Overview: Twelve-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), bullied and craving revenge, meets Eli (Lina Leandersson). Eli is also twelve, but has “been twelve for a long time”. Set in the suburbs of Stockholm in the early 1980s, Tomas Alfredson brings us a tale of childhood loneliness, love, and revenge.
Magnet Releasing; 2008; Rated R; 115 minutes
The Old and the New: Let the Right One In was released in 2008, years after numerous movies and TV shows exhausted the idea of the vampire. However, this film takes a tired sub-genre and makes it interesting again by shifting the focus from the horror itself to its effect on the characters. This involves a lot of slimming down of the narrative from the John Ajvide Lindqvist novel of which it is based. There’s a few side characters as well as an entire subplot that is completely omitted. It pays off, since the book itself is a little meandering, and the film transcends the source material because of the way it conveys backstory and character through cinematic language. Show-don’t-tell is a method that Alfredson abides by, deciding to leave certain plot elements up to the audience to decipher. There is no strict overarching narrative voice, and its ending is cryptic enough to be regarded as cynical, tragic, or optimistic. What is certain is how intimate and involving the relationship between Eli and Oskar is. It’s not surprising that selecting the lead actors was a year-long process of open castings held all over Sweden, as both Hedebrant and Leandersson are perfect in their roles.
An Eye for an Ear: The melancholy of Oskar’s isolation and the tenderness of his affection for Eli is broken up with bursts of the bitter reality of Eli’s life. What would the mechanics of being vampire really be like, and what kind of physical and emotional turmoil would it bring to its host. Alfredson frames it like a disease, and we see that Eli feels the weight of her actions, the disgusting compulsion she has to sink her teeth into flesh and drink blood. The sound of skin and bone being broken is amplified, making us dread the violence and wish it wasn’t necessary for her to live. The practical effects and minimal use of CGI is essential to this, which is why the one scene involving a dozen low-budget computer-generated cats is so clumsy, and a surprising low point in the movie. Oskar is introduced as a tormented child, full of rage with no power to wield it, and no space to express himself healthily. He wants vengeance, but however much he desires it, in truth it is ugly and repulsive. All the violence in Let the Right One In only leads to further violence, and Eli is only partially successful because she’s stronger than most.
Be Me, For A Little While: “I don’t kill people” Oskar tells her, and she replies “No, but you’d like to, if you could […] I do it because I have to”. For Eli the moral decision to enact violence is immoral itself, the reasoning behind it being tantamount. She may be the swift brutal “justice” he wished for, but she is infinitely more valuable as a friend. “Be me, for a little while”, she asks of him. While we are shown the consequences of violence, we are also shown the capacity for good within each person, which is either acted on or ignored. Just as anyone can have these dark thoughts, they can also empathise with others. Moments of compassion are found throughout the film, and it’s why Oskar is the hero of the story. Even after multiple altercations where he acted deplorably, Oskar’s bully Conny is revealed to be similarly harassed by his brother. In an understated moment Oskar glimpses his bully being pushed around and teased in front of his friends by the older boy. Oskar understands, and his hatred dissipates. These moments are juxtaposed with scenes of gore by the cinematic approach. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema shoots these scenes of compassion and connection as wide and exposed, freeing us from the claustrophobia and bloodshed for a moment. Composer Johan Söderqvist was instructed by the director to write something hopeful and romantic, often in contrast to the events that take place. It’s a beautiful arrangement, and one of my personal favourite scores.
We Can Be Together: Let the Right One In is full of horrific imagery and elements familiar to the genre, but it’s actually a romance, masquerading as Horror. As Mark Kermode argued, it is “A story about children, that just happens to involve vampires”. It is a sheep in wolf’s clothing, cruel and gruesome at its edges, but at its centre lies one of the most convincing and beautiful relationships committed to film. However, it is not afraid of branching out into the weird, despite its mostly grounded tone. There are lots of minor production quirks that aren’t immediately noticeable, such as the decision to overdub Leandersson’s voice with an older actress, adding to the incongruity of her presence. In much the same way, the film wears the conventions of the vampire mythology on its sleeve. Forgoing the more tempting routes of embarrassed irony or overblown self-seriousness, Oskar quietly asks “are you a vampire?”.
Other tropes, such as a vampire needing to be given permission in order to enter a new household, are used to express character and theme. Eli and Oskar love each other, and both need to be accepted by the other. Oskar’s playful but callous refusal to grant her entry results in a macabre display of physical and emotional pain; what Peter Bradshaw called a “haemophilia of rejection”. Their bond is not just fulfilling, but necessary to survive.
Overall: The title comes from the Morrissey lyric “Let the right one in / Let the old dreams die / Let the wrong ones go”. It’s been debated whether or not Eli is ultimately the “right” one for Oskar, but in the world Alfredson creates, the answer is not that straightforward. There are shades of moral worth to each character; those who inflict of pain or neglect still have enough humanity to be somewhat piteous. There are grisly death scenes, and yet we never get the impression that the victim really deserves it. While the rest of Oskar and Eli’s decisions are disputable at best, their choice to connect, and take the risk of letting someone in, is the right one.
Featured Image: Magnet Releasing