‘Let the Right One In’ a moody, poignant Swedish vampire thriller
What better place for a vampire than the almost eternal night of a Swedish winter? Welcome to Let The Right One In, a dark, achingly sweet, deeply subversive genre-busting thriller from Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson. The flip side to the eagerly awaited Twilight, due out later this month, Alfredson’s film hews to the same basic idea as the Stephanie Meyer cult novel: young loner meets dazzling new friend with scary but alluring powers. But there’s far less romance and more runaway id in Alfredson’s story, dealing as it does with the fragile tween years; no longer children, its protagonists are hovering on the precipitous cusp of everything.
Adapted by scriptwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist, from his own novel, “Let The Right One” In is a beautifully composed coming-of-age tale whose horror elements sneak up on the story like a shadow in the dark. Twelve-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), so blond and pale he’s almost ghostly, lives in a cinderblock apartment building in a suburban town with his divorced mom. Tormented by a trio of bullies at school (they seek him out every recess for their halftime entertainment), Oskar fills a secret scrapbook with newspaper clippings about lurid, violent crimes, fantasizing about revenge.
One evening, he’s caught practicing his moves with a hunting knife in the snowy courtyard of his building by the new girl next door. Eli (Lina Leandersson) is a stranger in every sense, with her dark hair and dark hungry eyes, wandering around in shirtsleeves in the dead of winter. She too is 12, “more or less,” and while she’s wary of friendship at first, they bond over a Rubik’s cube and start hanging out together in the dark afternoons; he never sees her at school in the scant daylight hours.
Eli seems to understand the darkness in Oskar, and he begins to confide in her about things he would never tell his distracted mother, or even the father he adores, out in the country, who has a private life separate from his son. But even as Eli shores up Oskar’s confidence in himself, violence stalks the town; corpses drained of blood are showing up in the birch woods and under the frozen lake. Oskar suspects Eli’s involvement, but in a world of ineffectual grown-ups, alliances between children are all the more potent. Even as Oskar pieces together the truth, there’s something sweetly ecstatic in the way he gives himself up to Eli’s otherness—on so many levels.
Tone is everything in this film, and most of the time Alfredson maintains a steady grip on both its delicate and savage elements. At his best, he infers rather than pummels home his plot points, as in the fascinating relationship between Eli and the middle-aged man everyone assumes is her father. He’s certainly her devoted caretaker, but from a glimpse of her berating his failures, and the meek way he begs for her forgiveness—to say nothing of the ever-more blunderingly public ways he tries to do his job—it becomes clear that however effective he may have once been, his tenure is coming to an end. The juicy possibilities in his backstory, especially compared to Oskar, are blithely left up to the viewer’s imagination.
Not that Alfredson doesn’t overdo it now and then. While some blood and gore is inescapable, given the nature of the story (and there’s a fine eeriness to shots of Eli climbing up the outside of a building or flying out of trees), a slapstick scene involving crazed cats, and a sunlight-inflicted immolation are a bit much. And the finale at a public swimming pool, while shot from a cool, inventive perspective, disappoints because it’s so dramatically unnecessary.
But overall, Alfredson displays a masterful touch. His palette of whitewashed buildings, snow, silver birches and blonde heads (there’s even a snow-white poodle), set off against the shadowy nighttime world, creates a visual equivalent to the story’s poetic and emotional contrasts. It’s an artfully done study of the dark and the light in all of us.
***1/2 (out of four)
With Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson. Written by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Directed by Tomas Alfredson. A Magnet release. Rated R. 114 minutes. In Swedish with English subtitles.