Longing for and loving the vampire next door

The chilling, thrilling and enthralling relationships at the core of Swedish import 'Let the Right One In' aren't for the faint-hearted *** 1/2 ( 3 1/2 STARS)

November 14, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

If you walked into the Swedish horror movie Let the Right One In midway through, you might see the 12-year-old boy hero chastely embrace a girl his own age and think, "How sweet." When she asks him if he'd love her if she weren't a girl, you might think, "How interesting," then under your breath start muttering, "Ah, youth. Ah, Sweden. Ah, nuts."

But she isn't a girl; she's a vampire. And this boy is not just experiencing a surging crush but a life-defining bond. Most contemporary horror films derive shocks from mere torture. Let the Right One In locates most of its fright-power in the needs and confusions of people who are usually overlooked. They include a vulnerable little kid and the nondescript habitues of a cheap cafe in a suburb that has been deteriorating because of a lack of history or heart from the first days of its creation.

In this seedy-modern provincial town, with the kind of anonymous architecture that has a living-dead look of its own, the time is 1982, when waves of terror still waft down from Brezhnev's Soviet Union. Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a skinny lad in a banal housing complex who tries to hide his sadness from his divorced mother and father, develops a piercing longing for the girl in the apartment next door, Eli (Lina Leandersson), who comes out at night. Eventually, Oskar realizes that Eli is a vampire. But she kills only to drink fresh blood and survive. She's nothing like the bullies at school, who beat him because they're budding sadists. That doesn't make life, or the peculiar life of the undead, any easier for him or us to take.

Oskar first wins Eli's heart and vice versa when he lets her borrow his Rubik's Cube and she solves it on her first try. Written by John Alvide Lindqvist from his novel of the same name and directed by Tomas Alfredson, Let the Right One In views humanity as a beaten-up Rubik's Cube. Despite its scraped paint and popped squares, a capricious destiny keeps twisting it this way and that until people find their niche on Earth or in hell or a mockery of afterlife.

Eli appears locked in a bizarre relationship with an ugly old man named Hakan (Per Ragnar). He describes himself as her "father" but actually serves as an increasingly clumsy blood supplier, killing random loners at night and siphoning their blood into plastic canisters.

The book spells out how perverse their relationship can be. The movie suggests his perversity in the overpossessive way he reacts to her friendship with Oskar and in the regal disdain she occasionally exhibits to her decrepit handler.

She does like Oskar, though, and what makes the film authentically scary and moving is the way the filmmakers have imagined the pair's affectionate bond from the inside out. In a scene that presents both a terrific opportunity for suspense and a genuine stroke of friendship, Oskar whips out a knife, slashes the palm of his own hand and proposes that he and Eli become blood brothers.

Director Alfredson shows the instincts of an artist by eliciting surprising sympathy for mild adult eccentrics who've gone too far into their lives without accomplishing anything or lifting themselves out of a shabby gentility that's more like a shabby vulgarity.

You feel for the man who loses his best friend and his lover; you sympathize with the fellow who lives with cats that turn ferocious in the presence of a vampire. They're as lonely and cut off from society as Oskar.

The film keeps your relationship to Eli ambiguous: She's equally scary and pathetic after her kills, when her face is covered with blood. And Oskar may never be liberated from her. The perpetual snowstorm of the Swedish winter prettifies the ugly burg, contrasts with the gushes of red blood and suggests the title of a Conrad Aiken story about a boy who becomes encased in his own world of "silent snow, secret snow." Let the Right One In is a chiller in more ways than one.

Let the Right One In

(Magnolia Pictures) Starring Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson. Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Rated R for some bloody violence, brief nudity and language. Time 114 minutes. In Swedish with English subtitles.

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