FILM REVIEW: Let The Right One In (2008)

Let The Right One In (Sweden, 2008)
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Starring Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar, Peter Carlberg

There comes a point as a horror fan when you think you've seen it all. You've gotten used to the same old monsters turning up in increasingly similar stories, and you begin to lose faith in the ability of films to deeply scare and affect you. And then, out of nowhere, comes a film which completely blindsides you, a film which touches a part of you which you thought had ceased to exist, and which warms the heart even as it sends shivers down your spine. As it was with Pan's Labyrinth, so it is with Let The Right One In.Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John Adjive Lindqvist's novel is an outstanding, extraordinary piece of work, and one of the very best films of the decade. Equal parts vampire horror, coming-of-age fable, crime drama and intimate romance, it is the film which truly makes vampires scary again, and gives them a genuine reason for continuing to turn up on our screens. The film is every bit as frightening and chilling as it is touching and heartbreaking, and once exposed you will remember it forever.

What makes the film so initially extraordinary is its distance from the horror genre in terms of its production. Lindqvist may be an acclaimed horror writer, but Alfredson had next to no knowledge of horror or vampirism before coming to the project. When a director approaches a genre in which they have no prior interest or experience, the result can be disastrous - Roland Joffe's Captivity being all the proof you need. But in this case the distance is what makes the film so special. Alfredson has spoken about the tendency for filmmakers to 'blue-print' each other, to copy their visual approaches so closely that the finished products become homogenised. His distance allows him to make a vampire film without any baggage or fanboy prejudices, and in doing so completely redefine a genre.Aside from its resemblance to Pan's Labyrinth, Let The Right One In merits comparison with other works by Guillermo del Toro, who himself described the film as one of the best he'd seen in years. Both Let The Right One In and Del Toro's Cronos are vampire films in which the vampirism is not a symbol for sex or lust: the latter explores it as a reaction to ageing and the fear of death, centred on the close friendship between a young girl and her grandfather. There are also tonal similarities with The Devil's Backbone, a ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War. The film is haunting to watch, with the pale nature of both characters and landscape making the community on film like a hinterland between our world and another.Let The Right One In is on one level a film about loneliness. Both Oskar and Eli are different kinds of outcasts, individuals who find each other in a world which isn't ready to accept either of them. Oskar is shy and sensitive, finding it hard to make friends and making himself an easy target for bullies. Eli, meanwhile, is probably hundreds of years old, and is used to moving from place to place to avoid being discovered and destroyed. The film taps into a central tenet of the original Dracula novel, namely the vampire's fate to live a life of solitude and torment at the hands of his victims. The price of immortality is the feeling of guilt or shame which surrounds the means of achieving that fate.

The film is also a coming-of-age story, but again in an entirely non-sexual context. Oskar's shyness and cowardice is counterpointed and contradicted by his obsession with death. He keeps a knife under his pillow, collects news clippings about murders and knows rather a lot about forensic pathology. His first lines, "Squeal like a pig!", are quotes from Deliverance, and yet for all his determination he lacks self-belief. Only after meeting Eli does he begin to stand up for himself and act like a man; only when he finds an equal or source of strange affection does he find a way to channel this inner rage.Mark Kermode famously described Let The Right One In as a film about children that just happens to feature vampires. There is no clunky attempt made by Alfredson to draw on the back catalogue of vampire stories, nor is there any lazy twist to sexualise the story as Oskar and Eli grow closer. The few romantic scenes (if they can be called that) are shot with the utmost respect for the characters, and the film clearly emphasises the relative innocence (or apparent innocence) of both parties. Even the brief shot of Eli wearing no underwear is a red herring, reinforcing the character's androgyny rather than giving in to base titillation.What distinguishes Let The Right One In from so many vampire films is its subtlety. Everything is beautifully underplayed and the film reveals itself very, very slowly; little touches in the imagery and colour say all that is needed, and the dialogue just fills in the blanks. There is hardly any soundtrack, and what remains is prominently bittersweet, reinforcing the sombre and poignant tone with nothing to distract us from the sad beauty of the central relationship. It's lazy journalism to compare a Swedish film to Ingmar Bergman, but there is the same sense of sparse, existential emotion at work here.This sombre and tender approach makes the violence in the film all the more scary and shocking. The film is a 15 certificate, which means most of the really nasty stuff is implied rather than expressed. But we almost don't need to see all the scenes of Eli feeding, not just because we know what she is but because being too explicit detracts from her enigmatic nature.

All the violent scenes in Let The Right One In are handled directly and sensitively: they are never gratuitous or over-egged, but neither is there any attempt to sanitise the actions of Eli and her family just because we empathise with them. Whether it's a man hanging from a tree with his blood collecting in a jar or Ginia bursting into flames in the hospital, the scenes of blood-sucking and its consequences are chillingly no-nonsense. Alfredson's camera in these scenes is purely an observer, not a judge. He puts us alongside the murders, neither condoning nor condemning the characters, and thereby increasing their impact.What makes Let The Right One In so special is the precise way in which it scares you or chills you. There is a harrowing moment where Eli walks into Oskar's room without being invited, and she starts to violently haemorrhage, with blood pouring from her eyes and every part of her body. What seems upsetting in its own right becomes even moreso with the symbolism contained therein. When Oskar screams and begs her to come in, he is breaking down the barrier of rejection towards Eli and overcoming his own distance from other people. The final scene on the train is heart-in-mouth stuff, leaving our story suitably open-ended and ambiguous. On one level, it's the confirmation of a love which cannot work and yet must; on another, it's a dangerous and potentially fatal step into the unknown.Let The Right On In is on a par with Pan's Labyrinth and is one of the best films of the last decade. The central performances from Kare Hedebrant and Linda Leandersson are terrific, the latter maintaining a childlike innocence while bearing the weary expression of age. Alfredson's direction is superb, playing every scene and sentence note-perfect and choosing his angles and lighting meticulously to create a haunting atmosphere. Forget Twilight, forget the American remake - this is the Citizen Kane of modern vampires.

Rating: 5/5
Verdict: A haunting, chilling, heartbreaking masterpiece


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