Magnolia Pictures // 2008 // 115 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // March 20th, 2009
"I'm twelve -- though I've been twelve for a long time." -- Eli
Featuring a quiet romance between a bullied young boy and a vampire with the body of a twelve-year-old girl, Sweden's Let the Right One In delights on every level. It's beautiful, it's touching, it's scary, and it's dark. It requires some thought from its audience and it allows for tantalizing ambiguity in its story. Even the title is masterful -- simultaneously alluding to the legend that vampires need to be invited in to enter a home and referencing the barriers guarded children put up around them, not letting anyone "in."
In short, it's the best vampire movie I've seen.
Trudging through another frigid Stockholm winter, adolescent Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) faces problems with bullies at school. Feeling distant from his parents and lacking any friends, Oskar comes to confide in a strange girl he meets in his apartment complex's courtyard. Eli (Lina Leandersson) is like no one he's ever met. She braves the ice and snow without shoes or a coat, she smells funny, and she shows up just when murders start to occur in the neighborhood. Shuttered away in a lightless apartment, Eli never comes out during the day -- only the older man she lives with (Per Ragnar) occasionally emerges to collect blood for her (hence the murders). Oskar doesn't know about the blood-collecting, and he's perfectly happy to overlook the other oddities. He playfully communicates with her in Morse code through the wall, is impressed by her ability to solve his Rubik's cube, and is generally smitten with her mysterious ways.
But conflict is brewing for the youngsters on two fronts: Oskar's bullies are stepping up their attacks, and one of the neighbors is sniffing around Eli's apartment in his efforts to find his friend's murderer...
Anyone approaching Let the Right One In as a standard horror scarefest will quickly encounter many pieces of filmic evidence that demonstrate the film's greater ambitions. My favorite of these is a simple, quiet moment alone with Oskar. He's missing Eli, and he presses his hand to the bedroom window glass that separates him from the frigid night air. As he pulls his palm away its warmth leaves an impression, making a hand-shaped condensation print on the window. We watch, with Oskar, as the impression begins to fade, as the glass returns to its previous temperature. The imprint's disappearance is slow and silent, but relentless; soon there will be nothing left. The moment creates a perfect visual metaphor for the feeling of fresh loss -- that aching knowledge that while faint traces of a departed person still remain, soon everything will be gone and your memory of them, too, will fade.
Director Tomas Alfredson has a real feel for these moments, and he accomplishes a lot in Let the Right One In through image and sound, relying very little on dialogue. He renders the crisp stillness of a Swedish winter nicely, letting the landscape reinforce a variety of different feelings. When Oskar is hopeful, the ice-covered trees sparkle beautifully in the sun, but when he is depressed the same snowy setting is made to feel desolate and harsh. The metal playground equipment in the sparse courtyard can seem eerie when Oskar is cautious of Eli, but when they start to bond, the same locale becomes a haven for their friendship. And once in a while, we get an acknowledgement of just how inconvenient it is to live somewhere that cold -- namely, when one has to dispose of a body and the ground is frozen solid! The developing relationship between Oskar and Eli is another aspect of the film that is communicated without too many words. Here Alfredson deploys gorgeous, soft-focus close-ups and a delicate romantic score to convey their growing intimacy. He is aided in no small degree by great performances from Hedebrant and Leandersson. The latter, in particular, is a standout in the challenging part of Eli, capturing both the weariness of an ancient vampire and the sweet vulnerability of an adolescent girl. She should be commended even more for playing a rare vampire who is largely desexualized. Unlike Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, her vampire character is smelly and a bit dirty, with the awkwardness of a pre-teen.
The sparse use of dialogue also allows for some productive ambiguity in the story, as Alfredson skillfully refrains from answering some of our questions. Who exactly is the older man who travels with Eli, and what is their relationship? Why does Eli keep insinuating that she's not a girl? What is it about Oskar's father that keeps his son distant from him? I've heard that some of these questions are answered in the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist that Let the Right One In adapts, but I think Alfredson (and Lindqvist himself, who wrote the screenplay) shows great judgment by leaving those answers out of the film. That's why, as he says, the ending might seem happy or tragic, depending on the viewer -- and Let the Right One In is a rare film about which that statement is really true.
In case this is starting to sound too subtle and artsy, or too warm-hearted, let me assure horror fans that they need not worry: Let the Right One In is quite satisfying as a genre piece, too. It's got creepy blood-draining scenes, pyrotechnics, severed limbs, and even an army of killer cats (strangely enough). Blood looks good on Alfredson's Swedish snow, and he impresses with his horror violence and creepiness nearly as much as with his subtler moments. I doubt any viewers will be disappointed with the final action scene, shot from a very creative vantage point that makes it a sheer, gory delight.
The Blu-ray release does this fantastic film justice in the technical departments, but lets viewers down on the extras. The image is crisp and clear, well maintaining the film's muted color palette, as well as the contrasts between the white snow and black night. Black levels are quite deep, and there is only a little bit of grain visible in some of the darkest shots. While the soundtrack on this film is not too aggressive, considering the genre, the 5.1 DTS-HD track delivers its nuanced sounds nicely and with good directional effects. The filmmakers have an ear for detail on this one, crafting some excellent sound effects -- especially the sickening, organic churning in Eli's stomach that signifies her unyielding hunger for blood. Extras, however, are a bit thin on this release. Other than the poster and photo galleries, we're offered only 14 minutes of material. Four deleted scenes add a bit more screen time to Oskar and Eli's romance, including one fun moment where they make fang faces at each other. The other feature is an eight minutes making-of extra, which centers on an interview with Alfredson and some interesting behind-the-scenes footage of the final action scene I mentioned above. I was fully engaged with this extra, but wanted it to go on for longer. I did learn, to my embarrassment, that the film was set in 1982 and I hadn't really noticed. I just kept thinking, "wow, those Swedes are really into the retro '80s look, huh?" Shows what I know about Sweden...
To end this review on a note of foreboding, I'll mention a detail far scarier than any scene in this horror movie: an American remake is in the works. Looks like Hollywood is gearing up for their inevitable failure to match or surpass this flawless foreign import. I guess mainstream America will never flock to see anything that's both subtle and subtitled, so perhaps this disastrous project was inevitable. Still, I found it satisfying when, a few months back, I chatted with a very talented individual who was invited to work on this remake, and heard from him that he wouldn't get involved on principle. The original was too great, he said, too beautiful to touch. I fully agree.
So do yourself a favor and watch Let the Right One In as many times as you can before your memory of it gets infiltrated by trailers for the remake! There's no question in my mind that of the two, the Swedish version will be "the right one."
Review content copyright © 2009 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Swedish)
* English (Narrative)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Photo Gallery
* Poster Gallery
* Official Site