Film Review: Let the Right One InIn this effectively dark-minded Swedish chiller, a lonely and bullied boy finally finds companionship with the young girl living next door. Unfortunately, she’s a vampire.
Microscopic in its attention to every single detail in sight, the intermittently funny but mostly horrifying Swedish film Let the Right One In starts off as a parable about a young boy’s loneliness before ending on a note of shockingly mordant humor. Set in a suburb of Stockholm in the early 1980s, the film trades in a particularly Nordic brand of isolation right from the start. The sound-suffocating snow, the Warsaw Pact-style apartment blocks, ratty clothing, and general air of bleak loneliness are particularly palpable. Quietly, blankly alone in this quiet world is Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a 12-year-old who gets endlessly bullied at school. Then at night, he returns home to a quiet apartment and distant mother that only intensify his isolation. Oskar dreams of revenge, playing for hours by himself in the apartment complex’s courtyard, stabbing with his little knife at imaginary enemies and scrapbooking news clippings about a spate of gruesome murders plaguing the area.
In the apartment next door lives a mysterious couple: an older man, Hakan (Per Ragnar), and a girl about Oskar’s age, Eli (Lina Leanderson). Long before Oskar is aware of what’s going on, the film clues viewers in that Eli’s older companion is responsible for at least some of those murders. With workmanlike efficiency, Hakan waits in isolated areas for single victims, whom he then chloroforms and kills, then hangs upside down in order to drain their blood into some dirty old jugs. It’s less the ecstatic mania of many cinematic serial killers than it is the work of a not particularly skilled mechanic, looking for the easiest way to harvest a supply of blood for young nightstalker Eli.
Oskar—a sleepwalking and watchful sort of pre-teen with girlish features ripe for bullying—doesn’t realize that Eli’s a vampire when she suddenly appears one night on the jungle gym in the courtyard where he’s playing; he simply sees a fellow lost soul. So begins an awkward but smartly realized friendship dance in which Eli and Oskar warily circle each other in the manner of children unused to close companionship (though it’s made clear that Eli is in actuality much older than her physical appearance). Just as Oskar seems to warm to the idea of having an actual friend (all the while putting up the arrogantly defensive front of your standard 12-year-old boy), Eli’s time in the building seems destined to be cut short, after a couple of botched murders make her position there less tenable.
Director Tomas Alfredson, working from a minimal script by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who adapted his bestselling novel), evinces here a nearly preternatural amount of control over his material. Starting from a resonant (especially for young adult audiences) horror premise, he glides between the easier genre signposts, keeping the tone on a creepily even keel even when depicting the most bloodcurdling actions. Instead of relying on the old standbys of clamoring music and shock cuts, Alfredson builds a clammy feeling of cold terror through the marshaling of tiny details. Although this approach can be acutely observed to the point of being maddening—the overzealous sound design clangingly captures every drip of water, crunch of snow, or smacking of lips—it pays off in establishing an overarching feeling of isolated dread. A thin vein of black comedy runs through the whole story before erupting in a violent and semi-comedic climax that Stephen King would appreciate.
Even though by the end you may be clamoring for escape from this vacuum-sealed tomb of a film, returning to the sunlight outside the theatre has rarely felt more gratifying or well-deserved.