At long last, the much-acclaimed Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In has made it to my local cinema, so I went along to see if it lives up to the praise. It’s certainly different, which is a good start; but I am having trouble deciding what to make of it, the reasons for which will, I hope, become clear. I’m even uneasy about calling it a ‘vampire film’ because, although a vampire is central to the movie, the tone and affect of Let the Right One In are so far away from those we normally associate with vampire films that it almost feels as though it doesn’t belong in the same category. For similar reasons, I wouldn’t describe this as a ‘horror movie’ — yes, there is horror, gore, even some scares; but they don’t seem to me to be the film’s main purpose. Let the Right One In feels more like a drama than anything else.
We meet twelve-year-old Oskar, a weedy kid who lives with his mother in a miserable-looking tenement block. He is fascinated by murders, keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and a dagger under his mattress, and play-acts attacking people. The reason he does all these things is because he’s being bullied at school. But it seems Oskar may have found a friend, in the shape of Eli, a girl of (apparently) his own age who has just moved in next door. She urges the boy to stand up to the bullies — which he does, striking Conny, his chief antagonist, around the head with a stick, splitting open Conny’s ear. Naturally, Conny doesn’t take this lying down, and seeks revenge of his own, recruiting his older brother to do the job.
Whilst all this is going on, Oskar is falling in love with Eli. Unfortunately for him, she’s not really a girl, but a vampire, responsible for a number of brutal killings, committed by both herself (simply grabbing hold of people and gnawing away at their necks), and her adult assistant (who gasses his victims, hoists them up, then slits their throats). As the nature of those killings may suggest, there’s a strong sense of realism about the way vampirism is handled in the film, with relatively little in the way of anything overtly supernatural (making that all the more effective when it does come — witness what happens when Eli tries to enter somewhere without first being invited in). This is also part of the larger visual style of Let the Right One In, which is very distinctive, with stark compositions and a washed-out palette. There’s also some good use of scenery, with (for example) the claustrophobic appearance of Oskar’s apartment building contrasting with the wide open landscapes of the countryside, where his father lives; which mirrors the contrasting emotions Oskar feels when he stays with each of his parents.
So, Let the Right One In has an interesting and striking approach and style; but I feel it falls down a little when it comes to telling the story. For one thing, the film focuses so tightly on Oskar and Eli and their relationship that surrounding elements can feel somewhat ; disconnected; this adds to the film’s ambience, but I did have particular trouble with the aftermath of Oskar’s hitting Conny — we know that the school rang his parents, but then Oskar’s school life seems to carry on much as it did before, which didn’t ring true for me.
Actualy, I think Oskar in general is the movie’s weak link. Lena Laendersson is thoroughly convincing as such an old, powerful being in the guise of a slight twelve-year-old girl (though apparently her voice was overdubbed, which I couldn’t tell); but Kåre Hedebrant’s performance as Oskar seems a little too ‘one note’ — I didn’t gain much sense of Oskar changing over the course of the film, when that surely should have been the movie’s key transformation.
Still, Let the Right One In is worth seeing, because it is the experience of seeing the film — its atmosphere — that really impresses (such that I’ll even let the movie off its deus ex machina ending). But it’s best to go in without any preconceptions of what it will be like. I suspect this is a film that wull reward repeated viewings, once you have a better idea of what it’s probably aiming for. Given time, of course, I’ll be able to find that out for myself.