Our introduction to Oskar gives us everything we need to understand his character. The screen is black, but we can hear threats, disturbingly reminiscent of DELIVERANCE: "Squeal! You squeal!" It is the sound of anger, of fear unbottled as rage. But when we actually see Oskar, we are confronted with the truth: a scared, pale, almost feminine boy standing in his room in his underwear, stabbing repeatedly at the air and wishing it were the local bully at his school. It's the first of many beautifully unguarded moments that implicitly understand childhood and the tentative steps we take when we move into adolescence.
It's certainly not the traditional beginning to a vampire film, but then, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is anything but a traditional vampire film.
Directed with care and restraint by Tomas Alfredson and written by John Ajvide Lindqvist based on his novel, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN delicately captures the shy, innocent fumblings of friendship and first love for Oskar, who has been beaten down at age 12 by his life. His parents are divorced: his mother distracted, his father distant and possibly struggling with burgeoning feelings of his own. Oskar feels invisible, his paleness blending into the stark whiteness of Sweden, where the films takes place. The only one to pay him any mind is Conny, the school bully whom Oskar imagines stabbing in the beginning of the film.
That feeling of invisibility ends when he meets Eli, a dark shamble of hair and eyes large as saucers. She suddenly appears standing on the jungle gym outside Oskar's apartment complex. She's recently moved in next door, she explains. Their interactions late at night, outside, are poignant and really the heart of the movie. How does a 12-year old show his affection? Oskar gives Eli his Rubik's Cube after Eli shows him how to solve it. They learn Morse code so they can communicate with each other through the walls of the apartment. And for Eli, who has been twelve "for a while now," the questions of how to relate to Oskar is doubly confusing, which makes their repeated connections and their situation at the film's end wonderfully reached.
However, Alfredsen doesn't let you forget that this is also a film about a creature that subsists on the blood of the living, and without resorting to a more Westernized series of action set pieces he fills LET THE RIGHT ONE IN with a multitude of eerie moments: a figure scurrying up the side of the building, brief flashes of elongated tongues and faces that, for a split second, are infinitely older than at first imagined. Blood? Check, and lots of it. Sometimes with a quiet humor (a poodle and a bunch of cats get some good laughs) and sometimes for shock (the exquisite climactic "pool" scene), the movie never fails to surround itself in a shroud of winter that keeps everything in a suitably somber mood.
A quick note: both in print and online there are numerous attempt to compare LET THE RIGHT ONE IN to TWILIGHT, oftentimes asserting (one way or the other) that one is the "superior" vampire film. But that's a severe disservice: LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is simply one the best films of 2008.
It just also happens to be a vampire film.