Director: Tomas Alfredson
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Stockholm, 1982. Oskar, a pale twelve year old boy lives on a housing estate with his mother. Bullied at school, he practices his revenge against his tormentors. A young girl, Eli, and an old man, Hakan, move into the adjacent flat. Hakan chloroforms a young student one evening and then collects the blood he drains from him. Eli and Oskar meet outside their flats one evening; she evasively answers his questions whilst he shows her a Rubiks cube, which she quickly solves. A connection between these two lonely youths develops.
It emerges Eli is a vampire. She attacks a neighbour one evening, which is witnessed by another resident. Oskar is assaulted by his bullies. Eli encourages him to fight back as the only way to make them stop, which he does. Hakan is caught trying to kill another student. He burns with face with acid to disguise his identity, to protect Eli. She finds him and kills him, draining his blood, as he requests. When a blood brothers pact encourages Eli’s lust for blood, she attacks Virginia, a local woman. Knowing she is a vampire, she asks to be exposed to daylight in hospital, which kills her. Her husband, Lacke, realises Eli is a vampire and attempts to kill her. Oskar interrupts, which allows Eli to kill him first. Oskar’s bullies attempt their own revenge, by drowning him in the school pool, but Eli comes to his rescue, killing the bullies. They both leave town together.
There was one teenage vampire film discussed in the mainstream press in 2008. Catherine Hardwicke’s ‘Twilight’ (based on the novel by Stephanie Meyer) was an unexpected commercial success, recouping several times its production budget; a triumph of marketing and an existing fanbase rather than artistic merit. This coincided with the production of ‘Let The Right One In’, itself based on a recent novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist (a title that references ex-Smith Morrissey) and produced on a significantly smaller budget. ‘Let The Right One In’ is more than just a vampire film as it’s almost certain to be marketed as overseas (and almost certainly will when it is remade by the director of Cloverfield!); it’s the most touching and poignant depiction of the troubles of adolescence since another Swedish film, Lukas Moodyson’s ‘Show Me Love’ (1998).
Alfredson begins with Oskar, who looks positively otherworldly himself, practicing revenge against his tormentors, using the very same lines they use (“squeal like a pig” etc). Both parents are absent; his mother always at work, his father in another town entirely – Oskar is a lonely child, craving attention, which no doubt makes him a suitable victim to bully. Oskar is filmed numerous times in his room alone, always with the glass of the window separating him and the camera as if to create a distancing effect, to create a divide. Living in a permanently snow-covered housing estate in disrepair, one of those communities that almost seems to entrap its residents, there’s nothing here for Oskar and no way out, until Eli walks into his life.
Eli’s arrival seems natural enough; we assume the older man is her father and that they’re moving in as would any usual family. However there are ominous signs straight away when Hakan covers one window with cardboard. Eli’s secret is kept from other characters in the film but crucial for the purposes of tension, it remains vague to the audience as well. We watch with great detail as Hakan chloroforms a young boy, slits his throat and drains his blood into a bottle. Is this a serial killer at work? Does Eli know about this behaviour? The first instance we witness Hakan murdering is one of the most disturbing I have seen in film in a while – it’s shown so meticulously, unrushed and even more disturbingly, the violence is shielded from us by Hakan’s body position but the sound of the drops of blood hitting the bottle more than makes up for this. The relationship between Hakan and Eli is kept deliberately vague as well. As we gather he is not her father and that he is murdering to satisfy her lust for blood (preventing her killing presumably), we wonder what precisely exists between them. The dynamics of the relationship are certainly not familial; she’s more assertive and he’s more apologetic. Apparently the novel hints at a paedophilic relationship although Alfredson has airbrushed this and presents Hakan as a far more sympathetic character, which adds to the ambiguous nature of the film.
The strongest aspect of the film is the bond between Oskar and Eli, which is never romantic but merely a connection between two lonely, mutually sad individuals. The issues of gender and sexuality within the film have been discussed in numerous existing reviews. It’s been suggested that Eli is indeed a boy and there’s a coyness attached to Eli’s suggestion that “what if I tell you I’m not a girl?” Do we read that as “vampire” being the alternative or not? There’s a scene that’s also consciously indecisive when Oskar spies on a naked Eli. Emphasised in the novel and slightly alluded to here is the fact that Eli is a eunuch boy. Lina Leandersson captures this androgyny with the same kind of perfection as Ines Efron had in ‘XXY’ (2007), an Argentine film about a teenage intersex child. There’s another school of thought that has suggested that should you dispense with the vampire mythology aspect of the film, what remains is a simple revenge story. Taking Oskar/Eli as dual elements of one person (submissive/aggressive), you have someone finally standing up to his tormentors.
In addition to that, it’s the final scene that threatens to undermine the sheer brilliance of what has transpired before. The natural conclusion would have been when Eli announced she had to leave town. Instead this conclusion seems more contrived, neatly rounding events off. Oskar is almost drowned by the elder brother of the main bully before Eli comes to his rescue. It’s an incredibly well filmed scene; shot entirely from Oskar’s perspective below water, you hear the violence and then the head of the bully sinking into the water, before the hand holding Oskar’s head appears unattached, allowing Oskar to rise to the surface. It just felt a little unnecessary and when Oskar and Eli leave together by train to who knows where, this resolution appears too neat. It’s a minor quibble though with what is otherwise an astonishing film. The central performance by Leandersson is one of the most breathtaking I have seen for many a while, let alone from a novice child actor, capturing the sadness of someone who has lived for hundreds of years off the back of killing in just the melancholy of her saucer-shaped eyes.
In most countries, ‘Let The Right One In’ has been rated 15 or its equivalent, despite the copious violence, which means that the target audience for the film will at least be able to watch it. Certainly one of the most significant films about children for a while, it was one of the finest made in 2008.