Searching along the skin for a new vein in the vampire film, Let the Right One In finds it in the blood of a virgin. Combining the arty European coming-of-age film and the schlocky American vampire tradition, this Swedish film tenderly examines those inevitable twin horrors of adolescence – puberty and parasitic bloodsucking. (Hey, I have my childhood. You have yours.) Amid a frozen Scandinavian winter, it slowly chills in a methodical intensity not seen since Carrie was trying on prom dresses.
From neck bites to snow drifts, the film possesses a strong tactile sense. The film’s subzero climate could form icicles on the cup holders in the theater. The snow banks in a small Swedish town are thick and permanent. Street lamps reflect palely for miles along the streets. Children play and pester in the snow. For the awkward Oskar, most play consists of taking a beating. Things change one night while practicing that favorite childhood pastime – stabbing a tree and pretending it’s your enemy. The new girl next door drops by (I mean, like, drops by). From there, they create the best childhood sweetheart romance ever formed over a Rubik’s cube.
Be still my beating nerd heart. Of course the new girl in town wouldn’t be the new girl in town if she didn’t hold a giant secret. She tends to an unusual diet. An unusual diet … OF BLOOD! No Tootsie Rolls here. Unless the Tootsie Rolls have BLOOD IN THEM! Funny the way she and her father cover their windows to blot out the sun. It’s Sweden. It’s winter. Don’t they get cold?
We get the picture. (Of course, if we got the picture, would she appear in it?) But a little slow on the Polaroid is Oskar. He’s just happy to have a friend, and a “girl” friend, at that. The strength of the film lies in the keenly observed friendship between our snowcapped Romeo and his well-fanged Juliet. Could the film’s bite use braces? Only if you’re stuck in traditional vampire-ese. The coffins and stakes are left out in the snow. The father works with knockout gas and knives, stalking teen-agers dispassionately. When he drains his victim’s blood, you feel a drained soul. But director Tomas Alfredson’s slow bleed of a film effectively nibbles the horror with comic glee. Our teeth sink in as terror, but the blood spurts out as dark humor. My favorite moment is a bleeding in the woods interrupted by a sweetly oblivious poodle.
While the film has a strangeness all its own, it does follow some of the horror playbook. Eli’s blood-hunting speaks to sexual awakening. The carnage-heavy swimming-pool ending feels like Oskar’s Carrie-esque dream of revenge. I left wondering if Eli is less a vampire than a specter, Oskar’s act of imaginary wish-fulfillment. Yes or no, the film itself adds up to a filmgoer’s darkest wishes.