"It's an odd, bewitchingly beautiful nightmare with tenderness and terror."
I've never been to Sweden in winter, or in any season for that matter. I had, however, planned to visit some day. At the moment, though, I'm not so sure. If Let the Right One In is any indication of what to expect, I think I might spend Christmas somewhere else.
From the opening credits -- isolated crops of white words and snowflakes silently fading into black nothingness -- to the relentless bloodletting, director Tomas Alfredson and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema paint a very dark and very disturbing landscape with equally ill-fated inhabitants. Audiences whose only experience with vampire romance are made-in-America amours Edward and Bella may get quite a shock.
In a wintry Stockholm suburb in the '80s, 12-year-old Oskar spends his days being bullied at school and his evenings taking his revenge on the tree in the snow-covered lot outside his dismal apartment complex. He's all alone, until he's befriended by his new next-door neighbor 12-year-old "more or less" Eli. Who ominously informs him, "just so you know, I can't be your friend." But apparently she can't resist the pale, persecuted boy, and they bond over a Rubik's cube as she encourages him to battle his tween tormentors. Dark-haired and blue-eyed Eli is a vampire. But not the graceful, glamorous variety. She's an earthy, bloody-faced Nosferatu who's anguished by her existence, sobbing after she feeds. Meanwhile her human "father" ineptly attempts to harvest blood for her -- from suspended victims. What unnatural gifts and grace she has, we only furtively glimpse, and they're more unsettling then alluring -- like her spiderish silhouette scuttling up the side of a building. Or her large, reptilian, aquamarine eyes staring at Oskar from above in the climatic swimming pool scene.
While Eli may not always supernaturally sparkle, the atmosphere does. The coldness, isolation, loneliness, harshness, whiteness and muteness of winter haunt every scene. Especially at night, when most of the story takes place. It's a dim, icy desolation that makes the sparks of affection between the troubled Swedish sweethearts more radiant.
The complement to this tissue-thin tapestry of snowy suspense is the thick layer of dread and coagulated blood that also coats many scenes. (Accompanied by squelching, slurping sounds arguably far more disgusting than a gushing vein.) A tendency to revel in the glory of gore that at best brings out a raw, gritty honesty in the characters (especially Eli) and makes their suffering -- and their love -- more tangible and real. At its worst the gore gets campy and clashes with the movie's profound mood. Though it's still funny when a few Monty-Python-ish moments of absurdity break the film's surreal surface and awkwardly amuse.
But then again, not being of the Swedish mindset, maybe I'm missing something. Perhaps the entire film's intended as comedy, and I've taken it all much too seriously. Or I haven't taken it nearly seriously enough.
It's an odd, bewitchingly beautiful nightmare with tenderness and terror that make you want to both embrace and escape it. It warms you heart and chills your bones.
You want to let it in -- but then you also want to lock the door and slip on a crucifix.