Let the Right one In (film, 2009)
A review of this cracking Swedish horror movie, from Death Ray #18.
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writer: John Ajvide Lindqvist (based on his novel)
Starring: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar, Henrik Dahl
Swedish horror movie takes teen revenge out of the realms of imagination and into the playground. Beware, minor spoilers as well as vampires lie ahead.
Vampires are not a prime component of the native Swedish mythological line-up, even today. Sure, you can argue that they’re a Romanian export wherever you find them, but there’s something about the Nordic countries that makes such out of town horrors unnecessary. Scandinavian stories of trolls, gnomes, hidden people and sundry other supernatural critters seem somewhat more immediate when you’re out in the forest or locked in the lightless depths of winter, than similar home-grown bogies feel in our over-crowded Britain. And then there’s the slightly uneasy feeling that our northern kin never quite got the veneration of the old gods beaten out of them by Christianity. There’s real mystery innate to this last wilderness of Western Europe, hangovers of Stone and Iron Age fears. Something, perhaps, to do with the quality of the light, or the yearly absence of it. It doesn’t need the vampire to make it more thrilling.
Vampires are consequently rare in Scandinavian literature (famed writer Viktor Ryberg’s The Vampyre seems the real deal, but in turns out the monster is a lunatic and no vampire at all). So, exceptionally, Let the Right One In is unashamedly a story of the toothy undead. Published in 2004 in Sweden (original title Låt Den Rätta Komma In, reviewed here) by stand-up comic, TV writer and magician John Ajvide Lindqvist (interview here), it soon became a best-seller and was translated into several languages. Plans for the film version quickly followed. Since its Swedish release last year, Let The Right one in has pretty much cleared the board of “Best Foreign Film” awards at festivals around the globe. Already American mavens are sharpening their pencils to retool the tale for the predictable, subtitle free Hollywood remake. [Which duly happened, naturally].
Lindqvist’s script follows the story of his book almost scene for scene. Oskar is a boy growing up in a suburb of Stockholm in the 1980s. He is lonely, his dad’s left home and his main role in life seems to be providing sport for school bully Conny. If things had gone on, you suspect he’d have just grown up. But when a strange little girl named Eli and her seedy guardian move in next door, the scene is set for love, and for revenge.
Let The Right One In is a beautifully shot film, and perfectly evokes the weirdness of life in Swedish in the depths of winter. The performances, especially of the many child actors involved, are very strong. Lina Leandersson (Eli) and Kåre Hedebrant (Oskar) are perfect as the awkward 12-year olds, whose problems, though both very different in nature, bring them together and slowly lead to romance. Eli’s dual nature of sweet little girl and ageless vampire are represented with the usual bag of tricks, including The Lord of The Rings-style CG enlargement of her eyes, some apt sound effects and clever, nearly subliminally quick replacements of Leandersson by the middle-aged Susanne Ruben in key shots.
The film focusses almost entirely on Oskar’s sad little life, those bits of the book that have gone being those that detailed Eli’s blood-soaked creation and her suffering. In the original, this acted as a counterpoint to Oskar’s troubles, showing his woes up to be much less serious than he perceives them to be. But even without this contrast, the film still manages to shock us out of our complacency here and there – this is not just a young love story, but a bleak portrayal of the horrors that can ensue when the revenge fantasies of youth step out of the mind and into reality. It has echoes of Columbine.
In places the film is too much like the book. The measured pacing and hushed snowbound nights suit the tempo of the novel well, but it means the film drags just a little. The book’s revelation that Eli was actually a boy named Elias, and was castrated by the vampire that turned her is only hinted at in the film. They’re only enough to confuse, and probably should have been excised entirely for clarity’s sake.
Let The Right One In remains as disturbing, affecting and touching as the book, and has a damn good go at spinning your moral compass. You can’t help rooting for the two tots, yet their innocent first kisses are literally smeared with blood, and Oskar’s playground problems take a terrifying turn.
That Oskar’s antagonists are destroyed means he will never overcome his problems, they are simply smashed to pieces. In this regard Let The Right One In is an anti-change story, one about arrested transformation, where adults are monsters and the victimhood of the young excuses them their own monstrousness. There’s more to the 1980s setting, a time of great uncertainty in Sweden, than the author’s reminiscences.
The young protagonist may think he is happy at the end, but we adults know that adolescence is a transitory stage. Oblivious to the knowledge that this phase of life passes quickly, Oskar simply runs away, unaware that by doing so he has trapped himself at the very moment of his suffering, albeit in a less brutal manner than Eli was herself trapped. The difference is that Oskar chooses this. It’s up to adults to protect children from this flight from maturation, to help them become adults themselves as painlessly as possible. If we don’t, they end up like Oskar. The title comes from the idea that vampires have to be invited in. When Oskar does so, he swaps one kind of unhappy childhood for a darker one with no cathartic metamorphosis in sight, its momentary triumphs bought with the deaths of others. That, if you think about it, is truly horrible.
Did you know?
Though vampire books in Swedish are thin on the ground, there is, of course, another Swedish vampire film, 2006’s Frostbiten (Frostbite). Like 30 Days of Night, the film makes use of the absence of day in the far north during winter to enable a bunch of vamps to rock up and have a big ol’ blood drive. Far less serious than Let the Right One In, Anders Banke’s film is a black comedy in the vein of Shaun of the Dead. If you’ll, ahem, excuse the pun. The title of Let the Right On In is a play on the title of Morrissey’s song, “Let the Right One Slip In”.