by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Cast: Kåre Hedebrant, Lena Leandersson
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 98% Certified Fresh
PLOT: A bullied schoolboy makes friends with the new neighbor, a girl about his age who doesn’t leave her apartment during the day and has some alarming eating habits…
A little while ago, I reviewed a movie called Klaus, a film that took an age-old pop culture trope (the origins of Santa Claus) and turned it on its ear. I wasn’t sure when I would find another movie that would be able to do that so effectively.
Well…here it is. Let the Right One In, a Swedish film from 2008, made huge waves at the time of its release. Critics called it a film with “magnificent emotional resonance.” “One of the great horror films of recent years.” “One of the real finds of 2008.” “A spectacularly moving and elegant movie…a remarkable film.”
Too good to be true, right? Well, I’ve just finished watching it earlier tonight, and I can tell you, the hype is real. While the very ending brought up more questions than it answers (where is the train going? where are the parents?), the ride getting there was phenomenally good. Calling it simply a “vampire movie” is almost insultingly reductive. It poses questions about vampire lore that I had never really thought about, and it provides immensely satisfying answers.
For example, one of the most well-known rules about vampires is they cannot enter your home unless you invite them inside. At one point in the film, a vampire hesitates at a doorway because she hasn’t been invited, and the boy asks her, “Well, what happens if you come in anyway? Is there something in the air?” So, she goes inside without being invited. What happened next was totally unexpected, and it made perfect sense. I remember thinking, “So THAT’S what they’re afraid of…”
But I’m jumping ahead. Let the Right One In tells the story of a bullied pre-teen schoolboy, Oskar, who fantasizes about knifing his tormentors. One day, new neighbors move into the apartment next door, an older gentleman and a preteen girl. He meets the girl one evening out on the snowy playground in front of their apartment building. (Her first appearance is one of the great entrances in cinema.) She tells him her name is Eli (pronounced “Elly” in Sweden). He says she smells funny. She tells him they cannot be friends, even though she seems eager to make friends with Oskar. Her eyes seem to be abnormally large, almost like a character in a Miyazaki anime.
We’ve already seen the older gentleman who moves in with her botch a food-gathering run, so it’s obvious from the get-go what exactly Eli is, and what she needs to survive. This is all done within the film’s first fifteen minutes or so, so I promise I’m not giving anything away.
What happens after those establishing moments, I’ll leave for you to discover. You may already be remembering countless other vampire films like Fright Night or Interview with the Vampire and thinking, “I’ve seen all this before.” But I can assure you, you haven’t. Not like this.
The relationship between Oskar and Eli never gets sexual (they’re both too young for that…well, Oskar is), and is handled with remarkable sensitivity and keen observation. At one point, he buys her a snack from a vendor. She refuses it. He feels hurt. So she takes one anyway and eats it. Seconds later, she’s sick to her stomach. What does Oskar think about this? He’s surprised, but he takes it in stride and apologizes. There’s something so clever about this approach, about making it between an old soul and a child, that feels fresh and new to me. Oskar knows the term “vampire,” but clearly hasn’t seen enough movies to recognize the signs of one standing right in front of him.
Eli is forced to make a kill periodically to survive. These attacks are done with a minimum of gore but are incredibly effective and horrifying. There’s something instinctively creepy about seeing a little girl jump – or drop – from the shadows, clamber onto the back of her victims, and latch onto their necks with an animalistic growl. The fact these attacks are stitched together with quiet moments, like Oskar teaching Eli morse code, creates a unique atmosphere that is impossible for me to describe satisfactorily.
(Another detail: when Eli is hungry, it’s not depicted as it is in other vampire movies, where the overpowering urge to feed makes her go mad and wide-eyed. Her stomach rumbles. True, it’s a little louder than when it happens to a normal person, but it feels…right. Of course her stomach rumbles…she’s hungry.)
There is more to the story, of course, about Oskar’s bullies and Eli’s incompetent roommate and the suspicious bar regular whose friend was killed, and so on. Better to leave the rest as a surprise. And there are LOTS of cool surprises here. This feels like the kind of movie Guillermo del Toro might have made if he had gotten there first. (Oh, wait, he did make Cronos…I stand corrected.)