About once a year, a filmmaker succeeds at creating truly idiosyncratic genre fare, employing all the tropes of a standard stock of classics (such as giant monsters in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host) and working with them to create a stirring, original vision. This year, the well-deserved prize goes to Tomas Alfredson for his gentle depiction of child vampires in Let the Right One In.
The story is simple. In a small rural community on the Scandinavian countryside, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a young introvert, is having trouble fitting in. Tormented by a pack of vicious school bullies, he spends most of his days longing for a better life while physically fighting for the one he does have. That is right up until he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the mysterious new girl next door. Secretly salivating over the prospect of young love, Oskar begrudgingly befriends Eli, taking careful steps to what he thinks will result in a blossoming relationship. It will, but first both of them have to deal with Eli’s unusual eating habits—the kind that require her older companion to go out in the middle of the night and slit the throats of random bystanders in the nearby park to drain them of their blood. When bodies begin to pile up all over town, a set of unfortunate circumstances leaves Eli on her own to fend dietetically as she trains Oskar to fight back against his young agitators.
What makes Alfredson’s film so unique is how he focuses the action. Instead of treating the material as a violent revenge story, fraught with malicious intent, he chooses to explore the more tender aspects of the characters. Eli and Oskar’s relationship is built on the standards and practices of any two twelve-year-olds, testing each other’s trust and loyalty while fumbling through the awkwardness of what it means to “go steady.” It is only then that Alfredson begins to inject the vampirism into the story, using it as a tool to tell a different age-old tale. A childish game of chicken becomes a potentially deadly exercise when Oskar forces Eli to break the rule of entering a home without being invited. Eli’s early morning fleeing from Oskar’s bed to escape the sunlight gives her the appearance of standard, fickle adolescent. It is as if Alfredson began with a checklist for how to make a coming-of-age film and then found a way to teach each of its lessons using the vampire handbook.
With this mentality in mind, the other elements seem to fall into place. Hoyt van Hoytema’s dreamlike camera work gives the snowy Swedish landscape a dark, storybook feel, while Johan Söderqvist’s haunting score intrigues you at every turn. And while Hedebrant acquits himself admirably as the cautious Oskar, so beaten down by the small world around him that it takes a considerable amount to gain his trust, Leandersson churns out one of the more beautifully nuanced child performances of all time as the kid-in-mind vampire carrying the weight of 101-years-of-living on her shoulders and trying to find love and companionship in her lonely, gypsy lifestyle.
Slowly but surely, the film does creep its way towards the ultimately inevitable violence that hangs over the characters with impending doom, but not before transporting the audience back to a place of early romance, a place where your palms got clammy and a cold sweat dripped down your brow as you tiptoed your way across the playground to talk to the girl whose name you’ve been writing in your notebook over and over during math class. For die-hard genre fanatics, rest assured, there are plenty of smartly executed, hip gore sequences buried deep inside Let the Right One In. You just get the pleasure of digging past its heart before finding them.
— Michael Lerman