The vampire myth is a horror subgenre fertile for use as a metaphor. From your basic mortal desires about living forever young to the physical ardor of love to parables about AIDS, Christianity, or high school, the vampire is a kind of equal-opportunity examiner of the dark night of the soul.
Interestingly, what makes the new Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In work is that it doesn't operate as a metaphor for anything. The thematic elements come from the human characters — who seem to have found themselves stuck in a vampire plot almost incidentally.
Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a 12-year-old boy living near Stockholm in the early 1980s. The target of schoolyard bullies, Oskar opens the film dreaming of getting revenge on his tormentors, telling them, "Squeal like a pig," as he stabs the air with a knife.
Moving into the apartment next door to Oskar in the dead of night is an old man, Håkan (Per Ragnar), and a young girl, Eli (Lina Leandersson). Tentatively, Oskar and Eli strike up an acquaintance, bonding over a Rubik's Cube, taking gradual steps toward friendship on a playground in front of the apartment building.
Meanwhile, Håkan is out each night attacking strangers and draining their blood into plastic containers. After a botched kill, Håkan comes back home without any blood. Eli furiously goes out on her own, revealing her monstrous secret as she tears into a drunk walking home.
For the first hour-plus, these bits of action and a few others only briefly punctuate the delightfully glacial pace of the film. What emerges is a character study of Oskar as he experiences the universal pain of coming of age — angst and alienation as he's picked on at school and uncomforted by his broken home. Eli is an inert character in regards to Oskar. He's drawn to her because she seemingly poses no physical or emotional threat to him.
Let the Right One In is adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel. The script holds at bay for a long time almost everything you'd expect from a vampire movie. Instead, it nourishes a pre-Columbine school-time tension and gets a lot of mileage out of Oskar and Eli's sweet, perpendicular relationship. Tomas Alfredson scores major points for his understated direction. Atmospheric but not compulsively so, the film exists in a place of perpetual snowdrifts under the glare of winter light.
At some point midway, I stopped taking notes — which hasn't ever happened before watching something I'm reviewing. I was completely immersed in the film. But, in the last 30 minutes or so, when the vampires really takes center stage, I started taking notes again. The magic had worn off as the film finally gets around to putting its own spin on all the old vampire tropes. The more the plot stuff happens, the more the movie loses its spark.
Not that the mythical creature in Let the Right One In isn't without its charms. Eli is unattractive — not to say ugly, just that she's not goth beautiful or dolled up against type as is the case with almost every other cinematic female vampire. Eli is more like a descendant of Nosferatu, perfectly animalistic when the blood lust takes her. And, in focusing on the vampire's need rather than the victim's fear and in abiding by the less-is-more theory of horror, Let the Right One In makes for a very creepy experience.
I can't help but think Let the Right One In is better in every way than the re-relaunch of Friday the 13th (opening the same day). Jason wouldn't stand a chance against Eli and Oskar.
Let the Right One In
Opening Friday, February 13th
Studio on the Square