Call it the anti-Twilight, if you so choose. Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is the only vampire movie you should see this holiday season; an atmospheric delight from snowy Sweden that hits all the right notes because it strives to be as un-American as possible. Instead of melodramatic twists, ham-fisted emoting, and a ridiculous love story to keep the chicks suitably moist, this is a brooding, somber chess game without the usual theatrics of the genre. It considers vampirism, yes, but it’s largely incidental, more metaphorical than essential to the story’s turns. And because we’re in a cold, drab landscape — a part of Sweden most suitable to act as a stand-in for Kieslowski’s Poland (right down to the bloodless apartment complex) — we are better prepared to accept the film as a meditation on adolescence, or rather the oppressive loneliness that afflicts so many of that age. And yet, at no time is anything pounded home with an overt flourish, or spelled out for our complete understanding. It’s as if Bergman made a horror film at last. Unless you count Scenes from a Marriage.
From the outset, a creepy intrigue is established, as we meet young Oskar, a blond, almost albino-looking child who is a typical 12-year-old in that he’s insecure, uncertain, and painfully shy. He largely keeps to himself in his snowbound apartment, though we see his mother from time to time (he visits his father on occasion as well). To the film’s advantage, the adults never play too large a role, and we are spared the expected scenes where mom shares a moment of tears and teeth-gnashing with her youngster about “needing to find more friends.” She’s neither a source of real comfort, nor an unsympathetic villain. One day, Oskar witnesses a new neighbor; a mysterious, dark-haired young girl named Eli. Their initial meetings are awkward and tentative, as they should be, and though we expect a budding romance (American films have us trained too well), none occurs. For Oskar, this is simply about companionship, and the depth of such an arrangement is irrelevant. Kids usually need little more than a pair of eyes looking in their direction, and they can fill in the rest with their own needs and wants.
Eli lives with an older gentleman who appears to be her father, only we come to learn he’s more of a helper; the kind of partner who secures the blood of victims for her consumption. While he’s obviously not a vampire himself, his true identity is never fully explained, which again helps elicit a much-needed ambiguity. He kills a young man in the woods before our eyes, and it’s fascinating to watch the ritualized nature of the bloodletting. From rendering the boy unconscious to the final slitting of the throat, it’s all very clinical and restrained, and we can almost view it as we would a man cleaning an elk after a satisfying hunt. It’s not the same of course (we call it murder), but taking the film’s premise as truth — that vampires exist and as such, they must survive — who are we to judge the methods they employ to satisfy their desires. Later, during a particularly clumsy attempt at collecting blood, we understand that yes, if this were necessary, it would require a level of stealth unique to the situation. It’s macabre, yes, but undeniably comical in its own way. But this man is haunted by his position, and takes a way out that will satisfy viewers looking for a little nasty fun.
The central thrust of the movie is Oskar’s victimization at the hands of the school bully, as well as the lackeys such a person employs to be his audience. No tyrant ever acts for himself alone, and we see full well that in order for such youngsters to have a solid footing, the climate that surrounds them must also serve their will, even if unknowingly. Oskar takes his beatings, but with a quiet, dignified reserve, though he’s encouraged by Eli to fight back in a suitable manner. What she means by “suitable” is clearly not on Oskar’s radar, but that’s to come. Until then, there is a local population disturbed by random killings and the confusion that follows. Again, there’s no great inquest, or cut to investigators hunting for patterns, simply the acknowledgment that a good friend has been lost through a snippet of conversation or newspaper headline. A lesser film would be about Eli’s discovery or how she’s driven from their midst. Here, she not only evades capture, but no one seems to care one way or another. Even a witness to Eli’s first murder can’t fully process what he’s seen. As such, he simply rambles to no real end.
Even when Oskar discovers the truth about his friend, there’s nothing to be done with the information except for simple acceptance. At one point, we even find out that Eli’s gender is in question (a brief shot suggests that s/he has been castrated in some fashion), and this does nothing to alter the relationship. And when a naked Eli slips under the sheets with Oskar, it might make a difference to some if there were gay connotations, but that’s not what these kids would ever consider. At this point I could accept that Eli was entirely asexual — a being of utter confusion — that might suggest the age’s chaotic state. Unlike Twilight, which made the bloodsuckers romantic and dreamy, with an obvious appeal for weak-kneed females, Eli is not alluring, or passionate, or even well-spoken. For all Oskar cares, it’s simply someone not punching him in the face. It’s why the vampire genre had to consider adolescence at last; how else to explore our fascination with these creatures when the obvious sex appeal is stripped away? What if it’s nothing more than someone who will never fully understand what they even are?
If I haven’t made Let the Right One In sound too terribly groundbreaking, or even entertaining, it’s best to remember that this is a mood piece first and foremost; a film about horror that leaves the expected horror at the front door. It’s a film about the silences, the pauses, and the hesitating gestures of isolated kids, rather than a dull exploration of “the life.” There’s no garlic, or priests wielding crucifixes, or sprinkled holy water, or anything that stoops to regurgitate oft-repeated information. At bottom, it considers that our young people, so envied for their agility, energy, and unending good health, are too often masking a deep longing that is rarely, if ever, fully articulated. And even when comeuppance comes, and “righteous” violence erupts at the local pool (inventive, I’ll admit), it feels less like a resolution than a harbinger of deeper problems to come. Oskar and Eli are together at last, sharing Morse code (she’s boxed up like a nice little parcel), but it can’t possibly endure. Nothing at, of, or from that age ever does. Oskar will grow up, and put away childish things, while Eli will remain forever stunted; ageless and truly alone.