Let the Right One In

Sweden-Norway-France 2008, 114 mins
Director: Tomas Alfredson

According to Mexican maestro Guillermo del Toro, creator of the award-winning Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s ‘a chilling fairytale, as delicate, haunting and poetic a film as you’ll ever see’. For Hollywood director Matt Reeves, who topped the US box-office charts with the internet-friendly sci-fi shocker Cloverfield, it’s ‘touching and scary, an amazing mixture of a coming-of-age story and a really scary horror film’. While for Britain’s pre-eminent fantasy-film commentator Kim Newman, it’s ‘a love story and a contemporary horror film’ which has already ‘secured a place on the list of the ten best vampire movies’.

Since it premiered in its native Sweden back in January 2008, Let the Right One In has been gathering acclaim from all quarters. It’s the tale of Oskar, a 12-year-old misfit who is bullied at school. Out in the snow-covered courtyard of his apartment block one night, he meets his neighbour Eli. Gradually they strike up a tender friendship.

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s source novel takes its titular inspiration from the lyrics of pop’s own ‘Moaning Myrtle’, Morrissey: ‘Let the right one slip in/And when at last it does/I’d say you were within your rights to bite/The right one and say, “What kept you so long?”’ According to Tomas Alfredson, who directed the film from Lindqvist’s screenplay, the book contains ‘a strange mixture between the social-realistic style and the vampire stuff’. Audience responses have ranged from the intense chin-stroking of arthouse academics at the Tribeca Film Festival to the whoops and cheers of UK FrightFest fans, who found it the most satisfying shocker of the year. It’s hard to remember the last time a genre movie enjoyed such widespread crossover appeal – or the last time a ‘social-realist’ fable found such favour with the gorehounds.

Despite the many laudatory labels that have been attached to it, Let the Right One In falls into that category of truly great movies which are best defined not by what they are, but by what they are not. Most poignantly, Let the Right One In was (infamously) not an Oscar contender at the 2009 awards, nor did it have the chance to be so. Thanks to the Academy’s notoriously foolish regulations governing their ‘Films Not in the English Language’ category, each country is allowed to submit only one title for consideration per year. Sweden punted Jan Troell’s more clearly categorisable drama Everlasting Moments which, despite getting a nod at the Golden Globes, promptly failed even to make Oscar’s shortlist.

Explanations about ‘eligibility cut-off’ dates aside, many understandably assumed that Alfredson’s indefinable masterpiece had been passed over by the Swedish selectors precisely because they thought it was a generic horror film and therefore somehow unworthy of an Academy Award. Yet perversely at the 2008 Sitges Film Festival, considered by many to be the showcase of international horror and fantasy films, Let the Right One In was beaten to the prize for Best Motion Picture by Jennifer Lynch’s daft and utterly generic serial-killer thriller Surveillance – to the shock and dismay of the assembled cognoscenti. Perhaps the problem with Let the Right One In was that it wasn’t a box-ticking horror movie after all.

But what about the much discussed vampire theme – surely that provides a peg upon which to hang the movie? Perhaps so, but only in the sense that Let the Right One In transcends and redefines its generic bloodsucking heritage, occupying a position within/without the genre similar to that of Guillermo del Toro’s equally slippery Cronos. The oft-quoted interpretative truism about vampire texts is that they are all essentially ‘about’ sex and death. This lazily reductive reading finds its roots in Bram Stoker’s (disputed) death from tertiary syphilis in 1912 and reaches its apotheosis in the outbreak of modern vampire movies in the 1980s and 90s (Tony Scott’s The Hunger, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, John Landis’ Innocent Blood, Shimako Sato’s Tale of a Vampire et al) which commanded obligatory column inches about Aids scares and late 20th-century fears of fornication. More recently Twilight, from the novel by Mormon author Stephenie Meyer, has provoked heated debate about ‘abstinence porn’, its ‘no sex’ riff being seen as perversely but profoundly ‘sexy’, helping it to become the most money-spinning vampire movie ever.

By contrast, Let the Right One In is absolutely not about sex, even when its young protagonists embrace and become conjoined in an evocative danse macabre. The bloodline here is closer to Cronos, which specifically de-sexualised the lusty tropes of vampire cinema, offering instead a portrait of ageing and illness epitomised by the site of Federico Luppi licking blood from the clean white tiles of a toilet floor – the most sexless scene imaginable. Despite its hormonally charged coming-of-age motif, Let the Right One In is similarly more about friendship than fucking; it is significant that the paedophile elements present in Lindqvist’s novel have been obscured in the translation from book to film, as has the source’s strange transgenderism. As director Alfredson has said, the vampirism in his 1980s-set film looks back not in lust but in anger, with Oskar’s social impotence rather than his pubescent potency providing the driving force of the narrative.

So, if it’s not quite a horror movie, not really a vampire movie, and not obviously an Oscars movie – what else isn’t Let the Right One In? Well, as we noted before, it isn’t an English-language movie, nor a Hollywood movie, although both of those things are about to change. In May 2008, Variety reported that the remake rights had been jointly secured by stalwart British horror studio Hammer Films, recently revived by the Dutchbased fund Cyrte Investments. Ironically, it was Hammer who sealed the very genre clichés which Let the Right One In so utterly eschews, and which have long been the stuff of broad parody, most recently in the stylishly lame Lesbian Vampire Killers. Yet the remake will not be a British translation but an American affair directed by Cloverfield director Matt Reeves, who has spoken of his plans to move the action to snowy Colorado. ‘The movie and the book are incredibly Swedish,’ Reeves told the US press, ‘yet there’s something so universal about the tale of this kid and something that, in the context of an American story, could be completely different while being very consistent with the original story.’ He added that ‘there’s something about it that can be an American mythic tale.’

This last phrase gives cause for concern because, whatever else it isn’t, Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is definitely not ‘an American mythic tale’. Nor does it fit into the heritage of horror on which Hammer’s international reputation was built, and which still grants them saleable ‘brand awareness’ to this day. Which is not to say that Lindqvist’s sacred Swedish text could not be ‘re-imagined’ as an utterly different beast to Alfredson’s adaptation. Perhaps Reeves will be able to prevent his forthcoming film from being putrefied into the bland multiplex fare which has rendered Stateside Asian horror remakes so dreary and depressing in the past decade. But once again we find ourselves defining Let the Right One In only in absentia – existing outside the generic trends to which it alludes, but to which it refuses to conform.

In the end, of course, this is the film’s greatest strength. Kim Newman concludes that Let the Right One In would be ‘atypical in any decade’ and it is exactly this sense of ill-fitting which makes it such a masterpiece. If we must have a thematic touchstone for the film, it is more useful to look outside the genre to Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me, a movie which seems stylistically incomparable but which bears a similarly oblique relationship to ‘horror’. Based on Stephen King’s short story ‘The Body’, Stand by Me is a coming-of-age tale with a rotting corpse at its heart, inspired by a macabre incident in King’s own childhood which armchair psychologists have rushed to identify as the wellspring of his money-spinning dark dreams.

Setting it significantly in ‘the same apartment where I grew up’, Lindqvist describes his novel as a form of revenge for the angst he suffered as a child. ‘There’s a kind of poetic justice,’ he told Death Ray’s Guy Haley, ‘in the fact that the misfortunes of your childhood can be the basis for the fortunes of adulthood.’ Alfredson, meanwhile, identified with the ‘rough times’ endured by his film’s young hero, this autobiographical echo offering him a way into the story. In this I suspect that he is not alone – the empathy which audiences clearly feel with Oskar’s isolated plight is, if not universal, then at least not unusual.

It is this paradoxical ‘universal outsider’ appeal which ultimately defines Let the Right One In, allowing it to be all the things I have just claimed that it is not – a great horror movie, a spine-tingling love story, a masterful social-realist fable and (most ironically) a genre-defining vampire tract. It manages to be these things precisely because it is at once all of them and none of them. It is, in the very best sense of the word, a genuinely ‘difficult’ film. Sink your teeth into that.
Mark Kermode, Sight and Sound, May 2009

Director: Tomas Alfredson
A co-production with: Sveriges Television, Filmpool Nord
Production Companies: Sandrew Metronome, WAG, Fido Film, Chimney Pot, Ljudligan
With the support of: Svenska Filminstitutet, Nordisk Film- och TV-Fond
In collaboration with: Canal+
Producers: John Nordling, Carl Molinder
Line Producer: Frida Asp
For Nordisk Film- & TV-Fond: Svend Abrahamsen
Location Managers: Fredrik Sidevärn, Sofia Lindberg
Post-production Supervisors: John Thorstensson, Linda Dahlin
1st Assistant Director: Anna Zackrisson
Script Supervisor: Magdalena Johansson
Casting: Anna Zackrisson
Child Casting: Maggie Widstrand
Screenplay: John Ajvide Lindqvist
Dramaturg: Dennis Magnusson
Based on the novel by: John Ajvide Lindqvist
Director of Photography: Hoyte van Hoytema
Underwater Photography: Eric Börjesson
Digital Special Effects: Fido Film
Graphic Designer: Anna Lindqvist
Editors: Dino Jonsäter, Tomas Alfredson
Digital Post-production: Chimney Pot
Visual Effects On-line Editor: Linda Öhlund
Editing Consultant: Louise Brattberg
Art Director: Eva Norén
Set Decorators: Emil Eriksson, Britta Rehn
Concept Artist: Josef Norén
Costumes: Maria Strid
Make-up: Maria Strid
Music: Johan Söderqvist
Orchestra: Slovak National Symphony Orchestra
Guitar: Mats Bergström
Electric Guitar: Mattias Torell
Bass Guitar: Uno Helmersson
Waterphone/Piano: Johan Söderqvist
Drums: Erik Nilsson
Orchestra Leader: Hans Ek
Conductor: Hans Ek
Sound Designer/Producer: Per Sundström
Sound Designers: Patrik Strömdahl, Jonas Jansson
Sound Recordists: Christoffer Demby, Maths Källqvist, Mikael Brodin
Re-recording Mixers: Per Sundström, Petter Fladeby
Stunt Co-ordinator: Kimmo Rajala
Animal Trainers: Filmdjur, Annelie Arrefelt

Kåre Hedebrant (Oskar)
Lina Leandersson (Eli)
Per Ragnar (Håkan)
Henrik Dahl (Erik)
Karin Bergquist (Yvonne)
Peter Carlberg (Lacke)
Ika Nord (Virginia)
Mikael Rahm (Jocke)
Karl-Robert Lindgren (Gösta)
Anders T. Peedu (Morgan)
Pale Olofsson (Larry)
Cayetano Ruiz (Schoolmaster Avila)
Patrick Rydmark (Conny)
Johan Sömnes (Andreas)
Mikael Erhardsson (Martin)
Rasmus Luthander (Jimmy)
Sören Källstigen (Janne, Erik’s friend)
Malin Cederbladh (hospital receptionist)
Bernt Östman (Virginia’s nurse)
Kajsa Linderholm (teacher)
Adam Stone (policeman in classroom)
Ingemar Raukola (messenger)
Kent Rishaug (kiosk owner)
Linus Hanner (boy who dies)
Tom Ljungman (young man 1)
Fredrik Ramel (young man 2)
Christoffer Bohlin (young man 3)
Julia Nilsson (singer 1)
Elin Almén (singer 2)

Sweden-Norway-France 2008©
114 mins

The Uninvited
Thu 1 Dec 18:05; Sat 17 Dec 14:30 (+ intro by broadcaster and writer, Louise Blain)
Kwaidan (Kaidan)
Thu 1 Dec 20:00; Tue 13 Dec 17:40
Night of the Eagle
Fri 2 Dec 21:00; Sat 10 Dec 12:10
Daughters of Darkness (Les lèvres rouges)
Sat 3 Dec 20:45: Tue 13 Dec 21:00
Transness in Horror
Tue 6 Dec 18:20
Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)
Tue 6 Dec 20:45; Thu 22 Dec 18:15
Philosophical Screens: The Lure
Wed 7 Dec 20:10 Blue Room
The Lure (Córki dancing)
Wed 7 Dec 18:15; Thu 22 Dec 20:45 (+ intro by Dr Catherine Wheatley, Reader in Film Studies at King’s College London)
Cat People
Wed 7 Dec 20:50; Mon 19 Dec (+ intro by Clarisse Loughrey, chief film critic for The Independent)
Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio)
Fri 9 Dec 21:00; Sun 18 Dec 18:30
Ring (Ringu)
Sat 10 Dec 20:40; Tue 13 Dec 21:05; Tue 20 Dec 21:00
Atlantics (Atlantique) + Atlantiques
Sun 11 Dec 14:50; Tue 27 Dec 18:20
Sugar Hill
Sun 11 Dec 18:00; Sat 17 Dec 20:40
Mon 12 Dec 18:10 (+ live score by The Begotten); Sat 17 Dec 11:45 (with live piano accompaniment)
Mon 12 Dec 21:00; Tue 27 Dec 12:40
Wed 14 Dec 20:30 (+ intro by writer and broadcaster Anna Bogutskaya); Fri 23 Dec 18:05
The Final Girls LIVE
Thu 15 Dec 20:30
One Cut of the Dead (Kamera o tomeru na!)
Fri 16 Dec 18:15; Fri 30 Dec 20:45
The Fog
Fri 16 Dec 21:00; Wed 28 Dec 18:10
Being Human + Q&A with Toby Whithouse and guests (tbc)
Sat 17 Dec 18:00
Day of the Dead
Mon 19 Dec 20:40; Thu 29 Dec 18:20
Tue 20 Dec 18:15; Wed 28 Dec 20:50
Interview with the Vampire
Wed 21 Dec 18:10: Thu 29 Dec 20:40
Ginger Snaps
Wed 21 Dec 20:50; Tue 27 Dec 15:10
A Dark Song
Fri 23 Dec 20:45; Fri 30 Dec 18:20

City Lit at BFI: Screen Horrors – Screen Monsters
Thu 20 Oct – Thu 15 Dec 18:30–20:30 Studio

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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