Twelve year old Oskar is a mess. Bullied at school and coming to terms with the separation of his parents, Oskar is at a crossroads. He can either lay down and take what the world seems intent on feeding him or he can stand up for himself. With the arrival of a mysterious young girl, Oskar realizes he is stronger than he thinks.
Let the Right One In is the 2008 Swedish horror film directed by Tomas Alfredson starring Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar, Lina Leandersson as Eli, and Per Ragnar as Eli’s guardian, Håkan. The film is based on the 2004 novel of the same name written by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also penned the screenplay).
Let the Right One In is easily one of the best vampire horror films ever made. It’s so good, I’d go a step further and say that, regardless of its genre, it’s a hell of a film. I’ve heard people call it their favorite romantic drama and I wouldn’t disagree. One thing is for certain – Let the Right One In is a unique and subtly nuanced film.
Despite the human dramas unfolding within the story – a divorce, school bullying, puberty, relocation – there are some darkly sinister themes threaded within the very touching story of discovery and first love. Yes there are vampires, but there are also pedophiles and sadists.
The film’s subject matter is complicated in a way that has a tendency to make people feel uncomfortable.
I’m talking specifically about the relationship between Eli and guardian, Håkan. Håkan – who is a middle aged man – has a (suggested) sexual relationship with Eli. And while it later becomes clear that Eli – as a vampire who does not age – has known Håkan since he was a young boy, there is something very unsettling about the notion that the two have an intimate relationship.
In the book, it is clearer that Håkan is meant to be seen as a pedophile. Lindqvist, I think, made some very smart moves in adapting his work to the screen – dulling the edge of the relationship between these two being one.
The suggestions about their relationship are enough to provide motivation and drive without unnecessarily exposing the audience to the unsavory reality. It’s important, pivotal even, to have this knowledge about their affair because, without it, it’s very difficult to understand how Håkan is able to take a human life, night after night, for decades without question and without complaint … until this very moment when he realizes Eli has set sights on their young neighbor, Oskar.
The other, relatively minor, changes from page to screen involved the muting of horror/vampire elements to bring the primary focus of the story to the main characters of Oskar and Eli. Both eleven years old at the time they were cast, Hedebrant and Leandersson turn in enviable, layered, and rich performances.
The horror elements are all so well incorporated that they lend a subtle, and more realistic unease to the atmosphere of the film – a point I cannot praise enough.
During a panel with creators of Dark Horse horror at this year’s Rose City Comic Con, we discussed – at length – what makes horror content work. The thing we kept coming back to was subtly – when the audience expects a thing to behave in a certain way and it suddenly, only slightly doesn’t, it sets a stage of discomfort. That discomfort can then be built upon to create a greater tension and ultimately, a very real, palpable terror.
Throughout Let the Right One In, you have a sense that something about Eli is just not right. This is elegantly constructed through character design (Eli goes from being clean to being dirty, from smelling good to smelling rotten) and by controlling what the audience knows about the character’s “condition”. It’s brilliant storytelling because while you’re already aware that something isn’t right about Eli, it isn’t until much later that the characters finally have the courage to discuss Eli’s true nature.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’d have noticed I’ve been overly cautious when (not) referring to Eli’s gender. There’s a reason for that…
Despite being performed by a girl, the character of Eli is actually a castrated boy – an act of violence perpetrated upon the character centuries before the events of the film. The filmmakers chose not to expound on this fact, choosing instead to simply hint upon it during a scene in which Eli is changing clothes and Oskar happens to see a nasty scar. I feel this is a twist that helps make Let the Right One In a truly special story about people – not genders – attraction, and identity.
Some films are defined by their special effects, their story arcs or through a profound and final reveal. Others, like Let the Right One In, become known for their atmosphere and their ability to evoke (very tangible) feelings in their audiences. Beyond its genius screenplay and strong performances, part of the film’s success is thanks to the environment in which the film was set and the unique and creative sound engineering employed.
The ice and snow are crucial to providing an environment that is as simultaneously as quiet as the tomb and as peaceful as an uninterrupted, rejuvenating sleep. It provides a stillness that makes the violence more profound. The landscape of winter may be an obvious simile to death, but its stark beauty feels like the only plausible companion to a character as complicated and poetic as Eli.
The sound engineering is perfection. A voice actress (Elif Ceylan) provides all – yes ALL – of Eli’s spoken dialogue. Leandersson was an 11-year old girl with an 11-year old girl’s voice at the time of shooting and the filmmakers wanted the character to sound older (like 200) and more menacing. The solution not only works it soars. The voice – and the noises Eli makes when attacking – are terrifically unsettling.
If you’re one of the few people who have yet to see the original version of this film, I encourage you to check it out. And do yourself a favor – be brave enough to watch it in its original form, in Swedish with English subtitles so you can savor the full, intended effect.