For the second year in a row, the best horror movie I saw was a foreign language film. Last year it was the Spanish film [REC], and this year it's Tomas Alfredson's Swedish gem Let the Right One In.
Unfortunately, for reasons that have been discussed and debated at length, the film got only a very limited release in the U.S., and is, of course getting a ridiculous English language remake, just like they did for [REC] (Quarantine). But the original will be hitting DVD next year, and whether you catch it that way, or any other way, I just urge you to make sure you see it. Period.
Swedish cinema has long had a reputation for quality. But not since the heyday of Ingmar Bergman has Sweden produced such a bona fide horror classic. Equal parts vampire movie and coming-of-age movie, it's the kind of flick that comes along once in a while and proves that there are still new stories to be told.
Based on John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel of the same name, Let the Right One In tells the story of an introverted 12-year-old boy who makes friends with the quirky girl who has just moved in next door. What he doesn't realize is that she's actually a bloodsucker, complete with a Renfield-like assistant who goes on nightly hunts to provide her with the plasma she so craves.
Lina Leandersson is remarkable as the ratty vampire child Eli, infusing the role with a sense of wisdom beyond her years, providing just enough pathos to make it all the more shocking when the film's potent blasts of violence smack the viewer in the face. Kare Hedebrant plays Oskar, the strangely ethereal boy who at times seems almost as otherwordly as his supernatural friend.
There is a cold, icy edge to the cinematography here, which provides a stark contrast to the paradoxically warm relationship that we watch unfold between the boy and his undead eventual "girlfriend". Amazingly, Alfredson manages to portray a pure and beautiful friendship, while at the same time maintaining an aura of menace over the proceedings. There is subtlety and nuance here that one rarely gets in either vampire films or coming-of-age films, and it's a joy to behold.
The movie becomes a classic by choosing not to dwell on the fantastic, but on the real, on the characters, their emotions and interactions. It is this approach that defines the best in so-called "speculative fiction"--whether it be horror, sci-fi or fantasy. And it's because of this that it becomes all the more shocking when we are reminded we're watching a horror film by the moments of graphic gore that punctuate the picture.
Yet there's also a respect for previously established vampire lore that's sure to interest fans. The story's take on how vampires spend the daytime hours is fascinating, and if you've ever wondered why vampires can't enter a home unless they're invited in, this movie will finally answer the question for you.
Ideas of good and evil are challenged as we watch what appears to be a little girl, but what we know is not; a character who undoubtedly has a dark, even murderous side, yet possesses the capacity for genuine affection. Can we blame her for killing to survive? Do we blame a tiger for preying on antelopes? Besides, the bullies who present Oskar's central narrative obstacle are far more psychological terrifying to the viewer than Eli.
In addition to the Eli-Oskar story arc, there's a tense subplot involving one of Eli's victims who is unfortunate enough to survive and become a vampire herself. Unaware of what's happened to her, she faces a horrifying plight indeed, and one which provides some of the film's more arresting visuals.
A picture of complex emotional ups-and-downs, it gives us a climax that epitomizes the nature of the movie itself--a feel-good, stand-up-and-cheer moment despite its sinister edge and horrific violence. And I defy you not to be haunted by an ending that's not quite what it appears to be at first glance. I won't be the one to spoil it, but safe to say, it will have you wondering whether its an upbeat or tragic conclusion. Whatever it is, it's one you won't forget.
Let the Right One In is a tough movie to track down. But it is worth your while to seek it out. It is a reminder of what a truly great genre film can be capable of. It's the kind of "gateway movie" that can be thoroughly enjoyed even by those who think they don't like horror movies. This is the kind of film that will show them it isn't all just about Rob Zombie, torture porn, or gorgeous teens getting hacked apart.
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