"Let the Right One In" is one of the essential horror films of the decade. It's also one of the most enthralling romances and one of the best films about children. While it contains spurts of violence that are as shocking as a splash of blood on snow, it is a touching, moody romance. Imagine a Venn diagram where preadolescent innocence, budding sexuality and escalating dread overlap, and you have located the strange territory this Swedish exercise in Northern Gothic occupies. Like "Pan's Labyrinth," it's a children's horror film for adults.
This is a story about two 12-year-olds. Or rather, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is a preteen, blond, frail, androgynous, and Eli (Lina Leandersson), a Gypsy-ish new arrival at his working-class housing complex, has "been 12 a long time," she says. They have loneliness in common; they both look like they just emerged from a Scandinavian ice-water plunge of moroseness. Oskar hasn't got a live-in father, nor many friends. The bullies at school call him "Piggy" and he's too weak and timid to fight back. But he holds a knife in his bedroom at night, talking back to unseen persecutors. He keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about violence.
Eli is tight-lipped about her circumstances, only comes out at night and has no one to play with. The children dislike each other at first, but gradually bond. Eli is odd -- she is eerily light on her feet when she jumps down from a jungle gym, her breath doesn't frost the winter air and she writes notes in a formal, 18th-century script.
Oskar is too naïve to pick up on her peculiar traits, too hungry for human contact to keep his distance. Eli recognizes something familiar in Oskar and encourages him to fight back against the boys who abuse him. A friendship between the loners begins. They become something more, like soul mates, with heartbreaking results.
Eli is a vampire. This could play outlandish, but the film remains grounded in restrained realism that keeps it from teetering over the edge. The film retains some of the timeless trappings of folklore while moving Eli's story into the 1980s. Eli shuns the sun, but her refuge is a drab apartment, not a crypt. She is served by an adult caretaker, Hakan (Per Ragnar), who ambushes unsuspecting passersby and fills jars with their blood. We are left to wonder what the exact nature of their relationship might be. Director Tomas Alfredson films Hakan's grisly attacks dispassionately, as matter-of-fact as a police procedural movie.
The focus of the story expands to include teachers in Oskar's school, older students and the alcoholic neighbors who become Hakan's prey. He's not as fast or strong as he once was, however, and in time, Eli is forced into a fateful decision. She must either move on alone or ask Oskar for his help. And who knows how far the outcast boy will go to keep his only friend safe?
"Let the Right One In" is a challenging, surprising tale that touches on the inherent suffering of the human condition. Leandersson's eyes are dark wells of infinite sadness. Alfredson and his cast discover delicate, ambiguous emotional states that I've never witnessed on the movie screen before -- subtle emotions that lift "Let the Right One In" far above its horror genre. There are gory shocks here, and a quick, macabre shot of Eli's stitched-up groin, connecting her vampirism to menstruation (Hammer's "Brides of Dracula" never addressed that issue). But these shockers are doled out scrupulously and occur in a story that unfolds with the natural rhythm of life, while other fright films try too hard and stumble in their efforts. "Let the Right One In" aims for a different, unexpected target and succeeds. It deserves to be called great.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186