2008 CIFF: Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, 2008)

Director: Tomas Alfredson

2008 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This is going to seem like a very peculiar way to open a review about a vampire movie, but serendipity led me to it. The hubby put on a Beach Boys CD as I sat fumbling for words, and the song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” came on. When I heard the lyrics “And wouldn’t it be nice to live together, in the kind of world where we belong,” I thought, yes, that’s a sentiment Let the Right One In taps. Unlike the kind of sunny romances the Beach Boys immortalized, however, this story of young love comes from Sweden, a land better known for darkness and melancholy. And then there’s that small issue of the lovers being a 12-year-old boy and a vampire who looks like a “12 year old, more or less” girl. This is no trite or gimmicky love story, however. A more emotionally rich, honest, and harrowing film—though properly wrapped in the conventions and graphic horrors of vampire tales—you’re not likely to see for some time.

The film opens in a dreary apartment block in a suburb of Stockholm. Snow covers the ground, and darkness covers the gloom. Moving inside one apartment, we see the back of a boy. He puts his hand to the window and smears a palm print down the pane. We see his face, wistful, pale, framed by fine, pale hair. He has a knife out and pretends to talk to someone, daring that someone to come forward to be stuck like a pig. The boy, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), collects knives and newspaper clippings detailing crime and violence. He lives with his divorced mother, pines for his father who lives a good distance away, and goes to a school where his intelligence, shyness, and status as a child of divorce makes him an object of torment for bully Conny (Patrik Rydmark) and two lackeys. They chase him into a bathroom stall, threaten him, soak his pants in a urinal, and mock him in scenes of painful cruelty.

These bullies are the imaginary pigs at the end of Oskar’s knife, and Oskar goes into the wide courtyard of his apartment complex and repeatedly jabs his knife into a tree. The camera shifts to Oskar’s right to reveal a girl standing on a table, coatless in the frigid night. They have a brief conversation. Her name is Eli (Lina Leandersson), the girl who the neighbors said moved into the apartment next to Oskar’s with her father Håkan (Per Ragnar).

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Inside the apartment, Håkan is packing a square case with a plastic bottle, a knife, some contraption fitted with a mask, and a plastic coat. He goes into an isolated wood where he encounters a teenage boy. Distracting the boy, Håkan places the mask over the boy’s face and renders him unconscious. He puts on his plastic coat, wraps a rope around the boy’s feet, tosses the rope over a tree limb, and hoists him up. He places the plastic bottle under the boy’s head, slits his throat, and catches the blood that pours from his neck.

Unfortunately for him, a dog out for a walk with his owner catches the scent of blood and runs barking toward Håkan. Håkan flees the scene when he hears human voices. Returning to the apartment, he unpacks his case, only then realizing he left the bottle of blood at the scene. Eli, furious, yells, “Do I have to do everything myself?” “Forgive me,” is Håkan’s only response. Håkan seems to be trying to make something up to her. Her insolence toward him suggests that he might not be her father after all.

On a street near a frozen lake, good friends Lacke (Peter Carlsberg) and Jocke (Mikael Rahm) bid each other a warm good-night after a pleasant night out. Jocke crosses under a bridge, where he encounters a girl cringing in the cold. He goes to her aid, lifting her up to carry her to shelter. The girl is Eli, and grabs him with great ferocity and drains his blood. A prissy, old bachelor with a houseful of cats witnesses the scene. By the time he calls for help, the body is gone—dragged by Håkan to a hole in the ice and dumped in. Only traces of blood are found buried under some soft snow where Jocke’s body fell.

With one confirmed and one suspected death and the townspeople on alert, Eli must remain at home. She spends time with Oskar, and one day, notices that he has a bandage on his cheek. He told his mother that he fell at recess, but in fact, the bullies whipped him with a tree switch and accidentally hit him in the face, leaving a long gash. “You have to fight back,” she counsels. “When they hit, you hit harder.” She also promises him that she will always have his back. When Oskar goes to school the next day, he asks the gym teacher if he can start doing weight training.

Eli’s need for blood sends Håkan out again looking for a “donor.” His attempt to drain a teen athlete while his friends wait for him outside the school goes awry. As the boy is rescued unharmed, Håkan, hiding in the showers of the locker room, pours acid on his face to disguise his identity and keep Eli safe from prying eyes. He is taken to the hospital, and Eli remains at home, hungry.

Her need for blood has weakened her, and her body is starting to give off an odor, which Oskar embarrasses her by commenting upon it. She determines to get what she needs from Håkan, who has been hospitalized. Removing her shoes, she crawls up the side of the building and to his window. In a truly horrifying scene, he unplugs his airway, opens the window, and offers his neck to her. When she is done, he falls lifelessly to the ground.

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Others will fall to Eli, even as she falls for Oskar. She crawls into his bed one night, naked, and he remarks on how cold she is. “Is it gross?” she asks. He doesn’t really answer, but he doesn’t turn her away. They lay in silence for a short time, and then Oskar asks her to go steady. She wants things to remain as they are, but he says they can, only they will just be for each other. Since it’s clear they are already a conspiracy of two in a world that has little use for them, it’s easy for Eli to agree. They become more entwined in each other’s lives. Oskar finally asks her if she’s a vampire. “I live on blood, yes.” She invites him into her home, where they dance to pop records. He gains unfettered access to her home, and she watches over him as the bullies escalate their attacks on him.

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2007 novel, Let the Right One In, was a runaway best-seller in Sweden, has already received numerous translations, and has been optioned by United Artists for a mainstream Hollywood version. With so many actual and proposed versions of this story floating around, however, it’s hard to imagine a better version than this film, with a screenplay by the novelist himself. From what I’ve read about the novel, many things that were left vague in the film are explicitly spelled out. I think the story may be better served by the visual and aural mood of the film craft, the simple and sometimes inarticulate conversations of Oskar and Eli, and the faded, shadowy adults who react to events but never penetrate the true mystery of connectedness. Indeed, the most emotionally remote among the characters are the ones who suffer the most awful fate.

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The land itself seems permeated with loneliness as depicted in glorious Cinemascope by camera artist Hoyte Van Hoytema. He captures flat, linear images—the exterior wall of the apartment building in which Oskar and Eli live with its square, symmetrical, characterless windows; the straight maze of white-trunked birches in which Håkan commits murder; the vast expanse of a frozen lake in a monochrome world. In such a void, every sound is magnified. The meticulously detailed sound design gives us Eli’s animal growl as she feeds. We hear the wet sounds of mouths eating or nervously salivating. We hear each blow of Oskar’s beating and the strange sounds of unseen action while Oskar is underwater. The musical score contributes a foreboding structure, yet yields to tenderness as the love story progresses. Special effects are spare, realistic for the givens of the story, and deeply affecting and startling. Watch for a brief moment when Eli asks Oskar to “be me,” and Eli’s face as she would appear if she looked her real age flashes briefly, showing not only the successful connection between the pair, but also a human longing in her “human” face.

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The remarkable performances of Hedebrant and Leandersson as Oskar and Eli command the lion’s share of the attention in the film. Eli, who’s “been 12 for a long time,” never really had a chance to live as a human. She still has a thirst for life that has kept her going through the loneliness and rootlessness of a vampire’s existence. Her existence isn’t depicted as sinister or horror-mongering, however. She does what she has to do without making a big thing of it. When Oskar seems to judge her for killing people, she puts him in his place by saying he’s just like her. “The first time I ever heard you, you were talking about killing. I do it to live. You want revenge.” When they finally kiss, Eli’s mouth is stained with blood, enacting a version of the blood-mixing alliance Oskar attempted before he knew her true nature.

The trailer below showcases the amazing look of this film, with all the horror traditionally associated with a vampire story and only a hint of the vital heart beating at its center when both Eli and Oskar “let the right one in.”

A fine interview with the director by Todd Brown of Twitch is worth reading. It doesn’t contain major spoilers, but I’m glad I didn’t read it before I saw the film. This is a film that should be felt, not examined. l

  • Fox spoke:
    6th/10/2008 to 11:40 am

    The thing I liked about this film is summed up in the last shot. I loved the “knocking” thing throughout, but the end was that device at its most touching.
    However, I’m much less thrilled – on initial viewing – about this film than you are. I think it goes back to my theory that people tend to give bonus points to average films b/c they are foreign-artsy. No doubt that Let The Right One In looks great, and Alfredson does a great job of establishing a tone and consistently keeping it, but thematically I think the movie is only half-there.
    Not to mention a major problem I had with it: the subplot involving group of townspeople that lose their friend to Eli’s bloodlust. They always felt in the way to me, and when the subplot grows when one of them is partially attacked, I just really thought it went off the rails.
    Also, what did you think of the cat scene? Beyond the bad CGI, the entire scene came off as a bunch of misplaced humor. Did this scene feel odd to you as well?
    Good write-up! I’ve been anxious to talk about this film with somebody.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/10/2008 to 12:06 pm

    Fox – Actually, nothing about this film bothered me EXCEPT the last scene. Where were they going? To Dad’s? The way Dad’s friend made Oskar seem in the way, it’s not likely. Oskar’s still only 12 years old; he can’t just take off without his mother searching for him. I think there was a better way of showing their true love forever.
    I loved the cat scene actually. I found it truly horrifying. Ginia’s terror at what she’s becoming seemed to come into real focus as she ran out of the apartment.
    I think the subplot was necessary to establish the danger Eli is in and why Oskar comes increasingly into her life. He comes to identify with her, and that, I think, turns him from a picked-on kid looking for revenge to a more mature individual who understands things just aren’t that simple.

  • Richard Harland Smith spoke:
    6th/10/2008 to 1:38 pm

    This is going to seem like a very peculiar way to open a review about a vampire movie, but serendipity led me to it. The hubby put on a Beach Boys CD as I sat fumbling for words, and the song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” came on. When I heard the lyrics “And wouldn’t it be nice to live together, in the kind of world where we belong,” I thought, yes, that’s a sentiment Let the Right One In taps.
    An interesting coincidence, as the distaff vampire film (well, or so it seems) that I’ve been shopping for a year now actually makes specific use of that song. In including it, I don’t imagine the producer who buys it (no takers yet) would spring for the rights but it sets just the right tone for vampire sorority stripped free of the Penthouse Forum baggage that has weighted down the subgenre at least as far back as Hammer.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/10/2008 to 1:42 pm

    That IS an interesting coincidence, Richard. The script sounds intriguing, and the genre could use a little jolt. Good luck!

  • Jordan spoke:
    7th/10/2008 to 9:58 am

    I thought this movie was perfect and the last scene didn’t bother me at all. I just hope the remake doesn’t ruin this movie for the rest of the American audience. Oh and if you’re looking for more unspoiled movies, Let the Right One In is part of the six shooter series, and the five other movies looks just as good, check it out => http://www.sixshooterfilmseries.com

  • Kimberly spoke:
    7th/10/2008 to 4:24 pm

    This looks great! I enjoyed your review and the preview really grabbed me. I hope I get the opportunity to see it soon.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/10/2008 to 8:15 am

    I hope you do, too, Kimberly. I know you’d love it. Glad to see you back blogging regularly. I apparently have a lot of movies to see. FYI, CIFF is showing Once Upon a Time in the West on the big screen.

  • Kimberly spoke:
    8th/10/2008 to 12:41 pm

    I apparently have a lot of movies to see.
    I’m taking you mean my favorites of ’68 list? Well if it’s any consolation I haven’t even seen most of the Oscar winners in the past 10 years. My knowledge of modern movies is often sorely lacking so I look to people like yourself for recommendations.
    I really hope you get the opportunity to see Once Upon a Time In the West on a big screen! Seeing my first Leone film in a theater was an amazing & unforgettable experience.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/10/2008 to 12:57 pm

    Yes, that’s what I meant. I haven’t seen any of the Oscar-nominated films from 2007 and few from previous years unless I went on the behest of a friend or relative. The nominees, with a few exceptions, usually are overrated, IMO.
    I’m not a big Spaghetti Western fan, but I may make an exception for Once Upon a Time in America.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    8th/10/2008 to 9:21 pm

    Fine piece, Marilyn. I really want to see this one; I am disheartened that there is an American remake already planned. That’s never a good sign.

  • Erin D. spoke:
    8th/11/2008 to 1:54 am

    Great review, Ferdy. I just saw this film and enjoyed it as much as you did.

  • Nick spoke:
    22nd/11/2008 to 1:30 pm

    I saw this film for the first time today and truly loved it.
    I agree with Marilyn’s review, though I did chuckle a bit at the cat bit and I loved the last scene. To me it doesn’t matter what they are doing and where they are going. The important thing is Oskar and Eli are together and they are happy. What the future holds for them, who knows?
    A great movie.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/11/2008 to 3:27 pm

    Nick – I’ve thought a lot about this film after reading the many opinions of it around the blogosphere. What the future holds for them? Well, it’s starting to remind me of the end of The Graduate: Elaine and Benjamin (Eli and Oskar) are on a bus, happy that they got away, and then the “now what?” look passes over their faces. We don’t get that from Eli and Oskar, but I think for Oskar at least, it may only be a matter of time.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    13th/12/2008 to 7:14 am

    Very impressive piece of writing. Exceptional in fact, and the first one of yours I’ve actually seen, even though I have been reading your terrific comments at Getafilm. I would go as far as saying it’s the best review of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN I have yet seen, which means I’ve really been missing out not reading Marilyn Ferdinand. But I wasn’t aware you had a review blog until today. Anyway, from that engaging BEACH BOYS lead-in, which for me was particularly on the mark (as I saw and reviewed a Brian Wilson concert on my blog that I saw three weeks ago, and was seduced yet again twice that night by their best song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” which even eclipses “Good Vibrations” for it’s timeless, bouncy and effervescent quality) through the brooding widescreen snowscapes and the rightful excitement of the two lead performances, this is thought-provoking and eloquent prose that deserves to be read by everyone.
    I will be adding your blog to my own blogroll today.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/12/2008 to 7:47 am

    Sam – That is a wonderful compliment. Thank you so much, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. Please feel free to look around the place.

  • Tomek spoke:
    4th/02/2009 to 10:36 am

    …but what did they say to each other at the end (knocking on the box)?!?!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/02/2009 to 10:51 am

    Tomek – If I knew Morse Code, I’d tell you. Alas, I don’t.
    Thanks for stopping by.

  • Clay spoke:
    2nd/03/2009 to 7:55 am

    The message passed between Oskar and Eli in Morse code at the end of the film is the Swedish word ‘PUSS”, which, translated to English, is “KISS”.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/03/2009 to 8:39 am

    Thank you, Clay!

  • Clay spoke:
    22nd/03/2009 to 7:45 pm

    You’re welcome. Even two months after seeing LTROI for the first time, I’m still haunted by the movie. Regarding the ending, though: both Alfredson (the director) and Lindqvist (the novelist) describe LTROI’s ending as ‘happy’. Lindqvist also terms the story as being that of ‘two children pulled out of darkness by love’, which flies in the face of many of the gloom-and-doom pronouncements Ive seen around the internet about the supposed sinister nature of the ending. Not saying you read it this way ;)
    I think one of the skillful things about the film is its capacity for being read, like good literature, in several different ways. I think that’s one of the reasons why LTROI is a rare case of the movie being better than the book. As a writer myself, I’m familiar with the rigorous process of revision, and I think writing the script for the movie gave Lindqvist a chance to get rid of many of the things that got in the way of the redemptive love story that seems to have been his real point: things like the ambiguous gender stuff (really hardly touched on in the film, compared to the book), and the hideous Hakan-as-walking-undead-hardon stuff.
    I love, love, love this movie. I started a Yahoo group to hopefully promote conversation about it, but so far, nothing. Thanks for tolerating my longwinded post here.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/03/2009 to 9:39 am

    Longwinded posts not only tolerated, but encouraged. It has been several months since I saw this, but so many scenes remain vivid in my mind. I do like the ambiguous nature of the ending, though I found it unconvincing that they would be able to run away without Oskar’s parents on their trail. Therefore, a “happy” ending doesn’t seem likely to me, however you define it.

  • Clay spoke:
    23rd/03/2009 to 8:17 pm

    I agree, the parents are an issue which would probably have to be dealt with. I prefer to write original fiction, but I was so enthralled with LTROI that I’ve started a fanfiction sequel (no eye-rolling please) called Let the Old Dreams Die (the second line of the Morrissey song that inspired Lindqvist’s original title)…and one thing I’ve had to consider is the reaction of Oskar’s parents to what he and Eli have done. It occurs to me that neither of Oskar’s parents fully understood his isolation, the real depth of the danger the bullies presented to him, and certainly they have no way to know the lengths Eli went to to save Oskar, nor indeed, anything much about the relationship between the two children.
    My inordinately romantic hope is that a situation might present itself which would allow Oskar’s parents (one or both of them, I haven’t decided) to cross paths with Eli and Oskar, and come to realize that being together, in the world outside Blackeberg, might be a better future for the two of them than alone in the life they’d each led before.
    But of course, before that happens, the parents *are* looking for them, they *are* still on the run, dealing with the impact of what they’ve done and the demands of Eli’s hunger, and the possibility that the three dark-clothed strangers who’ve boarded their train just recently are probably policemen, and probably looking for them… ;)

  • Remi spoke:
    16th/04/2009 to 8:02 am

    I personally thought that the ending was both effective and ineffective. Ideally, after being suspected for the murder of townspeople, it would be wise for Eli to leave the town (and Oscar along with her). However, as discussed before, because of Oscar’s youth it would be difficult for him to escape his parents without dilemmas arising. Also, if Oscar travelled with Eli, wouldnt it imply that he would have to kill for Eli? Taking into account that Oscar was against Eli’s habit (well…necessity) to kill innocent people? This doesn’t fit Oscar’s personality or character. However, it was a sweet ending to the movie.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/04/2009 to 8:21 am

    Remi – I think your points are well taken, and I do think the ending is both perfect and flawed. As for whether Oskar will have to kill for Eli, not initially, I wouldn’t think. He’s no bigger than she is, and wouldn’t have the strength that Eli counted on Hakan for. As for wehter Oskar would do it, we’ve seen him allow Eli to kill her attacker in her home and his anger at his tormenters at the beginning of the film manifest in a violent fantasy. I think he’d kill for Eli.

  • Clay spoke:
    22nd/04/2009 to 11:10 pm

    Marilyn,
    I think so, too, but perhaps not in the ‘food-provider’ way Hakan was employed for. I couldn’t help noticing that Oskar, even with knife in hand, didn’t have the stomach for attacking a man who was trying to kill Eli IN HER SLEEP.
    I think he saw shouting to warn her as an alternative, and would have been willing to do more had it been necessary. That scene brings to mind one more of the chilling and touching questions for which I so love the film: isn’t there a point at which we ALL would kill to protect and preserve the life of someone we love?

  • Stuart Easton spoke:
    17th/12/2009 to 9:24 pm

    Marilyn, great review firstly! As has already been said, your comparisons to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice..” are spot on, and you’ve produced a well written and interesting piece..
    Secondly, yes I know I’m very behind the times. I initially heard about this film in 2008, but no local cinemas showed it (North West England is so terrible for films usually), and I only found the DVD last week..
    And now to the main bulk. As a rule, I hate vampire films. They’re, to me, boring, predictable, repetitive and cheesy. I’m a big fan of Horror/Fantasy, but usually avoid vampires because of the above. Because of that, this film shouldn’t have interested me.
    What grabbed me however, was the fact the lead roles were 12 (more or less) year old children. From experience of watching too many films, “foreign” child actors pretty much always nail the role, so it got me thinking “ah but can they pull off vampires?”. Kåre and Lina absolutely pulled me into the story, and I found myself truly sympathising with them both.
    Eli at the start saying “You know I can’t be your friend..”, but the part of her that’s still a child, and seems, after years of only having Håkan as a companion, a tad on the lonely side, not being able to help but be intrigued by this person that just won’t seem to take the hint. Equally Oskar, the much bullied, lonely, friendless child who although secretly would like revenge on those who torment him, just seems like he wants a friend.
    The way the friendship built, and the way Oskar although initially unhappy with the revelation his new friend kills innocent people, can see past this necessity, and in time loves her, just drew me in.
    Another rule of mine is I generally don’t watch romance films. I don’t know what it was about this, but it’s one of very few I would gladly recommend to anybody!
    For me, none of the scenes seemed “tagged on”, but I’d have liked the deleted scene where Oskar teaches Eli about the numbers on your back game to have been included, as this would have made the scene where she gets in bed and does it to him make a bit more sense..
    The ending left me with a big grin on my face. Yes you could think “But he’s 12!! Won’t his parents miss him??”, but for me I think you just need to let the film flow. Open your mind slightly, Eli just saved Oskar even though she said she needed to go.. For me this showed him how much he means to her, and although yes they’re only 12, it’s a great “lovers into the sunset” ending that just seemed right. I prefer it to some random ending where she just disappears, or stays local. It just fits. And the morse code “kiss” was just a big “AWWW” moment!
    Sorry to drone on! Just wanted to say some thoughts..

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/12/2009 to 9:43 pm

    Stuart – Thanks for stopping by. This impressive film is always a pleasure to revisit. Even though it has been a while since I saw it, its mood and visual impact stay with me. As for the ending, I think that will continue to be a point of contention with audiences now and in the future. Whether Eli really loves Oskar or is just hooking him in out of her own need may never be resolved, and may depend on how one views the possibility of feelings in vampires. I do like vampire films and have seen the evolution of wanting to see vampires as true romantic figures, not just seducers. Let the Right One In is a bit ambiguous about where it stands. Is Eli truly capable of the love we find in Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series or Twilight. I like the uncertainty of it.

  • Danny spoke:
    11th/01/2012 to 9:06 pm

    Anyone who has seen the film “Melody” – an appreciates how that film ended – will have no problem with LTROI. Both films are more or less from a child’s point of view, and thinking beyond the moment is the curse of advanced years. They leave together, happily, and a moment of happiness is almost an eternity at that age.

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