For our second examination of Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, Betsy Cass regales us of her perfect first viewing and her admiration for the film that launched “a boon of carefully crafted, cerebral horror.”

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I hate vampires. Or at least the comically lusty, gothic incarnations in the mold of Bram Stoker’s megahit. I’ll take a Nosferatu any day, but most recent representations have hewn to the Blade/Dracula 2000/True Blood bombast of slick and sexy bloodlust, with the occasional creepy moralizing of Twilight. There is just about nothing I find less compelling. So when I started hearing rumblings about a vampire film called Let the Right One In, I was extremely dubious, but the reviews coming out of early festival screenings, especially Fantastic Fest, were too rapturous to ignore. I at least had to check this thing out.

I didn’t have to wait long. The film was showing in the midnight screening series of the Chicago Film Festival. I carefully selected a seat in the back row of the non-raked section (the Shatner seats, as a film festival buff I know referred to them). I was on the aisle, with four empty seats right next to me.  I expected to be perfectly alone. But as the theatre began filling up, a man in his forties came up to me and asked if his family could use the four unoccupied seats. I rolled my eyes a little and said they were open. He asked me what I’d heard about the movie and admitted that he had no interest in seeing it himself. His teenage stepdaughter had spent the previous summer in Sweden, where everyone was talking about it, but there were no subtitled versions so she was desperate to finally watch it. He, too, was not into this “vampire stuff.” The family quickly started to unload heaps of hidden snacks, passing them down the row to me without even asking if I wanted them. And then the movie began to play.

I couldn’t even tell you what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn’t what I was seeing on screen. It was cold and precise, yet often heartfelt, punctuated by bursts of extreme violence. It stripped the usual vampiric sexuality from the story completely. Using children as the leads struck me as such a bold and definitive way for the story to turn its back on that particular trope of the genre and vampire Eli is often depicted in dirty clothes, smelling rancid and with old blood caked across her face. Everything felt perfectly in its place (okay all but ONE THING, which I will get back to later). It was one of those experience watching a film where you couldn’t imagine how everything came together so perfectly, to create such pristine dread, such a specific visual language and subtle layers of meaning.

So what does random stepdad have to do with this? We had been bonded before the movie even started by our total lack of expectations, which means we were also tied together as the movie blew our minds. We kept shooting glances at each other, widening our eyes or gleefully smiling, as if to say, “Did you just SEE that? Did you LOVE that?!” It was the living manifestation of that imaginary scenario where a film is completely transformed by watching it in a theatre with strangers. At the end of the night, we gave each other “the nod” and went our separate ways.

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In the decade since, there has been a boon of carefully crafted, cerebral horror that I think can be directly traced back to Let the Right One In. I don’t think you get It Follows or It Comes at Night or Raw or Hereditary without the influence of (and in some cases pretty clearly ripping off) Tomas Alfredson’s masterpiece. And while I very much like many of the movies that have come in its wake, I don’t think that any achieve the same heights of visual atmosphere and thematic complexity. A bullied boy and a harsh climate is a simple story, but the film finds ways to layer in ruminations on loneliness, sexuality, abuse, and sacrifice while still managing to never overplay its hand. The oppressive palate and claustrophobic realism craft the perfect environment to probe these creeping pressures in a liminal, naturalistic way.

I’ve seen the movie many times since that initial theatrical viewing, often showing it to bizarrely nonplussed friends. And while I still truly, truly love it, it is clear to me how much that theatrical experience did transform the film for me. I think we all had too much fun to really sit with the true horrors it contained. Every single thing in it can be summed up in one word: brutal. It’s not just the violence (and there are truly iconic and beautifully violent set pieces), but the conditions, the isolation, the people (both the other children and adults seem to exist on a scale between pathetic and sadistic), and even the friendship between main characters Oskar and Eli (or as some are wont to call it, the romance). I’ve no doubt that there is genuine affection between the two, but the inevitable end to their story is a horrific one.

They first meet on a jungle gym outside their apartment building, simply seeking friendship. The audience roots for this innocent bond, but we’re still rooting when friendship turns to a mutual need for protection, whatever the grotesque endpoint may be. Oskar needs help defending himself from the savage bullies at school. Eli needs a new companion, after her adult caretaker, Hakan, the man responsible for stringing up victims and draining their blood for her to drink, is caught in the act, forcing him to disfigure himself with acid and sacrifice himself to her. So eventually Eli and Oskar become bonded, sailing off into the proverbial sunset, Oskar smiling in a train car, tapping Morse code for “kiss” onto a trunk containing Eli. And for a moment it seems like we’re supposed to be happy for them. They seem happy to be together.

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As I mentioned earlier, many people refer to this film as a romance. And to see Eli and Oskar’s bond grow, and the happiness on his face in the final scene I can almost understand why. But to watch it again, to know that Oskar is on a path to becoming Hakan, to sacrificing everything, including eventually his life to Eli, and committing to murdering innocents in the dead of night along the way, is far from romantic. The film portrays these acts in their stark, barbaric reality. Oskar may have been fantasizing about stabbing someone when we first meet him in the film, but even as he’s about to come full circle, I don’t think he truly understands what’s being asked of him. His life is to be an itinerant life of secrecy, fear, violence and alienation. Eli will watch him become ruined and die, as she has done before (did her journey with Hakan or any of her previous companions start as one of love and friendship too?).

The movie seems to say there are no happy endings. There is no escaping the bitter Nordic cold, the cycles of abuse, the loneliness or the violence. There may be moments of satisfaction, but rarely from the wholesome childhood affections we strain to see. Most of the fulfillment the characters experience throughout the film is when committing or witnessing violence against others. Maybe with happiness impossible, it’s about finding a way to survive in a completely unforgiving world. That’s what Oskar and Eli are able to give each other. For a time. But at what cost?

Notes:

  • There is genuinely only one thing I would change about this film. Three works: CGI cat attack.
  • I love that the bully is clear dressed the most “American.”
  • Apparently Eli’s voice is dubbed the whole movie because they deemed the actress’s natural voice to be too high. Either they did a phenomenal job or I’m just way too busy reading the subtitles to notice.
  • Oskar squealing “Skrika, Skrika!” at the beginning of the film is the most iconic, not-necessary-to-translate exclamation this side of “Kiri kiri kiri!” from Odishon.
  • I actually thought the climax at the pool was a little too over the top for such a measured film the first time I saw it (even though as a standalone scene I thought it was fantastic). I’ve come around on it now as a reasonably elegant solution to not showing an even more absurd massacre. Or maybe it’s because so many horror movies lately are going with the “wait for it” method of batshit final acts that this seems sort of tame in comparison. But the first time you see that head plunge into the pool, it’s almost too awesome for a movie that definitely show not be described with that particular adjective.

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