Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) is unapologetically a vampire story. It follows most of the rules of the genre but avoids the standard trappings of spectacular bloodletting (like, say, Blade) and simplistic sexual metaphors (we’re looking at you, Twilight). Director Tomas Alfredson and screenwriter John Ajvide (adapting his own novel) are startlingly frank not just in their depictions of the ritualistic violence inherent in a vampire’s everyday toil, but also in the desperate hungers and desires of all their human characters as well.
Novel and film are both set in 1980s Sweden, at a time when the famously independent, neutral nation was struggling through a Cold War economic recession. 12-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is meek, frail, and so fair as to seem albino. He splits his time between a scolding mother and a loving but distant father with unexplained secrets. The only time we see Oskar happy is when playing in the snow at his father’s rural home. An ominous guest arrives, muting even conversation (we never learn the man’s identity, or the reason for his smothering effect, but for story purposes it only matters that Oskar cannot be happy even here). Oskar is constantly bullied by school thugs seemingly inspired by the savage torturers from the movie Deliverance: their favorite taunt is to demand he squeal like a pig. The constant pressure drives him morbidly inward, rapidly becoming a potential danger to himself and others. He secretly collects gruesome newspaper clippings of local crimes, and sneaks outside at night to playact his vengeance with matches and a knife. It’s easy for a 21st Century viewer to imagine Oskar becoming a school shooter.
A mysterious couple moves in next door in the dead of night: Eli (Lina Leandersson), a girl appearing about his age, and her adult companion Håkan (Per Ragnar). Eli interrupts one of Oskar’s solitary nighttime revenge fantasies, and they strike up a sort of friendship. As the habitually aloof Eli warms to his company, she advises him to fight back against his oppressors. When he gets a chance to do so, Hedebrant’s startling performance during his triumph conveys a disturbing impression of a too-young boy experiencing a kind of ecstasy. Compare and contrast his obvious pleasure with the wholly dispassionate murders committed by Eli and Håkan. One wonders how Alfredson directed the young actor towards such a performance, and how much Hedebrant knew about the subtext of how the scene would play on the screen. As becomes clear, Eli may not have had the boy’s best interests at heart; was she urging him to stand up for himself, or setting him up for a bigger fall later? Either way, she succeeds in binding him more closely to her.
Although Oskar is pubescent, his infatuation with her does not seem to be especially sexual. His hungers are more for companionship and understanding. Eli says she is “not a girl,” and asks Oskar if he would still like her were she not. With little hesitation, he answers yes. He catches a glimpse of her naked torso, seeing what seems to be a castration mark. But Eli is far more than just not a girl. Subtle special effects give us fleeting images of her with eerily enlarged eyes and as an older woman. She is permanently frozen in a state of childhood, but it seems she hasn’t matured intellectually and emotionally as her body remains in stasis (unlike the young character Claudia in Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire). As she tells him “I’ve been twelve for a long time.”
Although it doesn’t resemble more typical vampire tales, Let the Right One In does follow most of the mythos: vampires have to be invited in (hence the name; to enter uninvited will cause a painful, bloody death – a fate Eli demonstrates to Oskar to prove her affection for him); any victim bitten but not killed will become a vampire (Eli is shown to break a victim’s spine after feeding – a belated form of mercy coming from a vampire, I suppose); housecats are compelled to attack vampires (as seen in not one of the most convincing special effects sequences), and sunlight causes them to spontaneously combust (as seen in one very convincing sequence).
Eli shares with Oskar her motto “To flee is life. To linger, death.” Like her encouragement to fight back against bullies, here is the key to understanding the mystery of her devoted human companion Håkan. Eli has outsourced her physical needs to her selflessly devoted servant, essentially making him into a serial killer on her behalf. What motivates him to comply? Was he once a boy, like Oscar, that fell in love with her? Whatever their bond, she ensures that Oskar is next in line to become her new provider.
After writing the above, I read The A.V. Club’s excellent Book Vs. Film: Let the Right One In by Tasha Robinson (part of a series also including Watchmen). In short, yes, a great deal needed to be omitted from the novel to shape the story into a feature film. But Robinson approves; rather than leaving too much out, the movie fruitfully chooses a very different, more internal version of the story. Some tidbits gleaned from the article that may be of interest to anyone else that hasn’t read the book:
- The book is a more graphic, conventional horror story.
- Oskar’s father’s friend is a less sinister character in the book. Simply, he’s a drinking buddy, and Oskar’s otherwise decent father is apparently a mean drunk.
- The title is derived from a Morrissey song quoted in the book: “Let the right one in / let the old dreams die / let the wrong ones go / They cannot do what you want them to do”
- The Oskar of the novel is overweight, inspiring the bullies’ “piggy” taunts.
- The Håkan of the book is a pedophile. Eli encountered him as an adult, and she trades some sexual favors for his services. Skimming the comments left below Robinson’s article, I see most other viewers interpreted the movie the same way I did.
Must read: Let the Wrong Subtitles in to Let the Right One In. Icons of Fright finds the English translation lacking.