Unbearably moving, crisply intelligent, and gorgeously lensed, Let the Right One In is a superb accomplishment on every level: a remarkable coming-of-age story, a disturbing horror film, and a devastating romance. Ice-cold and incredibly captivating, it’s one of the best films of the year.
In the early 1980s, Oskar, a quiet, lonely 12-year-old boy in Blackeberg, a suburb of Stockholm, meets Eli, a strange girl-who-may-not-be-a-girl. Their initial bond develops into deep friendship, with Eli becoming a protector while trying to control her significant bloodlust.
The film relies heavily on the chemistry between its two young stars, and according to records, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson spent a year conducting open casting calls all over the country before settling on Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, who were both 11 years old at the time of shooting. His intuition served him well, as the two give child performances of astonishing depth and insight. Hedebrant, as Oskar, is fragile yet brave, introverted yet uncannily effective at establishing connection, conveying fear yet never resorting to victimhood. And Leandersson is almost supernaturally bright for her age (Alfredson has described her as “very wise”), and destroys the role, striking an incomparable, delicate balance between friend and aggressor.
Screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist adapted the story from his 500-page novel of the same name, which was released in 2004. On the page, Lindqvist had ample room to fully explore a number of fascinating aspects cut out of the film, including the true nature of the heartbreaking relationship between Eli and her guardian Håkan, as well as more of Eli’s journey. Alfredson has stated that he intentionally worked with Lindqvist to strip out many elements of the novel and focus on Oskar and Eli. As such, Lindqvist’s screenplay is relatively spare, with minimal dialogue, requiring much to be evoked through performance, mood, and cinematography.
Fortunately, Alfredson’s direction is nothing short of a miraculous quasi-debut (he previously shot a hybrid film/television series called Four Shades of Brown in 2004 with his comedy group Killinggänget). The climatic pool scene, all misdirection and jaunty angles, is laced with intrigue, then menace, and finally terror. It will be cinematic inspiration for multiple upcoming filmmakers in terms of building a crescendo of suspense and wonder.
Alfredson is assisted by Dutch-Swedish director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, who captures beautiful frozen landscapes and fashions powerful, unforgettable imagery out of the horrors on display. The score by Johan Söderqvist is similarly complementary: efficient and evocative without being overpowering. Even the film’s title – one of the most brilliant narrative précis in a long time – alludes to a quintessential, harrowing scene that presents one dimension of the weight of the vampiric myth in a few moments.
Indeed, against all odds, Let the Right One In never tips too firmly in one direction; it never betrays its horror origins as first and foremost a vampire tale in order to pursue “higher” aims, and is filled with classic setpieces, like the simple impact of sunshine in a hospital room. It also never loses sight of the centrality of the link between Oskar and Eli, or the density of its themes, or its undeniable arthouse ambitions. By walking such a fine line without stumbling, it becomes something entirely original: an atmospheric horror film with a beating heart, where the blood flows with great consequence and the violence hits hard.
When making a genre film, few filmmakers also look to make a vintage work of art. With Let the Right One In, Alfredson and his collaborators – who already streamline the source material – transcend folkloric boundaries by paying respect to them but never letting them define or limit them. In so doing, something almost unfathomable emerges: the first arthouse vampire film.