and Lindqvist has put into these characters, an equal amount of care has gone into the casting of Oskar and Eli, played by Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, respectively. It’s always a challenge for any director to draw just a good performance from their child actors. Once in a while, though, someone like M. Night Shyamalan hits the jackpot with Haley Joel Osment, and Alfredson scores two excellent child performances from Hedebrant and Leandersson. These aren’t easy characters to tackle. The more disturbing aspects of Oskar could’ve been taken to a point where we no longer sympathize over his plight, and lesser directing hands could’ve given in to the urge of exaggerating Eli’s condition. But both Hedebrant and Leandersson bring beautiful subtlety to their characters, and it’s often the quiet conversations between the two of them that speak the loudest, revealing more about who they really are.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but boy, is it a gloriously rewarding one. Not much is shown when the scene occurs (I say not much and not nothing ’cause you’ll know why when you see it), but in just one fixated underwater shot, Alfredson manages to capture so much while showing so little.
Dark, haunting and twisted, yet also elegant, sweet and moving, Let the Right One In reinvigorated the vampire genre that, at the time of its release, had turned stale and empty. Though director Tomas Alfredson doesn’t shy away from the vampire elements, he doesn’t rely on them either, providing the viewer with something more than just the anemic thrills that have plagued recent films of its kind. While at times bloody and just as dreary and bleak as the isolated souls within Oskar and Eli, underneath the film’s grimness is a coming-of-age tale that bares more heart and soul than the average viewer might expect to find.