One might think that it was terrible luck for Let the Right One In, a small Swedish vampire movie, to hit American theaters alongside the Twilight juggernaut, but I suspect the timing was actually a blessing (perhaps even intentional). The slow-moving subtitled film can’t actually compete with Stephenie Meyer’s massively successful franchise, but it can piggyback on the vampire madness as a kind of counterprogramming. Contrarians and snobs, who might otherwise have overlooked the moody little genre flick, will seek out Let the Right One In so they can rave about the good vampire movie, the one that doesn’t feature constipated acting, simplistic sex-is-bad messaging, and goofy sparkle-skin mythology. You laugh, but obviously the trick worked on at least one person.
The ironic twist is that Let the Right One In turns out to be a genuinely great movie—disturbing and haunting and beautifully filmed—and it deserves more than to be used as an ineffectual shiv in the side of a dumb Tiger Beat blockbuster. I hope that the audience it attracts with spite takes the time to admire its subtleties and appreciate it not just for what it isn’t (i.e., Twilight) but for what it is.
The protagonist of Right One is twelve-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), bullied by his classmates, neglected by his parents, and terribly lonely. His life brightens somewhat when Eli (Lina Leandersson) moves in next door. She tells him that she, too, is twelve years old—more or less—and the two become friends, but there’s something not quite right about Eli. She doesn’t seem to feel the cold, she is stronger and more agile than your average prepubescent, and she only comes out to play when the sun is down.
Eli’s true nature is obvious, of course, and Right One doesn’t make a secret of it (though the circumstances of her living situation reveal themselves only gradually). The suspense comes in how her relationship with Oskar develops—and what the ramifications of that will be. Screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist, adapting his own novel, keeps the text intriguingly open: both Oskar and Eli are complex characters, and two moviegoers could easily reach different conclusions about the significance of the film’s ending, even about whether it’s “happy” or not.
One of the more interesting choices is to give Eli a slightly feral quality, making her something between a human and a wild animal. The filmmakers subtly add growls and purrs to the soundtrack in a few key scenes, and Leandersson, the young actress, delivers an uncanny performance, eerily self-possessed but with an edge, a hunger, that keeps the girl from ever seeming cuddly or pitiable. In short, Eli is a predator, but only in the way that a wolf is a predator: she is amoral, not immoral.
Frankly, Let the Right One In unnerved me. The photography—which makes great use of long middle-distance shots and a muted, grey-blue color palette punctuated by hints of red—further adds to the tale’s pervasive eeriness, quietly ramping up the tension through the slow early scenes and making some of the later scenes truly frightening without having to stoop to melodrama or exploitation.
The total effect is mesmerizing. I can’t seem to shake the final scene, which manages to be at once tender and deeply troubling. Vampire myths have been around for centuries—and they’ve been an avoidable fictional fad for months—but Let the Right One In still finds a way to make this one fresh and chilling and unforgettable.