While zombies have staggered over more than their share of cinematic surrealestate for decades, Vampires have been steadily extending their domain both on TV and in film. I haven't seen True Blood, though I have heard it's pretty good. Nor have I seen either of the Twilight films, though I heard they were uneven. From casual glances, both look like 90210 with fangs. I did watch the British series Being Human, which is about a London flat shared by a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost. If they walked into a bar it would be some kind of joke. The series was brilliant. Suffice it to say that the vampire genre has been a toothsome vehicle for studies of adolescent and young adult lives in these times.
Let the Right One In was, in fact, the most powerful and creative vampire movie I have seen in years. Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a twelve year old boy who is suffering at the hands of merciless bullies at school. He lives with his mother in an apartment building. His father is an alcoholic. He has a morbid interest in violent crimes, and keeps a scrapbook of articles about murders. He keeps a knife, and stabs a tree at night as if it were his foes.
One night he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), a girl his own age (give or take a few centuries) who turns out to stay next door. He is immediately drawn to her, and gradually comes to realize what she is. He doesn't much mind.
Eli lives with an older man, who turns out not to be her father or grandfather. A lot of the story focuses on that relationship, but I won't go into it for it gives away the primary secret of the film.
Let the Right One In is crawling with delightful innovations. The most prominent is the shift from more or less adult sexuality to adolescent awakening. The contrast between Oskar's growing fascination with Eli and the frustrated, even stunted emotional lives of the adults in the picture is vivid and compelling. As in most modern horror, it is the cracks in traditional family life that allow a point of entry for a greater darkness.
Without giving much away, there is a clever innovation in the standard infection vector in the vampire mythos. In the original model, anyone killed by a vampire becomes a vampire. The problem is that the vampire population would expand exponentially, eventually running out of victims. Anna Rice, in Interview with a Vampire, introduced the siring model. Some killed by a vampire just dies. To become a vampire, you have to be "sired" by drinking the blood of a vampire while still alive. That has become the dominant trick in contemporary vampire fiction, for reasons of nonproliferation and because it establishes interesting relationships among the dentally endowed. My favorite genre achievement, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, largely used that model.
In LTROI, the vector switches to the traditional werewolf version. You become a vampire only if you are bitten by a vampire and survive. The movie doesn't do much with that, but I would be surprised if it doesn't show up again in new movies.
The real brilliance of Let the Right One In is reflected in snow. Kåre Hedebrant is so white he is almost invisible against it. The snowy background creates a world of light and shadow and nothing else, until the snow is stained by red. Snow muffles footsteps, and the pacing and dialogue are made up of silence as much as anything else. The effect is unforgettable.
Let the Right One In is available on Netflix for instant viewing. If you like the horror genre (why else would you still be reading?) you will like this one.
Ps. The American version, Let Me In, is a slavish copy of the original. While I find the domestic setting much less compelling than the original, that is in part a function of familiarity.
I should also note that John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, on which the movies are based, is a splendid piece of horror writing. If you are looking for a book to sink your teeth into, this would be it.