I’d enjoyed the novel. I’d read review after review laden with superlatives. I’d heard it called the best vampire movie since ‘Near Dark’; an instant modern classic.
I carried such a weight of expectation to the cinema with me, that I virtually needed a forklift truck to carry it. That was over a month ago and initially I was … not disappointed, that’s the wrong word; I was impressed with ‘Let the Right One In’. I admired it for all sorts of reasons that I’ll go into in a couple of paragraphs’ time. It just left me a little cold. And there were a few niggling flaws.
Call me a pedant, but this is the kind of thing that jumps off the and reminds me I’m watching a movie, a fiction, something fake: a car arrives outside a brutally monolithic housing complex and its driver starts carting his belongings inside while someone watches from another apartment; an overhead POV shot shows the car on a snowy street, with nary a tyre track behind it, nor any footprints leading from it.
Okay, you’re right: I’m a pedant.
The other scenes that bother me are a tad harder to dismiss. The whole film – like the novel it’s based on – is built around one of the cardinal rules of the vampire genre: a vampire can only enter premises they have been invited into. Both novel and film demonstrate in icky detail what happens if they just go waltzing in without invitation. ‘Let the Right One In’ – it’s both title and mission statement. Yet on two occasions – Ginia (Ika Nord) turning up at Gösta (Karl-Robert Lindgren)’s house; Eli (Lina Leandersson) arriving in the nick of time to save Oscar (Kåre Hedebrant) in the film’s otherwise brilliantly staged denouement – this crucial device is in one case completely overlooked and in the other never fully explained. I’d lay the blame at the scriptwriter’s door for not reading the book properly, only John Ajvide Lindqvist adapted his own novel for the screen.
Now, having got all that off my chest, on to what makes Tomas Alfredson’s film so impressive. Firstly, a creaky subplot that only serves to pad out the last third of the book is completely excised, so that the real point of the story is never lost sight of. It’s tempting to describe ‘Let the Right One In’ as a horror story with a heart, but that makes it sound mawkish. The horror is firmly routed in social reality: broken homes, loneliness, bullying, inner rage. The heart is in the friendship (borderline love) between Oscar and Eli. Both need someone. Both are outsiders. Both have a streak of darkness in their personality: Oscar carries a knife and gouges at a tree, imagining he’s striking back at his persecutors; Eli … well, she’s a vampire. It’s a question of blood, innit?
A month down the line and it’s the coldness of the film that lingers. Alfredson films the housing estate like Ingmar Bergman channelling Ken Loach. The exteriors are foreboding; the interiors are drab; the lives that are lived here are tired and worn down. Shots are composed to emphasize claustrophobia: characters are framed in doorways, or tight against walls (mostly notably when Oscar and Eli communicate by tapping out morse code). Even the handful of scenes set in the countryside outside the estate offer little release. Trees press in against each other. The icy expanse of a lake is treacherous rather than scenic.
Much of the narrative occurs at night, Alfredson mostly using just one point of illumination in any one scene, leaving much of the screen dark. I’m not talking about effective use of shadows or the suggestion of things half-seen. ‘Let the Right One In’ creates an aesthetic of solid swathes of darkness. This – and the ferocious intelligence with which it keeps its supernatural elements reigned in and instead draws horror from reality – is the key to the film’s bleak and wintry brilliance.