Oskar is a melancholic 12-year-old so drawn to violence that he keeps a scrapbook of newspaper crime-reports and, with knife in hand, privately acts out imaginary revenge scenarios on the boys who bully him at school. The ethereally pale blond, perfectly embodied by newcomer Kåre Hedebrant, may well be a serial killer in the making but he also longs for the sympathy his estranged parents fail to give him. He meets his emotional counterpart (and physical opposite—her dark features a striking contrast to his light) with new next-door neighbor Eli—that’s Ell-ie—played by Lina Leandersson, in an equally dazzling debut. An androgynous saucer-eyed girl, she’s mysteriously exempt from school attendance and unaffected by extreme cold. These two outsiders initially bond over a Rubik’s Cube, perhaps indicating that it’s the Eighties, though in the midst of a bleak suburban Swedish winter, the time period is of no concern. The intense friendship and tender feelings of love that believably develop between them are considerably more complex than the usual youth romance because Eli just happens to be a vampire, forever stuck at the awkward age of 12.
Vampire lore, which has held its ground within pop culture since the creatures of the night’s fangs were first bared even pre–Bram Stoker, and has been enjoying a distinct upswing of late, rarely comes across as inspired and alive as it does in Tomas Alfredson’s exquisitely crafted Let the Right One In, written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, adapted from his own bestselling novel.
Though a full-blooded coming-of-age love story in its own right, the film is predominantly a moody, at times gruesome horror tale that factors in many standard mythological elements: scorching sunlight, sleep-in coffins (or, in this case, a makeshift bathtub one), inhuman body odor, and the necessity of an invitation before a vampire may enter one’s home, hence the film’s title. (There are also some well-considered omissions—no fangs, bats, or wooden stakes in sight.) Even without those trappings, though, Let the Right One In would qualify as horror based solely on the grounds of the violence routinely inflicted on Oskar by a group of his classmates. (These are some particularly nasty little punks; you can’t help but look forward to their bloody comeuppance—and when the moment finally arrives, Alfredson doesn’t disappoint, with a gorily inventive underwater sequence.)
There are also welcome touches of ultra-dark humor, found mostly in the ineffectuality of Eli’s feeding methods. Håkan (Per Ragnar), her “father” (or longtime companion, a role Oskar is perhaps unwittingly auditioning for) is not very adept at collecting blood, and when Eli attempts to do the dirty work, she proves to be no more resourceful. And it’s only a matter of time before she’ll be forced to skip town once the local populace begin catching her in the act of feeding on the innocent; one victim even escapes from her hungry clutches, only to start turning into a vampire herself before meeting a fiery death.
Sadly, Let the Right One In will probably be best known to American audiences as another casualty of Hollywood’s rampant impulse to remake (i.e., in most cases, vandalize) every halfway-decent horror import in sight. (Following rumors of J.J. Abrams pursuing the rights, it’s now confirmed that the freshly resurrected Hammer Films will spearhead the project.) Why they’d want the film is no wonder: it’s haunting, romantic, and much deeper in its exploration of gender and child psychology than it initially appears. The mystery is why it’s not obvious to all that there’s simply no room for improvement with this one.