If Twilight is a teen romance featuring vampires aimed at teens, it could be argued that Let the Right One In is a vampirey teen romance for grown ups. I don’t know that I’d go that far. Calling Let the Right One In a romance is a little superficial. The characters and the story are too complicated and layered for that. This is a dark and violent vampire movie for grown ups.
The story revolves around Oskar, a withdrawn tween growing up in a public housing complex outside of Stockholm during the early 1980′s. He lives with his mother. Their relationship seems distant. Oskar desperately wants to build a relationship with his father with whom he spends the occasional weekend, but Oskar’s father takes a greater interest in nurturing a relationship with the bottle.
At school he fares no better. He’s picked on by a trio local bullies and ignored by the rest of his peers. It doesn’t help that he’s a creepy, awkward boy with an interest in murder. He even keeps a news clipping scrapbook of some of his favorite kills. Oskar’s other pastime is hanging out in the complex’s courtyard, acting out scenes of murderous revenge with his little knife.
One evening while having a game of stabby-stab, he is startled by another child in the courtyard who is watching him. She asks Oskar what he is doing. Oskar, being the super smooth guy that he isn’t replies, “Nothing. What are you doing?” Instead of saying something like, “Watching you act like a tool,” the new girl takes the high road and says that she is also doing nothing. She then goes on to explain that even though she lives in the apartment next to Oskar’s, she and Oskar cannot be friends. Aww. Shot down!
The new girl lives with this creepy old guy, Hakan, who is a bit like Renfield, if less crazy but curiously more inept. He tries to procure blood for the girl, who seems to rather like the stuff. That might seem odd if it weren’t for the fact that she is a vampire.
When he tries to milk the blood of his first victim, I couldn’t help but think “Man, that is NOT the way this is done. I watch Dexter every Sunday and I can tell you right now that you’re doing this totally wrong.” Instead of bringing home the goods, Hakan returns time and time again empty handed while leaving a trail of bodies and evidence.
I’m watching this movie and wondering why Hakan is tied to Eli the vampire girl. Well, it turns out that he is a former teacher who ended up in dire straights because it got out that in addition to teaching addition and subtraction, he is also a pedophile. That looks bad on a resume. Hakan ends up hitting the skids. He serves Eli because he is fixated with her. She is and will always be, at least in appearance, a 12-year old girl. He is unable to get anywhere molesting-wise though, because Eli is full well and able to rip him in half. She also has money, which she has accumulated from her previous victims, and is able to support them both. He is more dependent on her than she is on him.
As the movie goes on, the girl, Eli, and Oskar spark up a friendship. In between sessions of being bullied and acting creepy, Oskar figures out that Eli is a vampire. That’s what the movie is supposed to be about. A coming of age romance between a creepy misfit and a vampire trapped in a little girl’s body. Sure, it sounds kind of stupid, but it works. I think it works because the two main characters are each in their own way very alienated from the world around them.
In the case of Oskar, while almost everyone has as a child been put in a position where they were bullied by another child or children to the point where we can empathize with his plight, as the film goes on, it becomes more and more clear that this boy hungers for any meaningful human connection nearly the same way Eli hungers for blood. That, I think, makes the whole relationship between Oskar and Eli believable. Oskar is so strange and desperate while Eli, on the other hand has apparently been a vampire for so long that she tends to forget conventions of human behavior such as bathing or wearing shoes outside when there is snow on the ground or wiping the blood from her mouth after she feeds. She is only just barely human. Oskar, little by little, rekindles the spark of humanity left in her.
The actors who play the parts of Eli (Lina Leandersson) and Oskar (Kare Hedebrant ) are both very good. This is a kind of a big deal coming from me, because as a rule I hate child actors. One scene that really stick out come later in the movie. Eli is being playfully taunted by Oskar regarding the need to be invited in before entering, things take a rather disturbing turn and both actors shift gears rapidly and with conviction. Eli walks past an amused Oskar and turns to face him. She stares at him intensely, in obvious mounting pain, and begins to quiver, bleeding from her eyes and nose ears and scalp. Oskar realizes that he was being a dirtbag and regrets it, pleads with her to come in.
The rest of the cast is fine, but of far less importance, being like the sets and the weather, they serve as props in a scene of unrelenting bleakness. There is an underlying theme of everyone going through the motions of being human with several of the character treating others as prey of one kind or another. Hakan is a child molester. The bullies derive self-esteem from torturing Oskar. Lacke, one of the neighborhood drunks, abuses his girlfriend Virginia. Oskar’s father preys on helpless bottles of liquor. “Underlying themes?” you say. “Unrelenting bleakness?” you say. “What is this? Some kind of boring ass art film?” Nope. This is one of the most brutal vampire movies ever. Eli, is pretty freakin’ far from being a “Twilight Vampire.” She isn’t some gothy Barbie Girl. She doesn’t sparkle in the light. She’s dark, serious and intent on drinking blood. She makes no apologies about what she is and what she does.
Though there is an implicit comparison between Eli, the monster who feeds on blood and boys who bully Oskar, Let the Right One In doesn’t get bogged down in it’s own sub-text. The movie is well paced and taut. Assessing the dialogue is tricky. It’s subtitled from Swedish. There are idioms and cultural conventions that get lost in translation. I would say that dialogue is a little laconic, but believable. One item of interest is that the voice of Eli is dubbed, using the more husky voice of actress Elif Ceylan, to make Eli seem less girly.
There is no gratuitous violence nor are there any stupid jump scares. The effects were pretty restrained for the most part, only showing what needed to be shown in a manner appropriate to the story. If I had to compare it to any other vampire movie I‘d liken it to George Romero’s Martin in that is unconventional and not gothically romanticized, as are most vampire movies. It’s just a creepy story placed in a very creepy setting, very well done.
John Ajvide Lindqvist