Originally shown September 23, 2009. This review spoils a plot development that the movie intends to be unclear for about half of its running time. However, that same development is spoiled in almost every review of this movie. I would say it’s impossible to discuss the movie in any way without spoiling that issue. In fact, the spoiled issue appears in the second sentence of the film’s Netflix listing. Whatever, here’s your spoiler warning.
Unlike most of the Internet, I try not to judge a movie too harshly if I haven’t seen it. So the reason that I have avoided the Twilight movies is not because I hate them, or expect to hate them, because I haven’t seen them. No, it’s simply because that kind of vampire story isn’t for me. Vampires who sparkle in the sun and avoid drinking the blood of their true love as a sort of teen-abstinence metaphor? Sorry, I don’t care how well-acted or well-directed it might be, that’s just not how I roll. Give me Stoker, or King*, or Bigelow** – or Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In.
This is a movie which is minimalist in just about every way. The story can be summed up in a single sentence: lonely boy meets lonely girl, and discovers that she is a vampire. The sparse locations deliver as a great setting, cold and empty in every way that the beautiful cinematography needs, but also they are a great metaphor because the world is a cold and empty place for both of the lead characters. The dialogue (from John Ajvide Lindqvist, adapting his own novel) is sparse and to the point, yet it also manages to carry some subtle meaning.***
There is a good amount of traditional horror in the movie: some gore, some deaths, some scares. However, there is also a lot of tension based upon the fact that getting bullied in the way that Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) does is not so different from being stalked by a vampire. The bully always seems to be waiting for you, creating the constant specter of imminent violence where “every time an adult is not looking” stands in for the vampire’s “only at night.” He may not literally need to bully you in order to survive, but to a kid it sure seems that way. At the start of the movie Oskar seems physically wasted away, almost like a vampire’s victim himself, because he is afraid to go out. He’s more afraid of other boys than of the vampire, and perhaps he should be.
After all, the vampire is just a young girl, named Eli (Lina Leandersson). There’s nothing especially supernatural-looking about her. She’s a little pale, but so is Oskar; hell, if you take this movie as your example, so is all of Sweden. More importantly, she legitimately cares about Oskar. She offers him advice as to how to stand up to his bullies, and she’s willing to talk honestly with him about the way they treat him.
No one else does these things; perhaps Oskar’s mother might do them, but her presence is intentionally minimized so that she doesn’t. Teachers are present only when and if they must be, since the bullying takes place at school. The adult voices in this movie might as well be replaced by an oboe, like the teacher in the “Peanuts” cartoons. It’s perhaps slightly unrealistic, but this is a vampire movie, not Mean Streets. Horror movies thrive in slightly unrealistic worlds, just like this one does with most of the adults pushed to the background.
Some reviews of this movie suggest that it runs out of steam once Eli’s secret is known. I wouldn’t go that far, but the movie does make some mistakes at that point. There’s one very disturbing shot that hints at Eli’s true nature, but its implications are unclear. I don’t need to know Eli’s backstory, and to even hint at some of it strikes me as necessary (Perhaps Lindqvist expanded further upon that detail in the book, and could not bear to cut the scene from the screenplay). I think there is just a bit too much lingering on one of Eli’s victims, who is herself transforming into a vampire (the scene with the cats might have been very scary on the page, but the ball was dropped in filming).
However, Oskar and Eli’s relationship doesn’t change that much, even once he has reason to fear her, and that is what keeps the movie going through the parts that didn’t quite work. I was fascinated by Let The Right One In because it’s a really in-depth look at how a creature like that loves, and who it chooses to love. A lot of older vampire movies suggest that the relationship between vampire and human is by definition exploitative; the vampire uses the person as food, or a slave, or a lover, or some combination of all of those. This movie is unique in that it shows how a vampire can allow someone to get close, and that person could go willingly … even lovingly.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Stephen King’s second novel ‘Salem’s Lot may well be the best book in his long career.
**Kathryn (The Hurt Locker) Bigelow’s 1988 film Near Dark is one of the finest vampire movies ever made. Go see it. Now. Seriously, go rent it right now. This webpage will still be here when you get back.
***Based on the correct translation and subtitles, of course. Early versions of the DVD released in the U.S. were badly subtitled and caused an uproar among film buffs and from Alfredson himself.