With its calm, wintry rural setting, Tomas Alfredson‘s adaptation of novelist John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Swedish best-seller “Let the Right One In” depicts slaughter, death, and dismemberment as though sprung from the stanzas of Robert Frost. This is hardly the first film to drench teen angst and burgeoning sexuality in supernatural bloodletting (De Palma’s “Carrie,” Romero’s “Martin,” and, more recently, John Fawcett‘s “Ginger Snaps” equate, respectively, telekinesis, vampirism, and lupine transformation with pubescent turmoil), but Alfredson sets his film apart with a memorably stringent (dare I say, Scandinavian) visual design.
From the opening moments, in which the screen is overtaken by silent, softly falling snowflakes that, with their lovely morbidity, might as well be leftover sprinkles from the closing lines of James Joyce‘s “The Dead,” to an underwater climax as gory as it is hushed and idyllic, “Let the Right One In” means to push the contemporary vampire film into an ambitiously poetic realm.
Alfredson mostly fulfills his charge, even if many of his techniques are borrowed from a trendily wan art-house aesthetic that relies too heavily on tight framing and oppressive close-ups (why are so many directors today scared of a good old-fashioned medium shot?) and a moodily melodramatic score that could have come straight from the plunked piano of Thomas Newman (“American Beauty,” “The Shawshank Redemption“). Yet for every cliched move, there is an abundance of memorable images in this drab fairy tale of tween vampire love: a well-groomed poodle eloped from its master silently staring at a killer doing his dirty work within a forest of birch trees; a girl swiftly crawling up the side of a hospital building, as if glimpsed from the corner of your eye; two youths tracing with their fingers each others’ alabaster skin while huddled in a warm bed.
If Alfredson and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema have a firm grasp of the surreal, the director’s hold on narrative is somewhat less tenable, as he jumps too much between his main story line and those of underdeveloped side characters. Living in a grim, boxy housing complex that looks like the sad cousin to the apartments in Kieslowski’s “Decalogue,” delicate, blond preteen Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) must contend with divorced parents while also harboring fantasies of violent revenge against vicious bullies at school.
His salvation comes in the form of mysterious, raven-haired neighbor Eli (Lina Leandersson), who first appears perched, gargoyle-like, atop a jungle gym. Though Eli outwardly appears to be of similar age to Oskar, her stoicism and physical strength (and eventually, her taste for, well, blood) point to another conclusion. (The whole thing is set in 1982 for no discernible reason other than to feature Rubik’s Cubes and perhaps to explain why these teen vamps aren’t preoccupied, as they undoubtedly would be today, with Facebook.)
What makes Oskar and Eli’s bond frank and fascinating, if only at first, is that each of them needs something different from the other: for Oskar it’s his first taste of body contact and sexual release; for Eli, it’s more complicated, as she is bursting with a longing of a much older woman. “Let the Right One In” might have resonated more if those two desires had proven tragically irreconcilable. Instead, the story pivots on simplistic matters like bully comeuppance and features graceless side notes like a silly CGI cat attack, which pales in comparison even to the laughable feline frenzy in Dario Argento‘s “Inferno” (for which, judging by what ended up onscreen, Argento threw screaming kitties at his actress from off camera).
More damaging, “Let the Right One In” builds, somewhat unconvincingly, toward an abruptly optimistic final validation of the kids’ connection — it’s hard to take a portrait of love at age 12 as seriously as this film does. Oskar’s fascination for Eli, mixed with his newly emergent sexual curiosity, makes for an initially compelling twist on the coming-of-age film, although because this is ostensibly not a film for children (judging by the throat-slittings, decapitations, and full-frontal nudity therein), it’s hard not to wish that the filmmaker had a more sober, adult perspective on all this teen angst.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]