”Let the Right One In”
Magnet Releasing
At the Michigan Theater

Courtesy of Magnet Releasing

3.5 out of 5 stars

“Let the Right One In” is a true horror film — the kind that uses careful plotting and stage direction to elicit scares without resorting to throwing random images at the screen for cheap screams. Truly horrifying films, like “The Silence of the Lambs” or “Pan’s Labyrinth,” don’t come along too often, so despite the fact that this one is slightly flawed, its very release should still be cause for celebration. The movie was made in Sweden, and it follows the trend of recent noteworthy foreign films being ruled ineligible for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination — so it must be good. (Sweden submitted a different film for consideration in the category, and only one submission is allowed per country.)

The movie follows a shy, troubled 12-year old kid named Oskar (newcomer Kåre Hedebrant), whose wispy blond hair and bizarre obsession with death make him the perfect target for school bullies. He has to suffer through physical and verbal abuse every day before trudging home in thick snow, where he fondles a knife and dreams of revenge within the safety of his apartment.

While he goes through these daily indignities, a new girl named Eli (newcomer Lina Leandersson, with a deep, post-dubbed voice) moves into the apartment next door. Eli seems unusually acrobatic for an adolescent girl, and she only leaves her house at night, so it’s no surprise when she starts feasting on human blood. The girl may have a sweet personality, but she’s also a vampire.

A burgeoning romance develops between the two, even as increasingly gruesome vampire killings take place. Director Tomas Alfredson (various Swedish TV shows) works in a style that employs many extreme close-ups of faces, bodies and objects from all different angles, and the kids do a remarkable job even at such close distance to the camera. Alfredson also makes great use of the wintertime setting by staging most scenes under an ever-present snowfall. The cold is palpable in every scene, and may be enough to make the audience shiver (or maybe it was just the natural chill in the Michigan Theater screening room). It says something about the sustained tone of the film that the sight of vampires in goofy European sweaters doesn’t break the tension.

Yet “Let the Right One In” is sometimes a bit too interested in its own cinematic style. The film occasionally suffers from Art House Syndrome, where the characters tend to speak in halting patterns and every word of dialogue has a secret coded meaning. They sometimes act at right angles to what normal people would do in their situation just to draw attention to some aspect of the filmmaking: When a man sees his girlfriend attacked by a vampire, he hesitates for several seconds before rushing to her rescue, just so the audience can take the time to notice how exquisitely this particular shot is framed. To be fair, it’s framed rather well, but that’s beside the point.

Alfredson and screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist, adapting his own novel, also follow a rather masochistic tradition in Swedish films of putting cute kids in considerable mortal peril. The young leads in Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” were constantly targeted and manipulated by their scheming stepfather, and here little Oskar is met with increasingly violent and hostile treatment from bullies. “Are we supposed to just let him stand there?” one of them says at one point, as though Oskar’s very existence is a punishable offense.

And even Eli the vampire evokes sympathy when one of the bereaved comes looking for her during what may be the most nail-bitingly terrifying climax in recent years. The impact of the movie will depend on whether the viewer finds its treatment of the two youthful leads to be effective or just creepy. Maybe it’s both.

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