Set in a neighborhood outside Stockholm, largely in and around a nondescript apartment complex, Let the Right One In is, first, a coming-of-age tale about Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a slight, pale boy with a shock of blond hair and good humor that belies his general beat-down wariness and barely contained anger. He’s the target of menacing schoolyard bullies and, as the film begins, we see him practicing with a knife, imagining that he’s jabbing it into the flesh of one of his tormenters. Oskar has a new neighbor, the similarly tiny and wary Eli (Lina Leandersson), who has moved into the flat next door with Hakan (Per Ragnar), an older man who seems to be her father. Hakan covers the windows with cardboard — perhaps to block out the sunlight. At one point, we hear Eli snarling, “You’re supposed to help me!” Horror-movie fans will no doubt suspect something sinister is going on, and they will be correct. Let the Right One In is certainly a horror movie, and it brings the pain in genre fashion. But it’s also a kind of Scandinavian gothic — a love story between 12-year-olds, one of whom has been 12 for a very long time.
Let the Right One In is in some ways a slight film, but it’s evocative, visceral and deeply felt. The script adaptation by John Ajvide Lindqvist, from his own novel, is no doubt a gloss on the original material, and director Tomas Alfredson doesn’t spend a whole lot of time trying to bring the suburb of Blackeberg to life — the town is represented here mainly by a bar, a school, a few houses, and an expansive frozen lake. Certain fashion trends and an absence of technology give the film a period flavor throughout, but only the presence of that Rubik’s cube and a passing reference to Leonid Brezhnev ground it in time and place. The press notes say it takes place in 1982, which sounds about right. (In 1982, I was 12, too, and getting my ass kicked until I figured out that fighting back was not only easy but remarkably effective and unlikely to get me into trouble.)
What passes for local flavor is weather. The film’s opening and closing imagery involves snow, seen shining in the dark, moving gently out of focus, and a boy, Oskar, standing at a window, hand pressed to a chilly pane of glass. Throughout the film, Alfredson has a good enough eye that his evocative shot compositions and editorial decisions put the material in enough context without a lot of supporting information. (One of his master shots, set in the shadows underneath a bridge, suckered me in completely, and ended up scaring the hell out of me.)
Alfredson’s strategy instead is to focus on his two central performances, delivered by actual 12-year-olds who ground their characters with natural behavior. The beaten-but-not-broken Oskar is a beacon of warmth amid the ice, but he’s growing chilly. His position is pitiable — his mother is out of touch, his father seems like a bit of a drunk, and the mean kid at school seems oddly motivated against, in that way young bullies have of relishing and taking pride in their abusive behavior.
Eli is cold, literally and figuratively, but with a passion that hasn’t quite been extinguished. Learning that Oskar is being victimized, Eli gives him a pep talk, raising his courage and urging him to fight back. After he does so, with satisfying results, his own temperature starts to drop — in one scene, he turns into a little bit of a dick, baiting Eli by daring her to cross a threshold without invitation. (The title, borrowed by Lindqvist for his novel from a Morrissey lyric, refers to the trope of vampire stories that bars them from entering your home unless invited inside.) Eli knows how to defuse that tendency, and responds to his power trip with a demonstration of great trust and selflessness that not only results in one of the film’s more indelibly grisly images, but one of its characteristic moments of humanity.
That’s Eli’s conundrum — she’s a gentle, caring character who may be Oskar’s protector and savior. But she’s also a murderer, killing in her own self-interest and evincing not a shred of guilt or regret for her crimes against humanity.
There are wonderful shots where the two kids consider each other through panes of glass, suggesting the reflections they see in one another, and other scenes where they learn to communicate in morse code, dramatizing the unspeakable distance that still separates them. It’s a sensitive, melancholy romance (with just the whiff of adolescent sexual interest) involving two kids who, for very different reasons, have little understanding of romantic love, but to my eyes (tear-stained, yes) Alfredson never goes mushy with this stuff. Instead, he employs snarling genre tactics, breaking up the delicate business with moody scenes of violence that are more startling for their unexpected ferocity. It’s a bloody film, even in some moments an overtly gory one, but where another director and cinematographer might have been tempted to go nuts splashing bright red blood across spreads of snowy white, Let the Right One In remains dark, forbidding, and in all things restrained. Still, it’s eminently satisfying, with moments of impressive ghoulishness leading up to a quietly rousing climax that almost qualifies as too much of a gift to genre fans.
But there’s enough complexity and substance to the character relationships to exculpate Alfredson from any charges of pandering to a mass audience. Even the final scene has a dangerous undertow — it’s surely a happy ending, but even the optimists in attendance have to harbor some trepidation over what might happen next. Let the Right One In is fascinating in its capacity for metaphor, scary in its credibility, and unsettlingly seductive.