Let the Right One In
In a glittering snowfall night a boy is strung up, slashed, and bled to death by a shadowy old guy while a large poodle watches the horror silently. And in one image, director Tomas Alfredson cops a nervous laugh, opens a major theme--Which one of these things does not belong here?--and begins a movie-long subversion of vampire-movie narratives to craft a chilly, sui generis morality tale of adolescent discombobulation and desperate love.
It's about Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), an angel-faced 12-year-old living in an antiseptic Swedish suburb that cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema imbrues with a luminous permafrost stillness. Bullied at school and alienated in shifting ways from his divorced parents, Oskar has taken to pitiful revenge fantasies. In the play yard one night, he meets a crack-lipped girl with sad/numb eyes named Eli (Lina Leandersson).
Eli is also 12--and a vampire who will never grow older. She lives next door with Hakan, the man from that first kill who, for reasons left disquietingly murky, supplies blood. One night, he botches a kill and, concerned that Eli could be linked to him, kills himself, leaving her to hunt alone and her need for Oskar even more acute.
As the two bond, the body count and fatalistic moral quandaries in John Ajvide Lindqvist's succinctly coiled script pile up. Should Oskar accept Eli's vamp ways? Or help her in killing herself, as she keeps threatening? Before explicating more, you might want to skip what follows for spoiler reasons.
At one juncture, a pointedly adult woman escapes Eli's attack. Faced with an eternity of darkness and death dealing, she chooses to kill herself--which underscores the fact that Eli, turned centuries ago, never had a choice. So she's a victim and, the movie argues, an incomprehensibly lonesome innocent--Leandersson sells both with amazing creepy grace--whose natural savagery saves Oskar even as it tilts Eli toward limited redemption. When, as per tradition, she's unable to enter Oskar's apartment without being invited, she steps in anyway, if only to show him the eye-bleeding agony she's willing to endure to gain his trust. In a dreamily gruesome swimming-pool sequence that plays like a watery ballet of severed limbs, she kills some thugs before they can do worse to Oskar.
Like Oskar, we're trapped between trying to forgive tragic Eli while at the same time being horrified at the death and misery her survival requires. An "upbeat" finale suggests escape for both--but one last visual flourish clarifies that no matter where they go, there's just no escaping who and what they'll always be. It's at this point that Alfredson's movie earns the right to be filed with the better works of Guillermo del Toro, Georges Franju, and Val Lewton: a fine, whispery act of horror poetics.