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Nightmare on Elk Street

Can gruesome horror flourish in the kingdom of
flat-pack furniture?

Roughly once every decade, the vampire movie receives a transfusion of virgin blood that lends its complexion a new ruddiness. Let the Right One In joins past donors such as George A Romero’s Martin (1977), Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987) and Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos (1993) in honouring many of the staple genre elements while adding a few new ones. Vampires still give animals the heebie-jeebies and tend to fry in sunlight (a covered bathtub stands in for a casket here). But did you know you should never give a vampire pick’n’mix? Or that they get a bit whiffy when they need feeding? Aside from the common or garden pong that comes with being a member of the living dead, that is.

The picture also exposes the vampire myth to two largely uninfected areas: childhood and Sweden. Can a friendship between two children retain its innocence in an atmosphere of dread? Can gruesome horror flourish in the kingdom of flat-pack furniture? The answer on both counts is an emphatic “yes”. Let the Right One In is gorgeous and horrific, soothing and disorienting, as befits a film steeped in snow and blood. Even during a scene of a man being hung by his ankles in the middle of a forest, ready to have his throat cut, it isn’t quite possible to ignore the greeting-card effect of trees throwing black stripes across a white landscape.

Similarly, we may witness young Eli (Lina Leandersson) administering enthusiastic hickeys to undeserving strangers, but that doesn’t make this lonesome child (she says she’s 12, “more or less”) look any less vulnerable when she nurses a rumbling tummy, even if it is rumbling for want of blood. When Eli scolds her downtrodden father for not harvesting enough of the red stuff, she becomes briefly pedestrian, another spoilt brat who might be demanding a pony or a party frock.

On the depressing Blackeberg estate where she lives, Eli is befriended by her next-door neighbour Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), who is being terrorised at school by bullies. Oskar looks angelic, with his platinum pageboy cut and ingenuous eyes, and the children start communicating through their dividing wall via Morse code. The film is littered with such barriers, the endless shots of windows in particular symbolising the partition between the living and the dead, or undead, that is overcome by Oskar and Eli’s intimacy.

The insatiable vampiric appetite is usually sexualised, but propriety rules that out here, unless you count a blood-smeared first kiss, after which Oskar goes home to tidy up his Smurfs. When they find themselves in bed together, Oskar asks only whether Eli would like to start going steady. Her insistence that she is not actually a girl leaves him so charmingly nonplussed that you expect him to respond with the sign-off line from Some Like It Hot (“Nobody’s perfect”). Whether the film is honest about vampirism, I am not qualified to say, but it is uncommonly frank about the love between children, who ask only for reciprocation, and sometimes not even that.

What Let the Right One In has in common with Martin, Near Dark and Cronos is a successful dovetailing of horror with banal human experience. The director, Tomas Alfredson, engineers a handful of legitimate scares, but it is his truthful touches that really ring out. Ordered to whip Oskar with a stick, a budding bully executes his task but sobs with each stroke. A woman savaged by Eli is wheeled along a hospital corridor, wailing and thrashing, while her boyfriend trails behind, carrying her possessions with the awkwardness that throughout the ages has characterised any man required to clutch a woman’s handbag.

Only the picture’s underlying message feels in any way confused. Oskar is encouraged by Eli to stand up to his tormentors, which he does with gusto, but this only makes things worse, necessitating a rescue mission by Eli which has been on the cards all along. The film-makers don’t appear to have realised that the idea flaunted here – that holding out for a deus ex machina is your best bet in a crisis – renders Oskar even more of a victim than he was before. None of which prevents Let the Right One In from being a thoroughly distinctive and invigorating entertainment, albeit one that’s as calculated in its wooing of the misfit mindset as a Morrissey lyric, or The Catcher in the Rye.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009