With the cinematic love story on the endangered species list (SATC has a lot to answer for), it’s truly gratifying when something as romantic, lovely and sweetly satisfying as “Let the Right One In” appears on the horizon. It restores your faith in men. In dating. In the whole myth that someone special is out there, and he’s going to stick by you forever. However, there’s one minor hitch — this is a vampire movie, and the love story happens between two 12-year-olds.
Directed by Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson and based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, “Let the Right One In” is typical of an emerging genre best described as Swedish horror. Spurred by the success of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” adaptations, Swedish films of the last five years have shed their Ingmar Bergman chains and pursued entertainment. Swedish films of late are about sizzling design, plot contrivances and surprises, blood spattering artistically against iced-up windows. “Let the Right One In” has already been picked up for a Hollywood remake, directed by “Cloverfield’s” Matt Reeves. “Let the . . . ” is a love story, yes, but it’s by no means a feel-good love story — mindful of prickly, discomforting 1990s vehicles such as “The Crying Game.”
Set in an era when Leonid Brezhnev’s speeches were announced over the radio, the story unfolds in a bland Stockholm suburb in the dead of winter. The protagonist is 12-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a boy so pale and blonde he seems to melt right into his surroundings and exist as an entity unnoticed and passed over. Neglected by his divorced parents and bullied at school, Oskar collects newspaper clippings of murder incidents for fun and takes nocturnal walks through his apartment complex. One evening he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson) who just moved in next door. Oskar is exalted, is there a chance she could be his girlfriend? But closer inspection shows that Eli doesn’t exactly fit the bill: she’s extremely weird, exudes a funky odor and her skin is always freakishly cold. Still, she declares herself to be on his side, and that’s enough for Oskar. “How old are you really?” Oskar asks Eli, and she replies frankly, “I’m around 12. But I’ve been around 12 for a very long time.”
As Oskar and Eli become closer, there’s another subtextual love story that’s no less interesting — between Eli and the middle-aged Hakan (Per Ragnar) who appears at first to be a father or a guardian. His main occupation is stalking and killing victims for Eli’s dinner and to get the maximum amount of blood from a single kill he hangs them upside down and cuts open their throats. It doesn’t always work though, and Eli fumes and frets against the older man’s ineptitude like a thwarted lover, while Hakan can barely hide his jealousy toward Oskar.
Eli and Oskar’s relationship is understandable if not always palatable, but the Hakan-Eli bond is a mystery. He’s willing to go to any lengths to “protect” Eli and carries around a vial of sulfur, so that if he ever gets caught, he can destroy his own facial features and vocal cords. Eli’s attitude toward him is ambivalent — she’d rather be less dependent on his devotion and more free to be herself. So when Hakan makes an untimely exit from her life, Eli is merely a little saddened, but not devastated.
Alfredson’s carefully composed visuals enhance the feeling of subtle horror and creepiness — Eli and Oskar are never a cute or demonstrative couple (their relations remain chaste throughout) though in some scenes they’re more compelling than any pair of red-hot lovers. Alfredson’s not interested in passion (sexual or otherwise) but studies how alienation and intense loneliness bring two people together, and the slow realization that they cannot live without each other. If you’ve forgotten what that feels like, this film brings it all back.