Let the Right One In. 2008. Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on his novel.
Starring Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson (Elif Ceylan as the voice of Eli), Per Ragnar, Henrik Dahl, Peter Carlberg, Ika Nord, & Mikael Rahm.
Rated R. 115 minutes.
The opinion that Let the Right One In is a masterpiece isn’t new. Vampires are wonderful archetypes, and just cool creatures in the horror universe. We’ve seen them portrayed in fiction, from literature to cinema, hundreds of times. Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of the John Ajvide Lindqvist novel – its screenplay also penned by the author – presents the subject of vampires with tenderness to present a complex story.
Lindqvist tells the tale of Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a bullied and isolated boy living on a housing estate with his mother and separated from his alcoholic father. Oskar meets a girl, Eli (Lina Leandersson), who moves into an apartment nearby with an older man called Håkan (Per Ragnar). The girl’s odd and an outcast-like personality like Oskar, though she harbours a vampiric secret.
The two young people bond over their respective agonies, each trapped by youth. Both Oskar and Eli have been hardened by the burden of being children— him, unable to move beyond the childish bullying of his peers, and her, literally incapable of growing up because she’s a vampire. Through this lens, Alfredson’s movie explores how lonely, damaged people forge connections, and how, all too often, kids are left to their own devices in order to learn how to survive and, ultimately, where to find genuine love via other people rather than disappointment and rejection.
No one wants to grow up when they’re young. However, the realities of being young forever are deeply troubling, as seen through the metaphor of vampirism— no death, no release from the struggles of life, watching those you care about die. As a child you’re also vulnerable to the dangers of the world, none worse than the dark intentions of men.
Håkan is representative of those who prey on youth. Although only subtly implied in the movie adaptation, he’s actually a paedophile. As a type of father figure, he’s a literal lifeline for Eli, similar to the relationship Oskar has with his own semi-estranged, alcoholic father. When she loses Håkan, Eli’s left vulnerable. Håkan, in his role as helpful murderer, is symbolic of a toxic or abusive parent, compounded by the fact he’s a paedophile. He wants Eli young forever, not unlike a father who molests his children. In the end, he’s destroyed by his toxic enabling, fittingly sucked dry by Eli as penance.
The predatory nature of Håkan’s relationship to Eli is paralleled with the experiences of Oskar bullied at school. Just as Eli’s left in danger by an absence of a parent, Oskar’s left in the same state by both his parents— his mother clearly knows something’s wrong at school but does nothing, and his father only pays attention to him until a bottle of booze turns up. Generally, Oskar and Eli’s respective family situations is a commentary on the family unit dissolving, the disconnect between children and their parents in a postmodern world. Kids, in the society in which the story takes place, have been neglected and left to take care of themselves, whether in fights with bullies or figuring out the difficult idiosyncrasies of love.
Perhaps the saddest, loneliest epitome of the disconnect Oskar feels from humanity is when he goes to visit his father. The boy waits for his father’s permission, then wraps dad’s sweater around him happily. This one moment says so much about the longing in Oscar for genuine human connection and reciprocal love.
The seeming immortality of youth has hardened both Eli and Oskar. They’re each relatively emotionless in the beginning. Eli’s a symbolic character, altered by her vampirism. Oskar’s a very real person, whose cold darkness is born out of all the abuse he’s suffered, bottling his pain deep inside. He practises with a knife at home like a tiny Travis Bickle, ordering the mirror to “Squeal!” as if confronting his sadistic bully. The likeness between Oskar and Eli is evident in their reactions to violence. Eli feels nothing – obviously, yes, because she’s lived a couple hundred years as a vampire – as she drains people of blood. Neither does Oskar show any emotion for whacking his bully viciously in the head drawing blood as retaliation.
But all this changes when Eli and Oskar come together, understanding their bond. Oskar’s desperate for love and connection, whereas Eli’s gone without it so long she doesn’t even remember what it felt like in the first place. One scene sees him give her a hug, his loneliness making him cling to her. Meanwhile, she’s so oblivious to emotion and love – figurative and literal warmth, made even more compelling by her ability to survive in the deep cold – she doesn’t actually know how to hug back.
Father Gore’s favourite image involves the theme of love. More specifically it’s about the worries of rejection, being young and not sure if another person will love you back if you put yourself out there. Best of all, Lindqvist’s screenplay includes an important scene tied to the vampire folklore stating the undead creatures cannot enter a person’s home without being invited. When Eli comes to Oskar’s home she tells him he must invite her, but he refuses to do so verbally. She comes in anyway, then immediately starts bleeding from her eyes, her pores, her mouth, until Oskar rushes to formally invites her. This is a devastating piece of symbolism tying vampire folklore to the idea of rejection in love. Without an invite, Eli’s rejected in a way— her vampirism is refuted. Because of this she experiences a rejection hemorrhage. Such a poignant piece of imagery, and absolutely unforgettable.
Oskar forgives murderous blood drinking to be with Eli, to the extent their first kiss is soaked in blood. He doesn’t care if she’s a girl, either. He’s only concerned with their feelings— another huge statement about the freedom and possibilities of falling in love. Especially when we’re young and we don’t even understand our own feelings fully yet: love is love is love. In the end, Oskar and Eli decide they’re already on their own in the world as disconnected, discarded children, so they run off together, on their own together. The tenderly sweet last scene sees the pair communicate by Morse code as Oskar hides Eli in a box on a train so she’s safe from sunlight.
Let the Right One In relates its story’s themes by showing rather than actually telling, a big reason why the movie’s brimming with all its gorgeously tragic imagery. Vampires can be terrifying, just as well as foolish and fun. Here, Lindqvist and Alfredson collaborate to make a timeless movie, speaking to life experiences the majority of us know well through a story about vampires. Oskar and Eli are two different sides of the exact same coin illustrating how terrible being a child can be for some. They also show us children are resilient, and, in the absence of genuine love, they can overcome anything to survive and find the love they deserve. Make no mistake, growing up’s a bloody, harrowing, and many times violent process.