Being a vampire is a messy business. From the elegance of Count Dracula to the hipster coolness of Spike, this element of vampirism easily gets lost in translation, but there is simply no denying that a life that depends on the consumption and digestion of blood is not a pretty one. Even if you can convince others through charm to offer up their blood as some sort of sexual favor or even a sacrificial offering, it is still going to be an ugly affair. This is an aspect of the vampire mythos conveniently left out of most tellings and it is because the ugliness of being a vampire is at the center of the Swedish film Let the Right One In that this remarkable film stands as the greatest vampire movie I have ever seen.
In addition to the ugliness, there is also the loneliness of the vampire that is usually romanticized as the ultimate in outsider trendiness. As anyone who has ever felt genuinely lonely for even a moment can tell you, of course, there is nothing remotely trendy about that feeling. The (young) vampire girl who is at the slightly off-center of Let the Right One In is the saddest vampire you will ever see. And in that sadness there is truth. There is authenticity of the kind that seemed likely to be never be addressed in a film about the ridiculousness of the living dead. In the character of young Oskar who is the real center of the movie, there is also sadness and loneliness and if you can’t relate to being a vampire you may be able to relate to being bullied by intellectual dyslexics and picked on by their nit-picking toadies. When young loneliness meets with (young) loneliness the result is a breathtaking film.
Some will dismiss Let the Right One In as a Ritalin affair that movies too slow for the hyperactive MTV never-let-a-shot-last-more-than-10-seconds crowd, but being raised on Ingmar Bergman films this one seems about average for a Swedish movie. If there is such a thing as a Swedish action film, I’ve never seen one and I really don’t think I want to. As far as direction goes, Let the Right One In is right up there with There Will Be Blood, The Host, and A Tale of Two Sisters as being one of the best-directed films of the decade. The cast is uniformly good, but I’ll go on record right now as saying that young Lina Leandersson gives what may well be the most heartbreakingly superior performance by a child actor I’ve ever seen. Most child acting derived through a combination of direction and editing (think Haley Joel Osment and that annoying little girl from Little Miss Sunshine), but what Lina Leandersson does in Let the Right One In comes from within and she does something great adult actors do: she acts with her eyes and those eyes are about the biggest I have ever seen. It may be one of five best performances by an actress of any age this decade. Yes, it’s that powerful, deep, and tragic.
The strength of Let the Right One In extends beyond the acting and directing. The film refuses steadfastly to play by the rules of vampire movie imagery while also refusing to play it safe by abandoning the rules of its most recognizable mythology. Yes, sunlight does explosive damage to vampires. And for the first time that I’m aware of, the effects of entering a house without the consent of the resident is revealed and it is appropriately degenerate. Where Let the Right One In succeeds in becoming the vampire movie by which all others should be judged is in doing the impossible: making the vampire existence real. For the first time that I’m aware of, the viewer is witness to what the cold, stark reality of being a vampire would truly be like. The necessity for blood is not sexual here; it doesn’t work on some Camille Paglia psychosexual level that becomes a metaphor for the sex act. It is purely animal need and when the young vampire girl feasts upon her victims you will not be reminded of Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, but rather a hungry dog tearing away at flesh. The blood is life and without it life is ugly and pathetic.
At first it appears as though a subplot about a serial killer who exsanguinates his victims is going to be important in one way, but it turns out to be important in a completely different and vital way. Without giving too much away, suffice to say that not all vampires live to sink their fangs into victims for the pleasure of the kill as well as the pleasure of the blood. In fact, you won’t see any fangs in this movie. Let the Right One In is not, in a sense, a vampire movie in the traditional concept of expectations at all. It is mostly about Oskar and his maturation and the vampirism here is used just as much iconographically as it is for concrete purposes. The introduction of the vampire Eli acts an agent of self-actualization. In a sense, Eli raises Oskar’s consciousness and helps to lift a veil of ignorance and force him into realization about himself and his circumstances.
Oskar faces the same kind of bullies that appear on school campuses across the world and there is a tinge to Oskar of the Columbine cowards who enacted revenge in a manner ill-befitting their treatment. Oskar’s bullies are their own sort of lords who see Oskar as a fly, but his (young) vampire girl friend Eli is something a bit more than a bloodsucking count than they may have counted on. Vampires have been made into heroes before, but there is something truly heroic about Eli just as there is something intensely sad about her. Consider what it means to be stuck at as 12 for decades or even centuries. Never growing older, never maturing, but becoming witness to the evolution of society while all the subsisting only on blood. Violence is made a necessary part of her life not through choice or will, but need. To consider Eli an admirable figure is to go too far, but to consider her actions heroic in an existential sense makes far more sense than the heroism of the Twilight crowd or the superheroism now afforded to Hannibal Lecter. Eli, after all, does not look like she just stepped out of Calvin Klein ad. No, the portrait of Eli’s blood spattered mouth does not coincide with the moody beauty of the Twilight brood nor the super-cool of Spike nor the Old-World sophistication of Dracula. Eli is simply a vampire who has to have blood to live and without which she looks like a sad TB patient desperately in need of free health care who is being ignored by typical Republicans and so-called Democrats.