It is a rare movie indeed that comes across as instant horror classic, multilevel preteen wish-fulfillment fantasy and Euro-arty critical darling all at once. Rarer still that such a movie should be coming soon to a theater near you. But then, chief among the strengths of Let the Right One In, director Tomas Alfredson’s film of John Lindqvist’s script of his own novel, is that special, subtle way it has of making rarity seem like commonality.
Not to be confused with Twilight, a so-called “modern-day love story between a vampire and a human,” based on Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling novel and set in rural Washington, nor with HBO’s True Blood, the novel-based modern-day vampire-human love story set in Louisiana, Let the Right One In is the one that’s set in Sweden and transcendently good — at once a viscerally immediate sketch of adolescence and a highly stylish, coolly Nordic genre reboot, without even one single false note.
Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a chalky-featured, forlorn and morbidly curious 12-year-old, passes the suburban Stockholm winter by being bullied at school, slipping into wounded isolation and edging toward psychopathy. But he has a strangely alluring, dark-eyed new neighbor, Eli (Lina Leandersson), “more or less” his own age and more or less a girl, who insists they can’t be friends but seems to want to, and also seems to have her own unique burdens of outsiderhood to bear — most significantly, yes, that she’s an eternal being who feasts on human blood.
Their courtship is a perfect transgressive fantasy of mutual yearning: Eli’s evident weariness of immortality, compounded by a strange kind of survivor guilt, abets Oskar’s first unwieldy stirrings of desire. Importantly, the only other man in her life is Håkan (Per Ragnar), now a middle-aged caretaker, whose role Oskar seems destined to inherit.
But to recount these details at all is to overstate them. Lindqvist is a beautifully efficient dramatist, and Alfredson has an audience-respecting knack for achieving clarity without ever stooping to spell anything out. It helps, too, that the performances are all so extraordinary — wise, truthful, unselfconscious–and that the atmosphere is so exquisite. In the same way cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema captures the highly if negatively charged auras of darkness and coldness, Alfredson’s sound design team captures the emotive power of silence. So much of this movie’s presence has to do with palpable absence.
Still, for all its boreal beauty and narrative restraint, Let the Right One In does not want for genre satisfactions — some of them indeed quite gruesome and creepy. Its few scenes of violence are disturbing not for any gothic festoons or supernatural horror-flick gimmickry, but for being so grounded in familiar everyday details, so horrifyingly plausible. That goes as much for the schoolyard bullying as for the bloodletting, by the way, which only reaffirms the film’s fortitude and delicacy of presentation.
Given the vicissitudes of big-screen distribution and other perils of modern moviegoing, it does seem unfair that Let the Right One In and Twilight should be in theaters at the same time. Not because the latter has the advantage of a readymade fan base and a PR juggernaut, but because the former has the advantage of absolute superiority. Yes, this one is the relative rarity — the one to see if your faith in movies about vampires, or about people, has been shaken.