One of the most celebrated and critically acclaimed Nordic horror movies ever is the Swedish Let the right one in, based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s book and directed by Tomas Alfredsson.
Let the right one in is not just a celebrated and acclaimed film, it is also one of the very few Nordic horror films that are universally described as worthy. Additionally, the movie was funded partially with government money, got a wide theatrical release, got a US remake, won major awards, was based on a successfull teen horror novel, and was directed by Tomas Alfredsson, one of Sweden’s top directors. A high-profile Swedish mainstream horror movie, a rarity in itself. The question is of course, did it deserve all the hubbub?
The story is quite simple. A young boy, Oskar, lives in an anaemic suburb with his mother in the early 1980s. There’s no fun synth music around, no high hair, no colourfall Ball sweaters. It’s a drab life made worse by a group of bullies who physically and mentally abuse Oskar. One day he befriends a girl who recently moved into the neighbourhood. She’s not only a girl, but different in other ways too; she doesn’t eat, she stays away from the sun and she demands to be invited to Oskar’s apartment, or else she can’t visit him. He falls in love with her, but finds himself squeezed between a rock and a hard place when he discovers that she needs to drink the blood of people to survive.
A vampire movie starring prepubescent children that is not a children’s movie, not a comedy, not even a family film. Let the right one in is different in so many ways, exploring a rarely seen part of vampire mythology in a mature fashion, while adressing several social and human issues. The movie can be seen by teens and older children as well as adults, but also by horror fans looking for an emotional, yet spectacular film. The film works on many levels, totally without pretence. At its core, the film is a love drama, but that is only a vehicle around which several other themes circle. Lindqvist (who also wrote the script) and Alfredsson present us with the grey and cold suburban life known to many Swedes and what it takes to stay alive, mentally and emotionally. Some need their friends, others turn to drugs. For Eli the vampire girl, blood is what she needs, but how can life be reduced to something so basic? It’s survival, not life, because it generates death. Oskar on the other hand is faced with a huge problem; how far should he go to help or protect the girl he loves? Their friendship is tested, although Eli’s dad is beyond that test, as he is a serial killer collecting blood from victims so that Eli does not expose herself. The lengths to which parents go to protect their children!
One would think that such a heavy subject would mean a lot of secondary narrative structures, perhaps voice-overs or long streches of expositional dialogue. Far from such cheap solutions, Let the right one in is a rare genre example with visual narrative based on subdued images that in spite of their very nature manage to be attractive. This in part thanks to the contrast of the special effects, the make-up and some visually surprising scenes, but also thanks to a stripped-down production design and great period ambiance. Even though the film is serious and on the verge of artsy and best described as kitchen sink horror that owes a lot to a Scandinavian tradition that audiences love to hate, the film is beautiful to look at, with intensity that supports both characters and story. In a Nordic context, the cinematography has probably not been greater in any horror or fantasy film, and not had such an important role in a visual drama since Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom in the mid-1990s.
The two child actors are also marvellous at their job. It took a year to find them, but they perform better than any of the professional adults, giving their characters credibility and life in a way that suggest they could identify 100% with their characters. Perhaps they had gone through exactly the same as Oskar and Eli, except without the blood? The film is a fantasy but at the same time it is reality for children in Sweden and elsewhere.
All of the above would not matter if this horror film was not scary. It is. Very. There is a sense of unpredictability in every scene. You’re not quite sure if Eli is going to give in to her craving for blood and bite Oskar. You can’t know who Eli’s dad is going to kill next. You can’t know if Oskar will freak out and call the police. The images, dialogue and story leaves so many possibilities open to explore; for example, there’s a lot of poential in the school bullies. Potential for blood… There are no jumpscares or first-timer tricks (this was Alfredson’s first horror film) but there is always a feeling of unease and lack of control. That makes the film more uncomfortable than any witches in the woods or inbred hillbilly slaughters.
Is life in the suburbs reduced to the most basic human feelings? Why is it that it takes the extreme to survive there? Is the ghettofication and socioeconomic gaps that grow even in the most civilized countries not taken seriously? Is Let the right one in merely about an unusual bloodsucker or the most successfull critique of modern Sweden disguised as a horror movie? No prize for guessing the right answer.
Directed by Tomas Alfredsson.
Rated 9 of 10.