With A Most Horrific Year, Senior Staff Writer Randall Colburn analyzes and reflects on the most critically acclaimed horror movie of every year, starting in 2015 and moving backwards. Spoilers are guaranteed.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Worldwide Gross: $11,227,336
Certified Fresh: 98%
Let the Right One In is a perfect title. I never saw its 2010 remake, Let Me In, because it wasn’t also called Let the Right One In. Let Me In is a fine title in its own right, but it’s not the right title for this story.
Because Let Me In says that this is a story of people who are long for an emotional connection, who are knocking on doors and windows, desperate for entry. The characters of Let the Right One In have no doors nor windows. They have walls. They are encased. Only the right one may enter, because they’ve spent too long letting the wrong ones in.
Sounds familiar, eh?
Let the Right One In sounded familiar, too. Another vampire story? Another vampire love story? About kids, no less? Remember that American audiences were in the throes of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight book series, the first film adaptation having come out the same year as Let the Right One In (though most Americans never saw it until it hopped overseas in 2009).
Like Twilight, Let the Right One In is a fantasy. It’s just a much, much darker one. Adapted from Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 bestseller, the story follows a bullied 12-year-old boy, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), who develops a friendship with Eli (Lina Leandersson), a young girl who moves into his apartment complex in the suburb of Blackeberg, just outside of Stockholm. Eli, as it happens, is a vampire, one who employs an older man, Håkan (Per Ragnar), to kill and procure blood for her. Once Håkan is undone by his own shortcomings, Eli is left on her own, soon depending on the companionship of Oskar, who finds in her the strength to stand up to his tormentors.
The film is actually quite different from its source material, though that decision was a mutual one between Lindqvist and director Tomas Alfredson. Both of them wanted to toss off some of the book’s darker and more unsavory side plots and curiosities (Håkan, for example, is a pedophile in the book) and focus on the love story that blooms between the two young leads. That made sense for Alfredson, who had little experience with horror and wasn’t interested in creating a pure genre film. “I suppose the strongest elements of fear are the fantasies of the scary things that could happen,” he told IFC back in 2008. “When scary things do happen, you tend not to be so afraid — it’s the fantasy that’s the scariest.”
Let’s hold off on dissecting that comment, as it lends itself to the film’s subterranean themes, and say this: Let the Right One In is scary, both in its fantasies and in what Alfredson calls the “scary things.” Eli’s takedowns of her victims are uncanny in the image of such a diminutive presence tackling and tearing through a fully grown man. Set it against the drab, stony suburb that serves as the film’s setting, and it’s equally unnerving; shadows flood every corner while a gritty, pervasive grayness seems to extend even to the film’s sunniest sequences. The film’s sparsely furnished, off-white-walled apartments and diners signal a community’s lack of character, a reflection of the loneliness that seems to afflict so many of its denizens.
This is a different kind of horror than we saw in 2008’s horror crop, which was dominated more or less by the ingenuity and massive success of Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield (Reeves, oddly enough, would go on to helm Let Me In). As in Cloverfield, the monsters of 2008 were less vulnerable; there was the Cloverfield monster, the ancient vines of The Ruins, and the masked, mute killers of The Strangers. That, or they were ephemeral, as in Bruce McDonald’s eerie Pontypool or M. Night Shyamalan’s awful The Happening (wait, the trees did it?). Aside from the middling, angsty Deadgirl, no movie of this era was trying to empathize with the monsters like Let the Right In.
The film becomes especially scary when you consider that it’s often kids like Oskar who can end up bringing harm upon their school and classmates. When his bullies approach him, he closes his eyes, lifts his chin to the sky, and succumbs to pain. They punch him and whip him and taunt him and it rolls over him, an inevitability. His fear is not in the pain, but rather in what might happen if he were to fight back — not just the reaction it might spur in his bullies, but in what it could unleash inside of him. When we first see Oskar, he’s shirtless, jabbing a knife at the invisible visage of his bullies, urging them to “squeal like a pig.” His fantasy is violence. His fantasy is revenge.
Both the book and the film were created in the wake of seismic school shootings — Columbine for the former, Virginia Tech the latter — and both end with a group of bullies getting massacred at the school’s pool.
Oskar might be scarier than the vampire.
People thought that way about me once, too. When I was in third grade, I got a math problem wrong. When my teacher told me so, I told her I wanted to kill myself. I didn’t really; for nine-year-old me, it was just something to say when you were sad.
They didn’t care, nor should they have. I was promptly sent to the school counselor, then a professional one. They asked me if I had the urge to harm myself. They asked if I had the urge to harm others. I didn’t have answers. I remember feeling blindsided and confused. I told everyone what it seemed like they wanted to hear. One day, my mother pulled me out of school in the middle of the day. She yanked me into the minivan, grabbed my backpack, and rifled through it. She said one of the kitchen knives was missing. She worried I’d taken it to school. When she didn’t find it, she bought me McDonald’s.
She was worried because I was bullied, too. A greasy, bespectacled kid named Ricky Wagner liked to spit in my hair on the bus. On Halloween, he yanked my bag of candy out of my hand and stomped on it. I was dressed as Hulk Hogan; that didn’t deter him, unfortunately. He pushed me off my bike when I rode by. Then he and his friends would follow me on theirs. They didn’t yell at me or tell me run away; they just watched and followed until I went back home, tears in my eyes.
In bed, I’d fantasize about killing him. My mother was right to be worried. Like Oskar, I imagined what I’d say as I did it. I imagined the way he’d beg forgiveness, the way he’d sob at my feet.
In Let the Right One In, Eli tells Oskar to stand up for himself. He does so on a field trip when he smashes a pole into a bully’s ear, splitting it open and spilling blood. In the moments afterwards, he seems to retreat to the same state of passivity as he does in moments of pain, mouth closed, eyes to the sky. This time, however, the camera follows his gaze upwards, into the heavens. Oskar is smiling. He’s found his god.
When I finally confronted Ricky, I approached him after school in my subdivision. I marched up to him, my fists balled. He was surprised, caught off guard. I opened my mouth: “I won’t take it anymore!” I tried to yell, but all that came out were mangled sobs. He laughed. I couldn’t form words. I ran home. There was a kitchen knife in my backpack.
He bullied me for another year until his parents divorced, and he moved to another county.
I was lucky.
In any other movie, Eli’s arrival would soften Oskar. That’s what love’s supposed to do, isn’t it? Not here. This isn’t the story of a love that repairs a broken heart and smooths away the hard edges. Eli is a creature of violence; she’s lonely, sure, but the connection she seeks isn’t the kind we’d typically describe as love. The same goes for Oskar, who, being only 11 years old, longs not for love so much as somebody with whom to go steady. He falls for her precisely because she tells him to do what society tells him not to, which is to fight back, to make his bullies bleed and suffer.
Almost all of Oskar and Eli’s bonding happens in the presence of blood. She climbs, naked, into his bed with blood still in her hair. He attempts to form a blood bond with her; in this moment, she realizes she cares for him too much to kill him. She kisses him for the first time after he helps her kill a nosy neighbor.
In this sense, Alfredson has preserved the queasy nature of Lindqvist’s work. As in his deeply unsettling Little Star, Lindqvist is concerned with the culling and cultivation of violence and violent impulses in youth, the ways in which an innocent love can tease out a terrifying true nature. Here, however, as in Little Star, that inner monster serves as the bridge to emotional connection.
When Oskar discovers she’s a vampire, she soothes him by saying he’s as bloodthirsty as her. Oskar wants to kill as much she needs to. It’s love as bloodlust, and it’s a revelation from which he’ll never turn back.
In his review, Roger Ebert described Oskar and Eli as “two lonely and desperate kids capable of performing dark deeds without apparent emotion.”
In other words, they’re an outcast’s fantasy come true.
Considering all this, it’s perhaps surprising that the film has been so embraced as a love story. Think about it, though, and it makes sense: Love stories about weirdos have become as routine as any other rom-com. In those films, weirdos are hoarders or socially awkward or have kooky families. Here, we have monsters. Here, we have the lost. It makes sense, perhaps, that the only person Oskar could love is a pale, ageless bloodsucker.
In the end, they ride off together in a train, she in a box, he accompanying it. She taps on it, spelling out “kiss” in Morse Code. He taps back, “puss,” which stands for “small kiss” in Swedish. It’s a sweet moment, but also a scary one. Because it won’t be long until that kiss becomes a bite.
“Be me, for a little while,” she said to him previously.
As with so many relationships, however, “a little while” is about to turn into “forever.”
It makes you wonder if he let the right one in, after all.