CAPSULE: LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008)

Must See

Låt den rätte komma in

DIRECTED BY: Tomas Alfredson

FEATURING: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar

PLOT: A lonely, isolated boy finds a kindred spirit in a new neighbor, who turns out to be a vampire responsible for a series of strange deaths in the small suburban community.

Still from Let the Right One In (2008)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Let the Right One In is a savvy addition to the vampire canon, placing much that is familiar in a bracingly new context. Unexpected as it may be, this reinvention isn’t so much weird as it is refreshing.

COMMENTS: When we celebrate the centennial of Nosferatu in a few years, it will be a great opportunity to reflect on how the vampire film has become a genre unto itself. In the course of its century, we have seen a multitude of variations on just what a vampire can be: sparkling teen crush, hoodlum slacker, inappropriately tan, habla hispana, African prince, space vixen, thin white duke, legitimately crazy, or even the star of the century-old classic Nosferatu itself, to name but a few. The enemies of vampires have similarly become diverse and varied: everything from cheerleaders to great emancipators to lords and saviors. The fact that I’ve left out so many in this extremely short listing indicates how pervasive the vampire has become and how vast the possibilities are for exploring its legend, and explains why filmmakers as idiosyncratic as Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, and Guy Maddin have filtered the vampire through their own distinctive worldviews. The vampire is more than a mere monster. It is a full-fledged entity unto itself, through which we can refract our understanding of society and history.

When that vampire retrospective does come around, there should be a sizeable chunk of time devoted to Let the Right One In, a thrilling synthesis of the familiar tropes of the vampire mythos into something wholly new and surprising. Everything you expect from a vampire movie is here, but delivered in a deceptively measured tone that gives new shadings to familiar clichés, while also lulling the audience into a quiet reverie that gives the film’s inevitable shocks even greater punch.

Screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapting his own novel) smartly centers the story on Oskar, the lonely boy who comes to fixate on the strange girl who has moved into his neighborhood. (I’ll be using female pronouns for Eli in acknowledgement of the talented young actress in the role, although the film suggests Eli’s gender should be very much in doubt.) Oskar has so many unfulfilled needs: an attentive family, an engaged educator, a protector from schoolyard abuse. But he is not cowed in the face of these obstacles. When threatened, he stiffens his spine and waits for the moment to pass. So when he meets Eli, confident enough to march around in the snow in short sleeves but unfamiliar with a Rubik’s Cube, it is hardly surprising that he bets his entire soul on her.

Oskar’s sweetness is essential, because Eli is essentially an amoral creature, a fact he seems to recognize but is grateful to overlook. Although she gives off a childlike innocence in Oskar’s presence, she is both a feral animal, as seen in her vicious and intense attacks on random townspeople, and a wily schemer, as demonstrated by her manipulation of Håkan, the simple man who appears to be her caretaker. We know something is up when we see the elaborate-yet-ramshackle method in which he kills and drains victims in order to feed his charge, and when we see his meekness in the face of conflict and the abuse she heaps upon him when he fails, we learn much about her true nature.

Given both its locale and its tone, it’s tempting to view Let the Right One In as the vampire movie Ingmar Bergman never made. But when Alfredson is ready to pour on the horror, he does so with gusto, invigorating the most common elements of vampire tales with new power. Vampires must be invited into a home? We see the disturbing consequences when they aren’t. You’ve heard that sunlight is bad for vampires? You may not be prepared for the suddenness and violence of the sun’s wrath. And the film’s final set piece at a swimming pool is a justifiable favorite, a masterful demonstration of the value of showing just enough action to let the mind fill in the rest.

Let the Right One In boasts one of the most disturbing happy endings you’re likely to come across. Oskar and Eli escape, and the affection he feels for her is evident even with her in hiding. They will look after each other, you can be sure. But then you recall who else took care of Eli, and what that relationship became. It’s fair to wonder how many years will pass before he, too, will be packing up his kit to go rustle up food for the sweet child who befriended him so long ago.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Some movies, while never quite attaining masterpiece status, nonetheless have a monumental WTF-factor. This is one such… thoroughly macabre, maintaining a downbeat, realist lugubrious air, like a cop procedural…very satisfyingly bizarre scenes.” Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Miss_Murder. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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