One thing that has held true throughout the history of horror cinema: kids are creepy. From nearly everyone in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, to little zombie Karen killing her mom with a garden trowel in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and Laddie the boy vampire in LOST BOYS, we can see that combining childlike innocence with the monstrous seems to be a recipe for the heebie-jeebies.
Given this long history with creepy kids, it is astonishing that the 2008 Swedish vampire film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN was able to take this established standard and create something fresh, relatable, and still completely terrifying.
The plot of the film is fairly straight forward. Young Oskar is a bullied kid. He spends most of his free time playing alone outside, entertaining fantasies of standing up to his bullies. His life changes one day when a mysterious girl who appears to be about his age moves into his apartment complex and instantly insists that they cannot be friends. Of course, they turn out to be friends. As their friendship progresses, Oskar begins to notice that Eli is not a normal girl. She does not remember what it feels like to be cold. She cannot eat candy, or anything he eats for that matter. She also must be invited before entering Oskar’s apartment. We know that Eli is a vampire, though it takes Oskar a little longer to realize that.
It is not the plot of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN that makes it an original account of vampires, nor does the film attempt to reinvent or twist the traditional characteristics of vampires. Rather the film focuses much of its screen time on Eli and Oskar’s adorable relationship while only hinting at the broader story of Eli’s life as the living dead.
Oskar and Eli are both shy, quiet, and friendless. Watching them each use their mutual friendship as a way to come out of their shells and be happier with themselves, is satisfying to see on screen. Oskar finally stands up to his bullies after gaining confidence, in part due to Eli. Eli’s character arc is very different, however. She is an old soul. We do not know how long she has been around, but we do know it is much longer than her childlike appearance tells us. Eli instead gets to be a kid again around Oskar. She can dance and do puzzles, rather than hiding in her apartment in hungry agony day in and day out. Both of them are able to be at ease around one another, and this relaxation is a very welcome reprieve for each of them.
Eli is not completely alone in her apartment. Just as Oskar has his absent single mother, Eli has a companion, Håkan. Håkan is not a vampire. He is an older man who supplies blood for Eli so that she does not have to kill people herself. Håkan kills for Eli, hangs people as if they were hunting trophies, and drains them of their blood. It is clear that neither Eli nor Håkan want to continue to kill, but both are willing to do so to survive. Their relationship is the most complex in the film, but we know the least about their history together. What we do see is that they have a great deal of affection for one another. When Håkan fails to bring home blood for Eli on a particular night, the shame and frustration in Håkan’s face is offset by Eli attempting to comfort him. He lives to make her happy, and in return she is grateful.
Though the loving heart of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is strong, it still manages to be a terrifying and unpredictable horror film. When she is hungry Eli cannot control her urge to feed and she becomes an uncompromising and vicious hunter. Not only is it downright disturbing to see a child attack and feed on blood, Eli uses her childlike appearance to lure her victims. She knows that her projected innocence makes people lower their guard and she uses this reflex to her advantage. Seeing the previously docile child make a hairpin turn from pure to fierce is startling and erases any sense of comfort that the audience has nestled into.
It is this controlled toying with the audience’s experience through Eli and Oskar that makes LET THE RIGHT ONE IN such a success. The emotions are all genuine and complicated, leaving the viewer to sort out their residual feelings long after the film ends. Life is complicated; being a child vampire only complicates it further.