If Ingmar Bergman were to make a vampire film, “Let the Right One In” would be that film. And not just because it’s Swedish: the whole thing feels strangely “Bergmanian”, from the snowscapes to the themes of loneliness and violence to the sparse and often darkly humorous dialogue. Crazy things happen — the kind of crazy things that are supposed to happen in a vampire movie– but they happen in such a sleepy atmosphere that you may not realize just what’s going on.
“Let the Right One In” is about a 12 year old vampire, but don’t confuse it with “Twilight” — those vampires, and vampire-lovers, are much more beautiful, sex-obsessed, and impossible to identify with than these. “Right One” is equal parts about being 12 – lonely, confused, and awkward, slowly becoming aware just how strange and sad the world is — and about being a vampire – blood-obsessed, violent, creepy, odd, and horrifying. It’s miraculous that director Tomas Alfredson manages to keep both of these themes in balance, and yet there is never a moment in the film that feels forced, never a change in tone that feels sudden or jolting.
Oscar is a lonely blonde kid somewhere in Stockholm. He is the only child of a single mother. He is mercilessly bullied at school, and even the teachers get in on the mockery, in that way that terrible teachers can make a strange kid’s life that much worse. He cuts crime stories out of the newspaper and keeps them in a photo album. From the way he threatens a tree with a knife, he looks to be well on his way to becoming Travis Bickle.
Then he meets Eli. She can’t eat candy, and doesn’t know when her birthday is. She is a wizard with his Rubik’s Cube. Also, she smells funny and “can’t remember” how to be cold. In a word, she is odd, and alone. Just like Oscar. They strike up a tentative friendship, which turns into a romance – at least, as much of a romance as 12 year olds can understand; more about curiosity and the status that comes from having a girlfriend at that age than about breathy kisses and sexy sweat. “Do you do anything special when you go steady?” Eli asks Oscar. “No. Not really,” he answers. “Then we can go steady,” she says. Is she worried about being a vampire, or is she just being a 12 year old girl?
Because you’ve probably guessed by now that Eli is a vampire. There are no fangs, no glowing eyes, and certainly no semiautomatic weapons. She looks like a 12 year old girl, but sounds – and occasionally moves – like a creature of eternal night. Also, she is a lifeline for Oscar. He stops threatening trees with his knife. She tells him to stand up to the bullies, and he does so, sending one of them to the ER. The teachers don’t seem to mind. And when the bully’s big brother comes after Oscar, Eli’s got his back.
Yes, that’s the sweet way to watch “Let the Right One In.” It’s about a good, kind vampire who befriends a little boy and helps him out. The amazing thing about this movie is that there is an entirely other way to see it.
At the beginning, Eli has a “tender” – a man who rents apartments for her, covers the windows with cardboard, and then goes out with a knife, a funnel and a jug to murder people and drain their blood. Eli’s not very nice to him, but he is completely devoted to her. Completely. One wonders about him. How long has he had this job? Was he once an infatuated, lonely twelve year old boy as well? When, um, something bad happens to him, Eli immediately crawls into bed with Oscar. That’s when he asks her to go steady with him. You see where this is going.
And yet here’s another way to see it — Eli is simply doing what she must to survive. She pleads with Oscar, “Please, please, be me for a little while…just a little while… you would kill if you could – to get revenge. I kill because I have to.” In a marvelously paced subplot (it’s amazing to me how much we care about this secondary set of characters, considering how little screen time they get) we witness another woman become a vampire by accident, and realize that this is probably what happened to Eli, as well. She didn’t choose to be the way she is. She just chooses to keep living, same as everyone else. The way “Let the Right One In” balances the normal emotional needs of Eli the 12 year old with the otherworldly needs of Eli the Vampire – and then reflects those needs, dark and otherwise, in the characters around her – makes it a masterful cinematic achievement, and one of the best movies of 2008.
- if you always wished Ingmar Bergman had made a vampire movie.
- if you enjoy movies that are alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, weird, quiet, funny, touching and sad.
- if you saw “Twilight” and were really disappointed.
- if you saw “Twilight” and thought it was the best movie ever.
- if you can’t be bothered to read subtitles.
- if you don’t know, or care, who Ingmar Bergman is, and don’t understand why I keep talking about him, since he had nothing to do with this movie.
Postscript: I hear that “Let the Right One In” was originally released on DVD with significantly dumbed down subtitles. I have no idea why a studio would do this, but they’ve corrected the problem. Make sure you look for the DVD with the “theatrical subtitles” tag on it.