Best horror films do not scare you as much in your seat as they do afterwards. But more importantly, they are not lamentably hollow at their core - they have other reasons to exist than, say, startling people in the darkness or maybe giving shy new lovers an excuse to get physically closer. That's why, above all else, it's this writer's humble opinion that Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is without doubt the best horror film ever made to this day. In an age where horror film genre forgot how to haunt people's minds, their dreams and their subconscious minds just as intensely as the two hours spent in the theater, Let The Right One In is indeed a revitalizing experience.
But this is only one of the reasons why god decided to send this little Swedish film our way this year (little in terms of budget, not importance). The other reason, in case you're wondering, was to enable people like myself to better argue why a lot of films that were lucky enough to enjoy popularity and/or critical acclaim in recent years were actually complete trash (or, rephrasing that statement so that some don't find me unnecessarily offensive, 'not as good as people thought them to be'). You thought Frozen River was somewhere close to the upper limit in terms of low-budget realist filmmaking? You believed that Twilight was the best way to tell a teenage love story with vampires? Was either Teeth or The Grudge the best possible depiction of a monster trapped in the body of an innocent underage female? Compared to this one, did they even remotely resemble satisfying stories? Or, let's go one layer above the recently-released films: Did you think German expressionists at the beginning of the previous century were destined to reign as a small collection of people most capable of telling fantasy/horror stories? Would gore always be a pointless exercise in filmmaking as it is in Hostel or Saw series? Should we give up and embrace all the sound effect-induced moments in random gloomy frames as today's newly-emerging horror style?
Would the genre be as powerful again as it once used to be?
The conditions are rather premature to jump to the statement that after this little film, certain shortcomings that are well-known to be common among recently-released horror films are no longer the extensions of a particular trend. Even as Let The Right One In was being shown to the American audiences for the first time, a deal for its Hollywood remake was already sealed (the release date seems to be 2010, in case you were wondering). I don't particularly fancy deprecating prejudgments, but I think we all possess certain prophetic capabilities when looking into the future and trying to estimate how good that remake will be. Regardless of Let The Right One In or its remake, we will continue to sit through (or more preferably hear only the news of) a lot more mediocre-at-best horror films, maybe with the ever-increasing expectation of something different and original. We'll be sorely disappointed a lot of times; but at least now, we have more reasons now to be hopeful.
When I was inviting some of my friends to come see the movie with me in a special midnight screening, I saw their faces go sour when I used the term 'Swedish vampire film' as a tag. Only after watching Alfredson's film it became apparent to me that calling Let The Right One In a 'vampire film' is actually almost as ludicrous as calling The Reader a 'Holocaust film' (almost, not as much). I'm not advocating that it transcends the genre or anything, but clearly, a huge chunk of the film is about anything but vampires. It is unfortunate that in this century, we seem to be pathetically hung up on titles and labels and summaries more than ever before - our desperate need for as much simplicity as we can get our hands on to make our lives easier has reached unsettling proportions. Everything is always rushed; we have to judge quickly, categorize and move on so that our busy little brains will not have one more severe burden to ponder about. We have to see more, write more and do more. We basically need to produce, more than others do. In such a summer hustle, a film like Eyes Wide Shut was mostly dismissed as 'tedious and pretentious crap'; therefore it should come as no surprise that Let The Right One In was also overlooked this year, save for the top 10 lists of a handful of respectable critics. We don't like to think, but what's worse is we don't like to be reminded that we don't.
(On a brief note: I heard about this film for the first time through several of such top 10 lists. If you are among the flock of people who despise the very idea those lists, I recommend you to think twice.)
So what do we have here then? When it comes to an extremely ambitious and equally successful project like this one (which, by the way, is 'No Country For Old Men of 2008' to me) the answers should be evaluated just as meticulously. This is the story two young, isolated and blood-lusting souls. Take this statement literally for the girl (Eli) and metaphorically for the boy (Oskar). Her need is obviously physical while his is emotional, but it's hard to determine whose is greater. Eli is much much older and has seen things, so she should help Oskar one grow up and grow strong. On one level, it's the most touching coming-of-age story of a mentor-tutor relationship in which the idea of 'love' and 'devotion' is integrated so subtly that it's almost subliminal. Let The Right One In avoids making bold statements about things that are better left unsaid for it doesn't take brains to deduce them anyway (Mr. Eastwood, some precious lessons for you here). It skips the entire foreplay about the past; about how the girl became a vampire, how she met the older man (Hakan) and what happened to the father of the boy. The characters speak when they actually 'say' something and things 'happen' only if there is enough reason to make us to witness them. At its running time of almost two hours, the film is incredibly compact and complete.
'Revenge' was another term that was thrown in by many critics. While I concur that it was indeed a part of the story, it's nowhere near being the thematic centerfold of the film. Not like, say, how Tarantino elaborated on the same idea in Kill Bill or Sergio Leone did in his masterpiece Once Upon A Time In The West. In this case, the concept is more in the background, breathing life into the boy's character and making credible his motivations as well as his emotional 'defects' (if you want to call them that). It's the base that this extraordinary relationship is built upon, but the building itself is a completely different matter.
Not that the film is only about the Oskar and Eli; all the supporting characters are also given amazing complexities and depths, as if everything that the this year's Oscar-nominated films were lacking in terms of character development were channeled into this film. Certainly the most significant and dramatic example is the loving yet abusive relationship between Eli and Hakan, who seems to be responsible for making 'things' easier for her. He is a character which defies all expectations and quick judgments, even though it becomes obvious from early on in the film that she's the one pulling the strings in this 'family', that she's the parent and he's the kid or maybe she's the oppressive lover and he merely complies. It's both heartbreaking and chilling to the bone when the old man asks the girl not to see the young boy again. Not on that day at least, not when he is doing 'things' for her that is so hard to digest that he lost all sense of emotion and reality. The girl is wiser though. A pat on the cheek and that's it. He should understand. Lucky for her, he does.
There is every reason to believe that he was Oskar's predecessor; an obvious detail that I thought was lost to many critics that I've been reading lately. In fact, it's due to this fact that the anti-climactic ending of the film resonates so well. Though the use of Hakan, the film incapsulates both the past and the future of any relationship Eli would keep on having with mortals. It's both sad and horrifying. The hopeless, cyclical nature of this vampire's life, in which there'll be many more lover/servant/friends coming in and going out periodically, is depicted most poignantly. The hopes and excitements at every new corner (such as young Oskar) is accompanied by the presence of long-accumulated frustration. The calm, familiar sense of loneliness and despair. For Eli, it's fate at its most relentless form.
Alfredson should also be praised for making best possible use of the landscape of Stockholm suburbia to paint a portrait of confinement and desolation. There are countless scenes where he introduces new dimensions to cinematic visuality. It's realism at its most beautiful form. In fact, everything happening in this film looks and feels so real that you feel things could jump out of the screen any moment. As far as locations are concerned, it could be your house and your neighborhood. It could be your kid's school. If vampires were real, a documentary about their hunting, feeding and mating habits would've looked like this. The camera is always distant and restrained, almost scared. Yes, this means there was gore but nothing is excessive. Like the genius first half of Jaws or the genius both halves of Psycho, all you see is what you need to see. No fangs, for instance, no overtly-long and dark suspense scenes. No time to lose on such trivial things - there is a whole story to tell.