Let The Right One In
Could this be the best vampire movie since Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987) or Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of the classic Noseferatu? Directed by Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson, Let the Right One In defies simple genre description combining vampire horror with strong elements of social drama, coming-of-age romance, and psychological thriller to create a film that is complex, layered, and broader in range than its “vampire movie” trappings might at first suggest.
Set in the 80s in a sleepy and snowbound Stockholm suburb, Let the Right One In follows the daily struggle of 12-year-old Oskar; a social misfit and very much the loner. He seems to resignedly soak up the bullying he receives from boys at his school and his broken family situation appears to have left him all too often to his own devices. Mum’s at work a lot and, though he enjoys odd days spent with his father, Oskar appears to be pretty low on dad’s priority list too. So Oskar spends his time alone, trawling the snowy courtyard outside his apartment building and collecting newspaper articles covering various violent crimes or mysteries that have occurred in the local region. A pall of youthful loneliness and isolation surrounds him, almost palpable, that is until he meets Eli.
A girl of about his own age, Eli has moved with her father into the apartment adjoining the one Oskar shares with his mother. The two meet one night in the courtyard, each a little awkward and uncomfortable; wary of the other. Their friendship begins with a series of these after dark rendezvous through which they begin to build a tentative trust, sensing in each other kindred spirits. One night Oskar gifts Eli his Rubik’s Cube – something she has never seen before – and later teaches her Morse code so that they can communicate through the wall between their homes. Eli in turn convinces him to stand up to the bullies at school – to fight fire with fire – and doesn’t balk at his pent up frustration and hurt. At first Oskar isn’t suspicious about Eli’s various oddities: that she never feels the cold (outside in a thin shirt on snowy Nordic winter nights), that she doesn’t appear to go to school and that she sometimes smells noticeably strange. He is used to being thought of as a little strange himself. Not until he attempts to make them share blood in a kind of friendship pact and witnesses her virtually rabid response to blood dripping from his cut hand does he realise that Eli is in fact a vampire. And this is where his philosophical woes begin again; his world becomes much more complex than it was for those sweet preceding weeks.
One unique thing about Alfredson’s film is that he almost sidelines the vampire issue. He doesn’t paint Eli as the usual kind of grotesque evil who glories in causing pain and misery or feels a sense of genetic superiority – as is often the case in the vampire genre like in the David Slade’s recent 30 Days of Night. Neither is she wracked with guilt about having to kill, as is Brad Pitt’s Louis in Neil Jordan’s 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice novel Interview with a Vampire. She simply takes it as a fact of life that she requires blood to survive; she doesn’t kill needlessly but when the hunger consumes her she must sate it. This depiction of Eli serves to make her a character you feel you can connect with whilst simultaneously lending the film an incredibly dark undercurrent. The filmmakers are ever drawing you to overlook disturbing acts of violence perpetrated by her upon random people. And this is exactly the dilemma Oskar finds himself in: the girl who has become his closest (perhaps only) friend is a vicious killer. But in a world where Oskar’s sense of self-worth has been slowly and systematically stripped away by the violence and neglect of the people in his life, this fact matters less than his and Eli’s shared sense of isolation, and their growing emotional bond. And so, like the audience, Oskar simply attempts to ignore the disturbing realities put in front of him.
Eli’s ‘father’ sees their blossoming relationship and disapproves, but he is getting a little too old to take care of Eli and realises she will soon need someone else in her life. The part of this film that is hardest for me to figure out is whether Eli actually cares for Oskar in the way that he has grown to care for her, or whether he is being consciously groomed to play the role as her lover/protector, or some mix of both. The director happily leaves this and many other points unresolved and ambiguous.
Another thing that struck me (in a good way) is that Let the Right One In includes very little in the way of narrative exposition; Alfredson prefers to focus on the interplay of relationships and allows the audience to infer what they will from the action presented. A minimal knowledge of popular vampire lore seems assumed – like the fact that being exposed to direct sunlight is harmful to a vampire, that they are extraordinarily strong and agile, that they must be invited into a room before they can enter, down to smaller details such as not being able to eat regular food – but this knowledge is not necessary to enjoy the film or understand the narrative.
Occasionally, the John Williamsesque score proves to be a little jarring and out of place. However, at other times – like in the opening scene with the credits – the choice of background sounds (in this case, silence) is perfect and adds a noticeable depth to the film’s imagery. And make no mistake Let the Right One In is quite simply a beautifully framed and shot exercise in cinema. Almost every scene includes a shot that could stand alone as minimalist photographic art. The spare visual tone and stark winter setting– replete with snow covered woods, frozen lakes, and cold harsh light illuminating drab buildings – unite with deliberate, steadily paced camera work to give a haunting and mysterious tenor to the picture, reminiscent of the work of the late Fabián Bielinsky (Nine Queens, The Aura) who brought an almost contemplative aesthetic to the crime caper genre.
Both Alfredson and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema must be congratulated on their noticeable level of restraint in a genre that usually opts for the sudden shock of action through fast cuts and fleeting (almost subliminal) images of monsters perpetuating violence. Conversely, Let the Right One In plays out in an open and purposeful fashion. The audience is shown all of the details of the various attacks – from ambush through to disposal of bodies – and we even see other characters witnessing the details of the crimes. The filmmaker relies on what he doesn’t address, what lies behind the apparent clarity of what we are seeing, rather than giving tantalising flashes of detail. And yet there is a palpable thread of tension running through the entire film, like an over-wound guitar string on the verge of snapping. You never feel like you can relax into the story. There is an undercurrent that something is just not right but the director never overtly explains what this might be. The temptation is to just enjoy the romance and the sense of solace the two kids find in each other without thinking too much about the uncomfortable sensation lurking in the background.
An utterly engrossing film, Alfredson has put together a visually, narratively, and thematically gripping piece of cinema that will surely endure as one of the classics of the vampire genre and as a study of the negotiating pitfalls of childhood.
NB: The above review is adapted from a review first published at The Lumière Reader as part of their 2008 New Zealand International Film Festival coverage.
DVD Info + Special Features
This region four release is pretty light on the ground in terms of features – extras include the theatrical trailer and a selection of deleted scenes. However we are treated to a worthy transfer presenting the feature in quality commensurate with the excellence of the movie itself. The choice of 5.1 soundtracks makes for an enjoyable viewing experience and Alfredson and Van Hoytema’s shooting comes out crisp and clear. Although the letterboxing is reasonably noticeable I am glad that the DVD producers haven’t cropped any of filmmakers’ stunning framing. But I would advise you to watch this film on as big a screen as you can muster up (any of your friends have a projector?!) as the visuals justify a large sized viewing.
The deleted scenes provided are unfortunately untitled and they have been run together in the one segment. This said they do help provide a little more context detail for the various key character interrelationships including between Oskar and Eli as well as Oskar and the boys who bully him.
Ultimately, I am pleasantly surprised that we were deemed worthy of a region release of Let the Right One In at all. I fully expected to have to buy a region one version of this film and am stoked that we have our own local version so soon after its local theatrical release.
» Region 4 PAL
» 16:9 Widescreen
» Language: Swedish (with English subtitles)
» Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1
» Theatrical Trailer
» Deleted Scenes
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Rating: R16 – Violence and content that may disturb.
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Actors: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar, Henrik Dahl, Karin Bergquist, Peter Carlberg, Ika Nord, Mikael Rahm, and Karl-Robert Lindgren.
Dur: 113 min