One of my favorite classes that I took as an undergrad was the capstone course for my degree in English Education. The syllabus for the class entirely consisted of the most disturbing books that our professor ever read for pleasure, and it featured many of my now-favorite books of all time. Including such titles as Walter Mosley’s The Man in My Basement, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Halldòr Laxness’s The Fish Can Sing and Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll: A Love Story – and coming in the same general moment of my discovery of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and John Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In – my friends and I soon started joking about the new depressive standard in art being “bleak as Sweden” due to the uncommonly high number of Scandonavian works among the procession.
Even in retrospect, that description really does hold up unconscionably well in the world of film and literature, especially when you take into account the long shadow that directors like Igmar Bergman cast in the world of cinema. And although there is quite a bit of competition for the title these days, Let the Right One In, both the book and the subsequent film directed by Tomas Alfredson, really does stand apart as the bleakest (and all-around most satisfying) of the bunch.
Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is a disturbed child living with his mother in the projects of Blackeberg (a suburb of Stockholm) in the early 1980s. Varyingly bullied by his classmates and neglected by his overworked mother, he soon befriends Eli (Lina Leandersson), a young girl who moves into the same housing complex as him and only comes out at night when everybody (save for him) are away. In truth, Eli is a vampire who has entered into a symbiotic relationship with Hakan (Per Ragnar) the older man who presents as her father: he kills for and feeds her, and in exchange she offers him companionship. But when a botched murder leads to his arrest, Eli must kill Hakan and find a replacement killer to fetch her nightly sustenance.
When director Tomas Alfredson began work on Let the Right One In, he did so from a unique and refreshing perspective: he wanted to make the exact opposite of a Hollywood horror movie. American genre films of the time were loud, obvious, commercial affairs: flush with screaming auditory cues, marketable gimmicks and near-pornographic violence. Coming off of a cycle of so-called “torture porn” movies and imported New French Extremity directors, they were generally seen as disposable blunt instruments. Rather than “rushing to get to the good parts,” Alfredson adopted a slow and deliberative pace that kept time throughout the film. When Eli reveals that she is a vampire and that violating the “rules” of vampirism (such as entering somebody’s home uninvited) could very well kill her, Alredson chose to cut out the music in the scene entirely, rather than swell to the expected thunderous cacophony. The supernatural violence of vampirism was always pointedly held at a physical distance, while the human-on-human violence involving Oskar was shot in visceral, bloody close-ups.
The effect really is quite stunning, and more resembles the more artisanal strain of horror films from the last half-decade than just about anything that was being made in the 2000s, whether it was American or not. While not quite the lush, stately regalia of something like Interview with the Vampire (1994) or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), there was something incredibly “old world” about this particular film: something cold and calculating and ancient in the way it coldly stalked Eli’s prey in the dark and snow. Its inverted views of violence (in which the shocking narrative disruptions come from decidedly human actions) further added to this changeling’s view of the film’s narrative: not that violence was unnatural in of itself, but that violence against one’s own kind was.
Without getting into some of the more shocking twists in the film’s story – disturbing little revelations peppered throughout that would have surely made my English professor proud – the narrative arc of the film is an incredibly unsettling story about how an adult (Eli) grooms a child in order to sate her nightly physical needs. Indeed, when we first see Oskar, he seems well on his way to becoming a serial killer all on his own (he is mercilessly tormented by his classmates, lacks any kind of stabilizing parental authority, is fascinated with death and violent crimes and is even seen savagely practicing his imagined revenge on those who wrong him). And although the final moments of the film are indeed incredibly sweet – the two friends, separated in the daylight, talking wordlessly to one another by tapping out messages to morse code – it’s not hard to imagine that, years before, there would have been a similar scene between Eli and Hakan (now an old man, hopelessly devoted to an ageless girl who once was his friend, who denies him immortality because of her own bodily needs but never lets go of his heart, driving him to disfigurement and self-sacrifice in his headless devotion to her). It’s the chalky note hidden innocuously among the sweetness we see on the surface: the bitter implication that Oskar will inevitably fall into the same desperate patterns as his predecessor and, like him, meet a similarly tragic end.
The film (and especially the book it is based on) is a remarkable achievement in genre filmmaking. It denies us every familiar trope and gory set piece that we have come to expect from vampire movies, and yet the core human drama is so inherently horrific on its own that it might as well play out like some even more disturbing riff on something like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990). It keeps its most unsettling content buried just under the surface: easy enough to find, but just as easy for the unwary to miss. As a result, it is unquestionably one of the most stunning accomplishments in horror, and especially vampire, cinema.