I'm going to cheat a bit on this one. This is a review of Let the Right One In. By the time I finish typing this sentence, it will be the 4,724,049,182nd review of Let the Right One In on the Internet. Of those, nearly 4,724,049,173 of them do a better job of summarizing the flick than I could do. So, here's the lazy man's way out of this problem. I'm just going to link to one of those better reviews and avoid the heavy lifting. Click over to Arbogast, get the 411, and then come back if you're still curious about what I have to say.
Oh, hi. You're back. Okay, so I'll make with my little review now.
Critics have, I think, been both right and wrong about the much-lauded Swede vamp import Let the Right One In.
What are they right about?
I'm going to have to add my voice to the great mass of self-appointed Interweb pundits who have claimed that Let the Right One In was, hands down, 2008's best flick. An intense, moody, mature work of art, Let the Right One In is a confident success on almost every level.
Visually, the film smartly blends the painterly vistas directors like Greenaway and Hanke to the needs of its pulpy subject matter in a way that feels neither gimmicky nor like the slumming of dilettantes. Set among the grim blocks of a 1980s housing project and the bare, hypnotizing birch forests that surround the complex, the film has a strangely beautiful bleakness to it. One has to cast back to Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1997 detective thriller Insomnia, another art house provocation disguised as pulp fiction, to find a backdrop as powerfully grim.
The film relies on the acting chops of two child actors – a disaster-courting move that a lesser flick wouldn't have recovered from. Cleverly, the film escapes the trap of having the children communicate emotion by establishing a sort of affectless hyper-Method, the semi-official acting style of the Euro art scene, as a baseline. Characters in this film listen to somebody speak; then they pause, as if to ponder every possible nuance and shade of meaning of what they've heard; and then slowly reply in sentences so carefully measured and fully enunciated that one imagines the characters selecting the most appropriate phrases they can find out of a tiny stock of pre-made government-approved phrases designed by a committee following the same brutalist muses as the architects who designed the characters' block homes. It is, in its way, as fake and stylized as opera acting or the scene gnashing camp of Vincent Price, but it so perfectly fits with the rest of the film, the snow-blinded colors, pale and sickly interiors, and lifeless forests, that it doesn't jar. In a way, the short-lived debate over subtitling was somewhat irrelevant. How these characters talked was more important than anything they had to say. These characters speak in unpainted brick and frost.
Finally, the baggy, slow burn narrative structure is a deceptive trap; as it untangles, you realize that every thread was going to some into play somehow. The film's divergent story lines come together so effectively that anybody how has paid even the slightest attention is going to feel rewarded for their efforts. In fact, that's the brilliance of the LtROI's particular fusion of art house and genre filmmaking: The film demands you work a little, but then it is sure pay you for making the commitment.
There is a downside to making viewers feel like they've got to puzzle out the piece. Which brings us to the second obvious question of the piece.
What have reviewers got wrong?
Before we get into this, you should really go see the movie and decide what you think about it before I start running my mouth. Going beyond this point means you agreed to me running my mouth off.
For all the trash talking mainstream horror audiences have been eager to pile upon Twilight, there appears to be a near universal desire to turn Let the Right One In into little more than a slightly more toughened-up version of the same story. The relationship between Oskar and Eli has been described as "puppy love." Critics have suggested it is a tale of "friendship" between the inhuman Eli and the social misfit Oskar. The idea that this is a film about the awkwardness of first love has been proposed by several reviewers.
I think this interpretation misses the "horror" of this particular horror film entirely.
Early in the film we learn that vampires (cribbing an oft ignored part of vampire lore) are obsessive about puzzles. They are really good at them. Much better at them, actually, than humans are. I think that odd little fact is the key to the flick as a whole.
Eli doesn't love Oskar. She's trapping him. And he can't put the puzzle pieces together to see it.
The central plot of Let the Right One In - stripped of the post-Buffy, pseudo-Freudian, semi-Twilight Romanticism - is about a Dracula in search of a new Renfield. When the film opens, Eli is cared for by an aging, tired man named Hakan. Reviewers often describe Hakan as a father figure who is trying to keep Eli's existence a secret by killing for her. But Hakan isn't a father figure. He's the previous Oskar.
When Oskar and Eli first meet, she's hesitant to befriend him. As Hakan continues to fail at his task of finding fresh food for Eli, Eli's interest in Oskar grows. Eventually Hakan so botches a blood-gathering attempt that Eli must dispatch him. Curiously, Hakan's final attempt to secure blood for Eli is so poorly executed, viewers should, I think, consider the possibility that it was a suicide run.
She then attempts to gather food on her own, but without the beard of a "serial killer" to hide her feeding, she makes a hash of it. Not only does she arouse the suspicions of the other block residents, but she is spotted and unintentionally creates a new vampire who makes an even bigger mess of things.
At a loss, she approaches Oskar and, cleverly, gets him to drop his guard. As in much traditional vampire lore, the bloodsuckers can get you until you invite them into your home. Eli waits until Oskar's mother leaves the house one night and then comes to his door. She informs him that she has to be invited in. He asks what would happen if he didn't invite her. Here, she could say, "Good question. I'd be powerless to do shit to you in you home. In the interest of preserving some sort of power balance in this relationship – what we me being a vampire or fatal power and unknown age and you being a love struck 12 year old, perhaps I shouldn't come in." But she doesn't. Without explaining what it might mean for his health should she go all bitey, she walks in and begins leaking blood out all of her facial orifices. Panicked, Oskar immediately invites her in and she returns quickly to health.
There are other hints regarding Eli intentions. When Oskar embraces Eli, most notably after she pulls her "let me in or I'll hurt myself" stunt, he embraces her face to face. When Eli embraces Oskar, she does it from behind, facing his back. This is the same way she takes the victims we watch her feed off. The implication is that Oskar is not a love interest, he's a resource.
Further, in response to Oskar's awkward and unsure advances, Eli repeated mentions that she's "not a girl." This is, I think, meant to be an earnest confession of the fact that she isn't potential romantic partner. Loving her is not unlike falling for a female tiger or shark: She's female, but there's a crucial species difference there.
Finally, there's the "age difference." Vampires who don't want to be vampires have a really easy way out. As happens to the new vamp Eli accidentally makes in the film, they can simply extinguish themselves in the sunlight. (NB: All of the characters Eli let's into her life, either as a man Friday or a fellow vampire, end up destroying themselves.) Eli, notably, is not suicidal. Much has been made of her "need" to feed, but that doesn't excuse the fact that, if she believed people weren't cattle, she could do something about it. So, I think it is safe to conclude that Eli is content to be killer and a predator. She must also then be content with the fact that she won't age, but any humans around her will. She knows Hakan got old and just couldn’t cut it, no pun intended, anymore. Why then, if she knows this, does she not offer to turn Oskar into a vampire? Because she doesn't want him to suffer being a vampire? That doesn't make sense. She's not suffering. Suffering vampires turn themselves into Roman candles. I propose that she doesn't offer him vampirehood because she needs him to grow old. He's more useful as an adult and, when the time comes, it's comforting to know he comes with an expiration date. She can, after all, get another Renfield. She got Oskar after Hakan died, didn't she?
The real horror of the flick lies in the fact that Oskar is happily setting himself for the life of misery and exploitation that Hakar leaves so painfully in the early part of the film. Ironically, much has been made of the creepy relationship dynamics of the vampire/human pairing in Twilight, but cult horror audiences and mainstream critics have been seemingly uninterested in exposing the same abusive dynamics at work here. (It is because of the gender switch? Try to imagine the response to this film if the genders of the protags were swapped.) But Oskar's blinded by his by love. We know what's going to happen to him, but he doesn't get it. That's the scary thing.
Which lead us to the trick of the title: Let the Right One In. No other vampire ever tries to gain entrance into Oskar's home. Just Eli. The choice implied by the title is nonexistent.