As part of our Ultimate Playbill project, each week a faculty member will take the time to extol the virtues of one of the beloved films on this list. This week, I tackle LDG’s #3 pick, Let the Right One In.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about tribes. How we form bonds with people who share similar beliefs, customs and ideas. It’s interesting to me that in a population of billions, one of the ways we establish our individual identity is through the people we surround ourselves with. Perhaps one of the most meaningful things we do with our lives is open ourselves to others, build trusting relationships, and love one another. At its heart, Let the Right One In is a film about a young boy finding his tribe and forming his first truly intimate bond.
From the moment we first see Oskar (Kåre Hederbrant), as a hollow reflection in the window reaching into the night, he exudes a sense isolation. His mother, though loving, is preoccupied with finding romantic love with another man, while his rarely seen father has a boyfriend. Whether his parents were ever married is unclear, but Oskar walks through life with ambivalence, knowing that he is not the most important thing in either of their lives.
At school, Oskar is bullied for being a book worm, or for being a weirdo who studies grisly crimes in the newspaper, and when faced against a group of boys lead by the sadistic twit Conny (Patrik Rydmark), Oskar chooses to suffer rather than take them all on. Instead, he acts out violent revenge fantasies when he’s alone. This is how Eli (Lina Leandersson) meets him, alone in the snow covered courtyard of their apartment building, Oskar stabbing a tree, yelling at it to squeal the way Conny forces him to squeal.
Though he looks like a twelve year old girl, Eli is a vampire, and Let the Right One In is a vampire movie, but one that uses vampirism as a metaphor for the otherness and the exchange of blood, either willingly or by force, as an act of bonding. Eli’s long time companion Håkan (Per Ragnar) dispatches victims with clinical coolness, gassing them before stringing them up and draining their blood into gallon jugs that fit neatly inside a briefcase. Though up for inference (in the film, it’s made explicit in the novel), Håkan’s relationship goes beyond a simple master-steward relationship. He loves Eli, he doesn’t like to kill, but he needs to feed Eli, so he murders to keep him alive, and Håkan gets jealous when Eli starts spending time with Oskar. But is it his lack of bloodlust that makes Håkan peak as Eli’s companion and make Oskar the right one to take his place?
It’s interesting that neither Håkan nor Oskar seem to care that Eli looks feminine, but identifies himself as a boy. A strict reading of sexuality and gender in this film would be really interesting, as heterosexuality is often skewered while homoerotic relationships motivate the plot, but when speaking about tribes, Eli’s gender is as irrelevant as it is to Oskar. Håkan may have desire for Eli, but Oskar desires to have someone that loves him, that doesn’t judge his violent fantasies, and needs him as much as he needs them. Eli is willing to sacrifice for him; he refuses to eat Oskar when he’s dying of starvation, he eats Oskar’s candy, even though he knows it will make him sick, and he almost nearly bleeds to death for him. When Oskar, somewhat cruelly, urges Eli to enter his house without inviting him in (a deadly faux pas for vampires), Eli does it, simply to demonstrate his honesty to Oskar. We never see any adult in Oskar’s life do anything that risky for him, and shortly after that he commits himself to Eli by assisting in a murder.
If this movie were made by different hands the delicate balance between horror and romance could veer too strongly in either direction, weakening this film’s emotional pull. It’s been reported that director Tomas Alfredson and John Ajvide Linqvist bonded over a shared vision of bringing Lindqvist’s novel to life, and the result is one of the most tense, disturbing romances in 21st century cinema. With the help of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, the film achieves a soft look that can conveys the icy isolation felt by Oskar, yet conjures the warmth and affection between characters even in scenes of gore and mutilation. Alfredson knew exactly how to bring subtle emotion out of his young, untested actors, whose raw talent makes these fantastic characters believable. Lindqvist pulled from his original material in all the right places, getting the right details from his novel to keep the important themes of the story intact while letting the movie adaptation breathe on its own.Not many horror films made it on to the Ultimate Playbill, which is a testament to the great storytelling of Let the Right One In. In a time period where vampires were such a box office draw that every other movie had some sort of vampire, Let the Right One In stood out not just for its horror elements, but because of the sincerity of its romance. I think it’s a film that understands our human longing for companionship and belonging, our need to be part of a tribe. The portrayal of Oskar and Eli’s relationship hits so strongly at the core of what it is to be intimate, that it’s easy as an audience member to forget that we’re basically rooting for a couple of serial killers to live happily ever after.