I was channel surfing the other night and getting ready to head to bed when I saw that TVO was just starting a broadcast of Let the Right One In, the 2008 Swedish vampire flick directed by Tomas Alfredson (who is best known to English-speaking audiences as the director of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). The film got excellent reviews when it came out, so I made some tea and settled in.
The plot is pretty straightforward. A 12 year-old boy named Oskar is being tormented by a group of bullies at school. Meanwhile, people are turning up dead in his housing project, their bodies hung from trees and drained of blood. Eventually, Oskar is befriended by Eli, who has just moved in next door with her father. Eli looks about 12, but is clearly wise beyond her years. She urges Oskar to fight back against the bullies, which he does. The violence at school escalates, as do the killings, while Oskar falls in love with Eli. Except Eli is a vampire, which puts a crimp in things.
The film pulls of the difficult manoeuvre of making use of the cliched tropes of vampire flicks from Nosferatu to The Lost Boys, which is why Eli can fly, is incredibly strong, and is afraid of the sun. What prevents it from getting anywhere near camp is the film's flat, almost emotionless tone (if you've seen TTSP, you know what it's like) and a storyline that spends far more time on Oskar's problems at school than it does on Eli's blood-sucking needs.
That is why a lot of reviewers interpreted it as a bullied-schoolboy revenge fantasy grafted onto a story of young lust. As one review put it, Let the Right One In is "a pensive meditation on the transcendent possibilities of human connection."
I found it to be a pensive meditation on the soul-destroying nature of love. Or at least, of the kind of self-denying obsession that adolescents fall into, and which too many people mistake for true love. To that end, there are two key scenes in the movie: The first is when Eli is preparing to go meet Oskar, and her apparent father, Hakan, pleads with her not to go meet that boy. There is a jealousy to his tone that suggests their relationship is more complicated than it appears. The second crucial scene is when Eli goes to Oskar's house, and she stands waiting on the threshold of the door. Invoking yet another staple of the vampire canon, You have to invite me in, she says . When Oskar asks what happens if he doesn't, she enters and promptly starts bleeding from every orifice. Panicked, Oskar yells "I invite you in!"
With that, they are bound to one another for life. Oskar is destined to become the next Hakan, a friend and lover, then father figure and blood-sourcer for Eli, keeping her forever young while he ages and watches as the cycle repeats itself.
The moral of course, is right there in the movie's title. The trick to love is not about letting someone in to your heart, it is about letting the right one in (a nuance lost in the title of the American remake, 2010's Let Me In.) If you let the wrong person in, they can become a vampire, sucking the lifeblood out of you and turning you into a slave to their every need.
The last scene of Let the Right One In shows Oskar escaping on a train, with Eli in a box hiding from sunlight. The two of them tap sweet nothings to each other on the box in Morse code. This isn't a "romantic horror film", as Wikipedia describes it. It's a horror film about romance.