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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema

‘Let the Right One In’ (2008): The Horrors of Childhood

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson || Produced by: Carl Molinder, John Nordling

Screenplay by: John Ajvide Lindqvist || Starring: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar, Ika Nord, Peter Carlberg

Music by: Johan Soderqvist || Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema || Edited by: Tomas Alfredson, Daniel Jonsäter || Country: Sweden || Language: Swedish

Running Time: 114 minutes

In my exploration of contemporary Norwegian cinema several months ago, I noted how little exposure I had to the filmmaking of northern Europe, the Scandinavian peninsula and its associated island nations in particular. I wanted to compensate for that cinephile blindspot — random, intense samplings of different regional film industries are common behaviors of mine — and thus consumed not only several popular Norwegian works by André Øvredal, Roar Uthaug, and Joachim Trier, but also lesser known features like The Innocents (2021, directed by frequent Trier collaborator, Eskil Vogt) and the recent body horror film, Hatching (2022) from neighboring Finland.

One national film industry I felt I haven’t needed to binge lately was that of Sweden, whose filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman are considered timeless cinematic staples and whose native born and bred stars like Rebecca Ferguson, Noomi Rapace, Max von Sydow, and the Skarsgard family have become internationally recognized. Recent popular genre cinema of Sweden also extends well beyond the likes of adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (2009) to such niche classics like the 2008 film, Let the Right One In. Directed by Tomas Alfredson and adapted for the screen by the source material’s author, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In (henceforth, LROI) represents the apex of 2000s vampirism on film, classier than the action-packed yet schlocky Blade (1998, 2002, 2004) movies, more intelligent than fun yet longwinded English-language series (e.g. Buffy the Vampire Slayer [1997-2003], Trueblood [2008-2014], The Vampire Diaries [2009-2017]) from the same time period, and far better written than the trendy yet cornball Twilight (2008-2012) franchise.

Lina Leandersson (foreground right) bleeds from her facial orifices after she enters lead Kåre Hedebrant’s home without the latter’s formal invitation.

This seminal romantic horror is as much a coming-of-age drama about standing up to schoolyard bullies as it is a dark fantasy-twist on preteen romance, spawning not only a quality American remake from the venerable Hollywood auteur, Matt Reeves, but also a recent (2021) Showtime series starring Demián Bichir. Put another way, LROI may be the most transgressive, unique take on the vampire archetype on film since at least Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987).

Alfredson’s morbid, sad narrative is built around two pillars: (1) The effective adapted screenplay provided by Lindqvist, which strips away all but the most integral character moments between its male (Kåre Hedebrant) and female (Lina Leandersson, dubbed by the voice of Elif Ceylan) leads, and (2) the dark — literally — melancholic, softly lift camerawork by one of the world’s premiere cinematographers, Hoyte van Hoytema. The latter is what most sets LROI on film apart from its parent story on paper, is what inspired the look of Reeves’ adaptation, and is the characteristic now most associated with the property. Ask any cinephile to recall visual elements of LROI and they’ll likely mention the film’s pitch black nighttime backdrops, soft, moonlight-bathed foregrounds, and seductive, gentle snowfall, all of which are emphasized with disturbing analog sound-design. Hoytema has since made a name for himself internationally on David O. Russell’s The Fighter (2010), Alfredson’s own Hollywood debut in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), Her (2013), the James Bond film Spectre (2015), as well as collaborating on every Christopher Nolan picture since Interstellar (2014); LROI features some of his least flashy but most powerful, character-driven work, where director Alfredson provides a variety of custom indoor and outdoor sets, subtle yet significant digital FX, and creative light-diffusion techniques. Last but not least, LROI’s cinematography feels almost Fincherian thanks to its near total absence of handheld camerawork, including Steadicam-related technology, with its locked tripod shots and restricted dolly movements matching the depressed, subdued emotions of its preadolescent main characters.

The story itself is unique not for its focus on childhood growing pains, but how it melds those concepts with a creepy modern rendition of a classic movie “monster.” Leandersson’s androgynous vampire, trapped in the body of a preteen for God knows how many centuries, is portrayed as both an avenging angel as well as a destructive predator who shows little remorse for consuming innocent bystanders to survive. The narrative’s dissection of morality, guided by our perspective from Hedebrant’s protagonist, neither dismisses the unsettling behavior of its supernatural female lead a la Joachim Trier’s Thelma (2017) nor reduces her character to yet another bloodsucking humanoid parasite. The chemistry between Hedebrant and Leandersson amidst this moral minefield, which also involves the severe bullying toward the former and the pedophiliac serial-killer guardian (Per Ragnar) of the latter, is fascinating, and lets the audience draw their own conclusions as to the justifiability of these complicated characters’ actions.

Top to bottom, LROI boasts such consistent direction of such an understated narrative that I struggle to find weaknesses to complain about, but one could argue the movie doesn’t need to be almost two hours (114 minutes) given such a simple story. How a major character’s serial-killing methodology stretches credulity in the first act is also a plausible nitpick, but altogether there’s not much that audiences, from cinephile to general, would find offensive about this film.

Top: One of Leandersson’s surviving victims discovers that life as a vampire isn’t so romantic in the sunlight. Bottom: In LROI’s most important scene, blood is shed in a nice pool that I wish my high school had when I was a teenager.

In all fairness, I’m not sure whether Sweden has a “richer” or more influential national film industry than its Scandinavian neighbors, but my exposure to the former has long outpaced my familiarity with the latter. Films like Let the Right One In are good reasons why, though, as evidenced by the film’s reference-level dramatic cinematography courtesy of Hoyte van Hoytema, who has somehow avoided the ostentatious, flamboyant camerawork throughout his career that has defined much of Janusz Kaminski and Emmanuel Lubezki’s filmographies. Tomas Alfredson’s coming-of-age vampire romance represents some of the Dutch-Swedish photographer’s best work, and is further bolstered by one of the better screen adaptations of contemporary literature of the past couple decades, wherein author John Lindqvist captures the essence of but does not feel beholden to his original claim to fame.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Reminiscent of the 2000s motion picture vampire renaissance on paper yet superior to Hollywood’s most recognizable blood-sucking intellectual properties in many ways, Let the Right One In shows instead of tells its character development via unforgettable yet reserved camerawork, lighting techniques, and child performances.

However… while not bloated per se, Tomas Alfredson could’ve tightened up a few scenes; I find it hard to believe Per Ragnar wasn’t apprehended years before the movie’s diegetic start given his sloppy modus operandi.

—> RECOMMENDED, especially for those without romanticized memories of their childhood.

? Maybe Ragner should’ve taken lessons from the Gemini Killer from Exorcist III: Legion (1990). Now that was an efficient murderer!

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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