Let the Right One In (Thomas Alfredson, Sandrew Metronome, 2008)
Updated: Mar 15, 2021
A grisly ode to Sweden’s forgotten children, Thomas Alfredson’s seminal Nordic fable revitalised the spirit of the vampire film with originality and soul. Twelve years on, it remains a creative pinnacle in the genre
Twelve-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) exists on the fringes. Peering nervously through streaks of tufty blonde hair, his pastel complexion seems to merge with the carpets of white enveloping each and every frame. Isolated from his schoolmates, he spends his days ponderously roaming the frost-ridden courtyards of his local estate, kicking up thick clumps of snow, twiddling a Rubik’s cube, talking to himself. We warm to his childlike skulking. His inquisitive, curious temperament intrigues us. Of course, this is a boy we have all seen before. We wouldn’t have noticed him. We wouldn’t even have paid him a second thought, but here, on the screen, his sadness is striking. With family life fragmented, life is a purely solitary venture. Days are filled with meaningless distractions and pointless pastimes. There isn't much in the way of happiness here.
One night, he meets Eli, (Lina Leandersson) an enigmatic girl who’s just moved into the neighbourhood. She’s strange, inscrutable. She speaks in a funny way. There’s something peculiar about the way she moves... Something off about the way she carries herself. But she’s not like the others. She listens. To Oskar’s amazement, she’s actually interested in what he has to say. She doesn’t tease and torment him like the kids at school. Soon, his seclusion becomes more bearable. Things seem to be looking up. Then Oskar discovers his new friend is a vampire.
Two years before Matt Reeves bulldozed the humanity out of Let the Right One in with his brash Hollywood remake, Thomas Alfredson’s original was released in theatres across Sweden. A strange beast, here was a film that acknowledged the lore of cinema’s bloodiest creature, yet rather boldly dared to transpose the mythology into an entirely original sphere. The usual eroticism was absent, the gothic iconography sparse. Gone were the shape-shifting bats and foreboding castles, missing were the murky crypts and quivering crucifixes. An endless recycling of time-worn clichés had steadily eroded the most compelling aspect of the vampire mythology, and Alfredson knew this. Doing away with the superfluous symbols and expected narrative beats, he decided to fix his lens on the more overlooked elements. By chronicling a tale of neglected children in the browbeaten suburbs of working-class Stockholm, Let the Right One In is a film that dares to humanise cinema’s most bloodthirsty antagonist.
Taking its title from that age-old vampiric tradition of invitation, Alfredson confronts topics seldom explored within these realms: what did it mean to open oneself up to this creature, to be truly vulnerable to its whims and dangers? What did it mean to be hospitable and welcoming in the face of apparent callousness? Could this thing ever be perceived as a friend or companion? And what purpose did the vampire serve, if its innate brutality was ultimately overshadowed by the horrors of humanity itself? With novelist John Ajvide Lindqvist penning both the literary and filmic incarnations of these questions, Right One leaves us with one sobering, powerful afterthought: when all is said and done, just who is the real monster here?
Indeed, all of these time-honoured tropes had undergone something of a transformation. Thomas Alfredson’s vampire was instilled with that sad, ill-at-ease awkwardness that defines the experiences of so many children teetering on the edge of puberty, unsure of themselves, their worlds, their identities. Cast in a permanent moment of stasis, Eli exists frozen in this realm, her physical stagnancy a tragic reflection of the exploitations she’s endured. ‘I’m twelve. But I’ve been twelve for a long time,’ she drearily explains to Oskar. The questionable connection she shares with Håkan, her Renfield-esque minder/guardian, invites us to infer some kind of abusive undertone in their relationship. In Lindqvist’s source-novel, Håkan is a vindictive paedophile, and here, the notion of children unburdening themselves to exploitative forces becomes an affecting through-line in the film's narrative. Alfredson's condemnation of absent families and their careless neglect is unmistakable. Accentuating a colour palette that conveys the chilly indifference of his Scandinavian backdrop, the ubiquitous presence of snow and ice becomes something of a visual indication of this distance. Constantly framing action in extreme long shots and shallow focus, the aesthetical focus of Right One exemplifies the cold, detached relations of those who should care, but evidently don’t.
Amidst all of this coldness, an absurdity emerges: the families of Alfredson’s film are so dysfunctional that monsters constitute a more viable form of guidance. Oskar’s father is firmly established as an inattentive drunk, inhibited by his own self-absorbed vices, more concerned with alcohol and gambling than his own son. Oskar’s relationship with his mother is so peripheral that he is incapable of divulging truths regarding his school yard oppressors. Lying about his injuries, the fact that he’d rather associate himself with a murderous vampire as opposed to his own mother is testament to the decay of family unit... but in the end, does it really matter? All things considered, what’s right for him here? Emphasising the intimacy between Oskar and Eli with frequent close-ups of hands clasped together, Alfredson constantly draws attention to the implication of these cherished embraces. From Oskar's perspective, Eli is a benevolent presence; a subversion of the vampire's traditionally menacing existence in horror fiction. Rather than the typically villainous manifestation of evil, she is a source of comfort, consolation… even protection. This rapport, though shared with an ostensible ‘monster,’ is central to the film’s thesis. Regardless of outward appearances, letting the right people into our lives is perhaps the most important aspect of growth and happiness. In Alfredson’s film, it just so happens that the 'right' person might just be a vampire, though this reading does prove uncertain. Though often associated with innocence and childlike behaviours, Alfredson refuses to position Eli and Oskar's relationship as wholly innocuous. In two specific instances, she becomes significantly older for brief moments, insinuating a more sinister association. Is Eli merely in search of another enabler? Could Oskar grow to become another Håkan? Owing to Alfredson’s ambivalence, it is ultimately the spectator who is left to ascertain what such interactions truly mean.
Alfredson’s story of childhood companionship overrode the expected sensual romanticism so many major studios had expended in throughout the 2000s, and in a year were Twilight was running riot at the box-office, it was a much-needed adrenaline shot for the genre. Of course, there’s that unfortunate CGI sequence that sticks out like a sore thumb, but on the whole, this is an excellent meditation on the bonds and connections of lost children, and for this writer, a sure-fire contender for one of the greatest vampire films ever made.
Let the Right One In is currently available on Blu-Ray, DVD and Amazon Prime