Sociologists take note: accidental exposure to Abba is no longer the greatest threat facing Sweden’s teenagers. For starters, there is the child murderer on the loose in Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. The killer’s peculiar method of draining his victims’ blood serves an even higher evil: feeding his vampire daughter, Eli (Lina Leandersson). Don’t dismiss the thriller as schlock with subtitles. Let the Right One In is a tender, gracefully shot coming of age tale with a slasher veneer. Its genre elements subside as Eli befriends Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), an outcast neighbor whose struggle with the local bullies is so extreme as to make bloodsucker company a relief.
The running joke here is that Oskar suffers more acute isolation than his undead companion. Eli, forever twelve, has practical, immediate concerns (fresh blood, heavy curtains, impatiently waiting to be invited into homes she visits) and is spared the pubescent speed bumps (divorced parents, idiot teachers, schoolyard thugs) that confront frail Oskar. The young vampiress meets Oskar as he fantasizes about the revenge he might have on his tormentors and coaxes the same violent defense mechanisms out of him that she yearns to suppress in herself. But both child actors imbue their characters with a sweet vulnerability and longing that elicit the kind of audience empathy rarely found in horror films. A potent scene in which Eli makes an unbidden entrance into a sullen Oskar's home (and the searing aftermath) illuminates the emotional heft that the movie offers as an antidote to the usual featherweight character development in current horror cinema.
Let the Right One In’s vampire story might serve as adolescent parable, but the movie respects its genre roots. The lighting is austere, alternating pitch black fright scenes with stark white, snowy landscapes. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography eschews gruesome close-ups for elegant wide shots. And Johan Soderqvist’s score spares viewers the cheap musical jolts that so often cue horror fans to jump in their sets. Still, Alfredson and writer John Lindqvist (upon whose novel the movie is based) do not take their film too seriously and include gleefully dark comic moments (particularly a school ice-skating trip gone fantastically awry) to lighten the somber mood.
Things only fall apart in the final scene, a tacked on coda that spoils what would have been a subtle conclusion. Let the Right One In is a horror film with few scares, a black comedy with few outright laughs. What kept it ticking until its very end was the fragile bond between Eli and Oskar and the fortitude Oskar’s supernatural friend inspired in him. But the movie ends not with a triumph of humanity but of the supernatural. It is a lame concession to genre norms, at its hoariest going so far as to hint at a sequel.