The Girl Next Door
2008 // Sweden // Tomas Alfredson // December 28, 2008 // Theatrical Print
A - Tomas Alfredson's chilly, provocative vampire tale, Let the Right One In, is not for the faint of heart. It spatters blood and gore with the ugly abandon of a child's vengeful dream. It dabbles at the edges of sexual norms, and dares to do so with characters on the cusp of adolescence. It plunges into the icy waters of schoolyard memories that cut to the quick: bullying, humiliation, loneliness, and that first crush, so unbelievably sweet and painful. Although it snuffles in the countless musty corners of the vampire myth and revels in camp horror silliness at times, Let the Right One In is no mere horror paint-by-numbers exercise. Rather, director Alfredson and screenwriter John Ajvide Linqvist—who adapted his own novel—take up the genre for its purest purpose, engaging a host of personal and social anxieties with a quiet, distinctly Scandinavian cunning. Serving as a parable, allegory, and hideously gleeful dose of wish fulfillment all rolled into one, this is an astonishingly powerful vampire film, in that leaves a thousand whirling thoughts in its wake, none of them about vampires.
We begin with a striking twelve-year-old boy, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), who dwells with his mother in a sad block of apartments in a lower-rent Stockholm, Sweden suburb. Bookish and retiring, the towheaded Oskar is a tempting target for bullies, but there is a veiled longing for violence coiled in the lad's heart, as evidenced by his scrapbook of lurid news clippings and his knife-punctuated threats (part Taxi Driver, part Deliverance) to a tree trunk. The late-night arrival of new renters in the apartment next door turns Oskar's head, partly due to the cardboard the older father tapes over the windows, but mostly due to his oddly beguiling daughter, who at least appears to be Oskar's age. The girl, Eli (Lina Leandersson), emerges at night, perched on the jungle gym wearing only her pajamas, despite the cold. She is pale and "smells funny," as Oskar says, but he is drawn to her immediately. Apropos of nothing, Eli declares, "We can't be friends," but eventually she warms to Oskar, despite her misgivings and her inability to consume his penny candy without vomiting. At night they tap out Morse code messages on the wall shared by their bedrooms.
Meanwhile, Eli's "father" Håkan (Per Ragnar) trudges through the bleak snows by night, abducting passersby and slitting their throats to collect fresh blood. He's not terribly good at this nocturnal butchery, and is nearly caught on several occasions, perhaps due to his age, or perhaps his heart just isn't in it anymore. Regardless, Eli's hunger is growing, but fortunately Oskar's neighborhood is well-stocked with portly, gregarious Swedes with a preference for stumbling home alone after dark. Fates both ghastly and bizarre befall the film's characters, while Oskar's life rolls on. Admirably for a horror film, Let the Right One In doesn't suspend its protagonist's daily travails once the supernatural enters his life. Even as the bodies and enigmas pile up, Oskar shows up for swimming practice, attends a class field trip, and heads into the country to spend the weekend with his father. His thoughts, however, are always with Eli, with whom he yearns to "go steady."
Alfredson eschews that most obnoxious of genre tropes, Our Vampire Are Different, littering the film with seemingly every morsel of "traditional" cinema folklore to surface since Max Shreck first took up the cape. Eli is burned by the sun, animals shriek at her approach, and she is unable to enter a house uninvited. ("What would happen if you did?" asks Oskar. She shows him.) She is stronger and faster than your average twelve-year-old girl, and can skitter up walls like an arachnid. Only the fangs are absent, and yet their absence is never mentioned. Where Let the Right One In errs, it tends to trace over sins endemic to the genre: some needlessly foreshadowed scares, sketchy makeup and computer effects, campy violence that at times seems ridiculously out of place, and the brutal murder of thinly drawn secondary and tertiary characters. While none of these concerns defeat the film, they are distressingly obvious pitfalls that Alfredson nonetheless cheerfully blunders into.
Quibbling over such matters seems shameful, however, given Let the Right One In's searing cinematic language and startling sensitivity to pre-teen alienation and longing. Summoning a bleak mood of hushed desolation and grubby fear, the film finds a perfect counterpoint to its themes of vengeance, delusion, connection, and revilement. Alfredson masterfully conveys a child's fatalistic resignation in the face bullying, their ritual humiliation (by kids and adults) for the crime of exhibiting intelligence, and most of all the wondrous possibilities that seem to blossom when love first seizes the heart. The director keeps the dialog between Oskar and Eli sparing and frank, tightly framing his actors, ever alert for the marvelous nuances that flicker across their faces. In this way, the bliss and lacerations of an evolving adult relationship are compressed and condensed, realized in one semester of friendship—and then something more—between Oskar and Eli.
Alfredson and Linqvist exhibit no qualms about engaging the sexual components of their story, but their approach is more hormonal and fantastic than strictly erotic. One night Eli enters Oskar's bedroom through the window and slips into his bed, naked. "You don't have any clothes on," he observes, and then they hold hands, tentatively. Such sexualizing of preteens, even in this admittedly sweet context, will likely provoke discomfort among some viewers weaned on Hollywood orthodoxies about what constitutes exploitation. However, Alfredson's gentle, achingly poignant depiction of adolescent loneliness and devotion is unquestionably a finer thing than crassly objectifying teens in the same unfortunate manner as adults. Perhaps more provocative still is Let the Right One In's unabashed gay subtext. Witness: Eli murmuring, "Would you like me if I wasn't a girl?," a man searching for the monster that made his girlfriend "that way," and a dribble of gender-muddling details. A queer reading of the film seems to offer another tantalizing level to its thematic riches.
Near the conclusion of Let the Right One In, the story of Oskar and Eli seems to end, and yet the film rolls on as an unresolved subplot rears it head with nasty results. This final sequence, brilliantly shot and bubbling with terror and gruesome wit, will polarize viewers, some of whom will regard it as a pointless and implausible coda. Not so. Rather, it serves as an exultant and perfectly natural flourish to an all-too-familiar fantasy, whether we are twelve years old or not: the dream of a companion who will accept us, adore us, and above all save us.