In the decade since the release of Let the Right One In, director Tomas Alfredson has made only two further films: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and The Snowman. Whether this is a languid approach, or a deliberate choice to pace himself, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that following this film would be daunting. It is one of the few horror films for which the first word to come to mind to describe it is ‘beautiful’. This is impressive when it is considered that many of the design choices are deliberately dowdy and – given that it’s set in 1981 – dated.
Let the Right One In tells the story of Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a bullied 12-year old living on an estate in a suburb of Stockholm. His lonely existence consists of an only intermittently warm relationship with his mother, and occasional trips to see his father. Onto his estate moves Eli (Lina Leandersson), seemingly also around 12, and living with what appears to be her father. As Eli and Oskar start to talk each night, their friendship develops. We learn that Eli is not 12 at all: she is a vampire. Her ‘father’ was actually a friend, once similar to Oskar. Håkan (Per Ragnar), is now older, and the dynamic between the timeless Eli and this man in late-middle age carries the dynamic of a dead, resentful marriage. He is useful for getting blood for Eli, and will make the ultimate sacrifice to keep her well. The film explores the friendship of two people who find themselves divorced from the human race: one through bullying and loneliness, the other through physiology (her inability to go out in daylight), and lack of shared experience with others, given no one else needs to drink blood or fails to age.
The primary strengths of this film are its general ‘feel’ and sound-scape. It feels untouchable, somehow – like it is taking place in a snow globe. This is exaggerated further by the pale skin of the two leads, and generally muted colours; the film feels otherworldly, as this palette doesn’t quite exist in the real world. It is like a faded photo. The director of photography on this film was Hoyte van Hoytema, well-known to audiences for Her, Interstellar and Dunkirk. He makes good-looking films. He’s complemented by a restrained, beautiful score from Johan Söderqvist. Although a periodically elegant suite of music is provided – accented heavily towards strings – more often the film works with as little as possible. Long scenes have little sound other than the noises of the scene itself. This makes each individual sound more impactful, particularly as Eli and Oskar start communicating through the wall in morse code. The film has a fragility: from untouched snow, to quiet contemplation, to a weather pattern that is never anything other than calm and still, Let the Right One In shows a world that feels so brittle it would break if we could touch it.
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Much of what makes it special is that, as with a film like The Shining, it is being created by someone whose primary interest is not horror. Thus, what could have been a quirky vampire flick becomes a treatise on friendship. It looks at the beauty of people finding each other, how the best friendships see us overlook our differences and any social awkwardness we may have. Eli and Oskar see each other, not their respective social positions, or what they can give each other. It allows, too, that friendship is not always eternal. It can function very much like the arc of a love affair. Eli and Håkan have been together for decades. The love was deep, but they have run out of time. He is getting older – which may be a source of resentment for Eli, as she cannot age, and is noticeably colder to him than he to her. He is getting sloppy also, in his murders – killings that he must perform to get her the human blood she needs. He cuts a ghostly figure throughout this picture: appearing at windows; tensely watching Eli and Oskar build their relationship; finding himself unable to connect to his new neighbours. The companionship of Eli exacts a price: a duty to kill; constant moves of residence – as the body count increases wherever they go; and a distancing effect from the human race. That Eli seeks a 12-year old boy as Håkan’s replacement raises questions as to whether she is exploiting innocence in a child who cannot understand fully what he is getting into.
Eli is an old soul, seeing no analogue for herself in the society around her. She tries to fit in, even wearing a jumper the second time she meets Oskar, when it becomes clear her cream shirt is not appropriate in sub-zero temperatures. The actress’s performance was overdubbed with a less feminine voice, to play up her essential androgyny. Generally, she looks tired – heavy around the eyes. Her life is spent living with one person, in a furniture-free apartment, surviving on the money made from trinkets, presumably taken from victims. She suffers badly from withdrawal-like symptoms when she cannot get blood, though there could be an analogue to menstrual pain, reflecting that Eli will live forever on the cusp of puberty.
Oskar has little levity in his life. His existence consists of daily sessions of being bullied, usually with an element of violence. We see him smile only rarely, in the absence of Eli: he has a single nice moment with his mum, as they are being playful while brushing their teeth. His father’s presence is too intermittent and unreliable to bring him stability. That these two found each other feels more than convenience or [on Eli’s part] exploitation.
Hammer films undertook another adaptation of the book in 2010, with the Chloë Grace Moretz-starring Let Me In. Whilst a fine adaptation, it simply doesn’t have the same… aura. As it reaches its tenth anniversary, Let the Right One In remains a work of beauty, the feel of which doesn’t really exist anywhere else.