Children on TV and in movies all tend to be, rather frustratingly, alike. Mainstream screenwriters — to make a generalization — tend to treat children as objects of innocence, free from the fetters of adult worry, eager to run around and have fun. If a child ever becomes ill, gets into trouble, or find themselves at the precipice of a life on iniquity, it is usually seen as a drama for the parent or guardian. Movie children are, more often than not, ciphers for the adult characters, a way of gauging the adults’ ability to maintain their own child’s innocence (or, perhaps, letting go of their child as their children grow up).
Films that accurately represent a child’s experience — from a child’s perspective — have become disappointingly uncommon. The quality of “innocence,” especially as a defining trait, is a quality usually projected onto children by adults. Innocence is not necessarily something all children possess. Indeed, if the reader dares to cast their mind back to their own childhood, one will likely find a wholly sophisticated human being, caught up in all manner of inner turmoil, fear, depression, exhaustion, ambivalence, confusion, joy, hatred, and wistfulness. Children are more emotionally textured than movies typically give them credit for. Not all kids are adorable moppets who say quippy things. They are people. The only real difference is that pizza parties are a much greater salve for angst.
So when a film comes along to depict the whole of the childhood experience wholly, emotionally accurately — even to a small degree — it is to be celebrated. Some of the best movies you may encounter are about children: Luis Buñuel’s LOS OLVIDADOS, François Truffaut’s THE 400 BLOWS. Also his SMALL CHANGE. The Brazilian masterpiece PIXOTE. Hayao Miyazaki’s MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. Lynne Ramsay’s RATCATCHER. David Gordon Green’s GEORGE WASHINGTON. Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL. These are all great films that capture a deep swath of childhood emotion. And one of the most accurate – and, as a result, most chilling – of these films is Tomas Alfredson’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (a.k.a. LÅT DEN RÄTTE KOMMA IN in its native Swedish).
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, released in 2008, is quite easily the scariest film of its decade. It also may be one of the more romantic. But it’s the kind of romance that makes a sane viewer wince a bit, and the horror fan smile a nasty smile. It’s very, very good.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN openly acknowledges and addresses a quality inside children that many adults would often choose to ignore: Children have just as much inner violence as some adults. Based on a (very Stephen King-inspired) novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is about a 12-year-old boy named Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), who lives with his free-spirited divorced mom, and who must endure her constant stream of oversexualized boyfriends. Oskar is bullied at school, and harbors fantasies of exacting violent revenge; at one point in the film, he practices using a knife on a tree. Oskar is what you might call an “at-risk youth.” He is full of hate and resentment, newly dipping his toes in the vast ocean of muck that is teenage isolation. Without supervision, Oskar will indeed begin harming himself or others.
Into Oskar’s life comes Eli (Lina Leandersson), a 12-year-old girl with pale skin and dark circles under her eyes. Eli has moved in next door with her creepy… father? Step-father? Legal guardian?, and she and Oskar begin fostering a quiet friendship. They commune at night, in the snow, in the playground their shared dingy apartment complex. Eli seems to see, in Oskar, the potential for… something.
Of course we all intuit immediately — even if we didn’t know the synopsis — that Eli is a vampire. “I’m 12,” she says, “but I’ve been 12 for a long time.” Her creepy guardian takes care of her, often bringing her blood in great vats, harvested from joggers he attacks at night. Their relationship is never made explicit, but the audience seems to see a loving pedophile caring after his enslaved charge. It’s incredibly unsettling. The novel, of course, makes this very explicit, and the dark sexual underpinnings of the novel are a playground of trigger words. The film plays the relationships far more subtly and ambiguously.
As the film progresses, Eli reveals more and more about herself to Oskar. Thanks to the open-mindedness that comes naturally with his age, Oskar can eventually guess that Eli is a vampire, and she begins answering frank questions about her nature. Why must a vampire be invited in? We see what happens when she isn’t. Who is that man who looks after her? Does she sleep in coffins? Does sunlight really hurt her? Their friendship consists of little beyond cold conversations, but we sense that these two are kind of falling in love. Although there is little in the way of actual romantic warmth — and sexuality is something that they are both just on the cusp of — we see that they are open with one another in a way none of the other people in this universe are.
That openness leads to a kinship, which leads to a deep, almost loving regard. That openness also leads to some rather terrifyingly logical decisions. How, for instance, does Oskar take care of his school bullies? “Hit them,” Eli says. “Hit them so hard, they won’t be able to hit back.” Oskar is being encouraged to violence. And, seeing as he is a dark soul to begin with, this is essentially the prompt he’s been waiting for. He’s not a killer or a maniac — at least not yet -– but you can tell that he is relieved to be able to enact his anger and his violent impulses.
Eli, being a vampire, shares those impulses. She has murdered people before. Several, in fact. When her caretaker is apprehended, she must take to the streets to find human blood. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, then is making a dark parallel between Eli and Oskar: In a way, they both need to do violence to survive.
And, of course, there is a wistful romance to this shared impulse. And that’s terrifying. There are people in this world who incite one another, and become more violent together, and that’s a positive thing for both of them. Maybe not so much for their victims. When Eli finally dispatches with some of Oskar’s foes, in a rather brilliantly-filmed sequence in a swimming pool, they smile at one another. They have each other’s backs. The film ends with the two of them running away together, he her new caretaker.
The novel, by contrast, continues into a third act, wherein a lot of the sexual dynamics are revealed, and more monsters appear; the novel climaxed with a faceless, pants-less pedophile monster stalking across the Swedish wilds. The novel also explains a shocking visual from the film. In the film, Oskar spies on Eli changing clothes, and catches a glimpse of her exposed genitals, only for a moment, in a brief shot of sexual voyeurism. The film seems to depict this moment as Oskar’s first brush with another person’s sexuality. The novel, however, describes Eli’s body as being scarred, and we learn that Eli is in fact a mutilated boy who was tortured and de-sexed centuries ago by a cruel child killer.
Both the book and the film are very good about folding a disturbing sexual element into Oskar and Eli’s burgeoning dark romance. The film, however, is more subtle and character-driven, while the book aims for shock pulp. Both are legitimate, although the film’s subtlety is appreciated by this critic.
It’s how well we can relate to both Oskar and Eli that makes LET THE RIGHT ONE IN so terrifying. We know these kids. We understand their relationship. We see exactly why they would be driven together, and how they are feeding — without even knowing it -– on each other’s need for death and violence. The more loving they become, the more horrifying for the rest of the world. Oskar is destined to murder for his true love, and Eli is destined to repeat the cycle when the time comes. Find another dark soul, encourage their violent impulses, and have them kill for you.
The most disturbing of all: She’ll likely have no trouble finding someone.