In Tomas Alfredson’s vampire picture Let the Right One In, the only thing more horrifying than the insatiable bloodlust of the undead is the everyday terror of adolescence. The filmmaker’s catalog of visual atrocities—slit throats, severed limbs, spontaneous combustion—registers as so much banality when set beside the outrageous cruelty inflicted on the young hero by his classmates. The coming-of-age story and the vampire tale may seem like an odd pairing, but Alfredson draws the film’s sustaining tension out of the inverse relationship between the intractable power of vampirism and the impotent sufferings of youth.
When Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a tow-headed 12-year old outcast, suffers the daily slings and arrows of adolescent abuse—taunting, yes, but also bullwhipping and attempted drownings—he harbors violent fantasies of revenge which usually consist of cutting his attackers with a pocket knife. But Oskar, confined to solitude by circumstance—and by Alfredson’s mise-en-scène, which frames the boy either in constricting close-up with blurred background or in long shot against an unpeopled snowscape—soon makes friends with Eli (Lina Leandersson), the new girl at his apartment complex. But Eli is rather different from other children. She doesn’t go to school, she walks barefoot in the snow, she vomits when eating candy. And more importantly, she feeds on blood, a point that scarcely deters Oskar from pursuing his newfound friendship.
Even as Alfredson highlights the tenderness of the central relationship (a near-naked spooning between the two preteens is cute rather than indecent), he never fails to emphasize that these are essentially creatures of violence, the boy through inclination, the girl through necessity. If Oskar is reduced to an impotent rage at his inability to stand up to the bullies, then Eli’s situation is the reverse: She is unable to refrain from committing violent acts, relying as she does on blood for her continued sustenance. Eli offers Oskar the possibility of wish fulfillment, both the encouragement and, later, the physical means to strike back against his tormentors, but this central exposition of the revenge narrative places the viewer in an untenable position. By making the actions of the tormentors so gruesomely overheated, Alfredson manipulates the audience into a position where it comes to both expect and welcome violent retribution to be visited on the bullies’ heads. So when Oskar raises a metal pole and threatens the most debased of the villains, we are encouraged to applaud the self-assertion of the young hero, even if that self-assertion can only manifest itself in a gruesome meting out of blood-soaked vengeance.
To his credit, Alfredson never allows the attainment of revenge to give in to a sensation of unmixed satisfaction, but having once granted his hero a taste for blood, he allows him to continue along the path of violence, never providing him (or the audience) with the full gratification expected from his actions, but never calling into question the efficacy of continued blood lust either. This blood lust is, after all, what links the young couple—even more than their outsider status—and, finally, what makes it difficult to accept such an otherwise agreeable pair. Eli may suffer the torments of being stuck in a state of eternal vampirism, but her bloody exploits are offered up to the viewer as nothing more than subjects for his aesthetic delectation. As such, they look pretty good, but a more thoughtful approach to such a knotty set of concerns would have been welcome.