By Stephen Mullen
Adolescence can be a terrible time. It can be very painful. It is a time when you lose yourself, lose what you have been, and become a new person in spite of yourself. For most of us, this happens surrounded by others going through the same thing at the same time – is it any wonder how horribly 12 and 13 year olds can treat one another? Let the Right One In is a vampire movie, and a bit of a social satire (if that’s the word) – but mostly, it is about that time when you stop being a child and start to become something else (not quite an adult – but not a child). It is about loss – the loss of childhood, of identity, though also other losses (losing connections with other people, through death or changes in you and them) – but also about what you become. Change is loss, but also gain – you lose who you were, you become someone new. It is about the effects of these changes on groups of kids – about their cruelty, their pain, about how they cope, and perhaps escape.
The main story is about Oskar, a 12 year old living in a particularly horrifying suburb of Stockholm in 1981 (a period promising transition itself – Brezhnev was on his last legs; Reagan was rattling sabers across the sea – the Cold War itself was starting to change, but it wasn’t sure what it was going to change into, and Sweden was right there between the two of them). Oskar lives with his mother, who is seldom home; his father lives in the country and is something of a refuge for the boy (except when he’s drinking). He goes to school, where he is too clever for his own good, with an excessive interest in police matters; his classmates torment him mercilessly, and he goes home and imagines bloody vengeance on them. There don’t seem to be any other kids in his apartment complex; then one moves in – Eli, a strange girl about his age who doesn’t seem to dress appropriately for the cold, who seems about as lonely and suspicious as Oskar. It doesn’t take them long to become friends – they bond over a Rubik’s cube, and they are soon very close.
But Eli has secrets of her own. The film doesn’t waste a lot of time letting us in on them – she lives with a Hakan, an odd, quiet, older man, who murders and guts people in the woods to bring her blood. Or tries – when he is interrupted, she has to go out herself and find prey, for she is a vampire. She kills a middle aged drunk, touching off a sub plot involving a number of aging alcoholics, who may have seen her. Meanwhile, things escalate at the school – the kids bullying Oskar get worse, and when he fights back (at Eli’s urging), he hurts one of them badly enough to cause further repercussions. The assorted plots build – rising trouble among the kids; the developing friendship and intimacy between Oskar and Eli; and the complications coming out of the killings. Hakan is caught in the act of trying to kill another kid, and leaves Eli alone; one of the friends of the man she killed finds her and tries to kill her while she sleeps, but Oskar warns her and she kills the man; then the boys at school try to get their ultimate vengeance on Oskar, but Eli saves him in a spectacularly gruesome fashion, and they leave together.
It delivers as a horror film, but it is much more concerned with the relationships. The film concentrates on Oskar and Eli – the novel it is based on develops a number of relationships in addition to theirs. It delves into the lives of the kids who torment Oskar; it details Eli and Hakan’s relationship; it spends more time with the old drinkers; more time with Oskar and his family. But the broader scope of the book mainly expands and deepens the themes that are at the heart of Oskar and Eli’s relationship – the sense of loss, loneliness, change, and their powerlessness against that change. In the book, we learn that the bullies are more like Oskar than not – they lose parents, families, they are going through the same changes he is – they take their troubles out on him, creating a chain of misery. The film retains hints of this – Oskar’s main tormenter has an older brother, who is introduced in the film bullying the little brother (who will pass it on to Oskar); the film also retains the subplot with Ginia and Lacke, an older couple who are in the process of losing one another (and in the end, lose everything.) This is a world of pain; everyone is alone, everyone is isolated – and Eli is the epitome of all of their pain.
Most of the characters are kids, most of them on the edge of puberty, about to change forever – and Eli is trapped forever at that very moment. Eli was made a vampire at age 12 – taken from his family, castrated, tortured to death, though not to actual death, then trapped forever at that point of transition and pain. Eli is locked forever in pre-pubescence, trapped between childhood and adulthood, between boy and girl, life and death, ageless and 12 years old, always in the middle. The film is extraordinary at capturing her strange condition – it shows her childishness, her sense of discovery of the world, of things like the Rubik’s cube, her loneliness, her desire for contact, a connection, her willingness to try things – while never losing the sense that she is hundreds of years old, has been through this before, has suffered everything and more. And that she is a vampire, and must live on blood, is subject to a host of rules and conditions – she will catch fire in the sun; she cannot enter a place without being invited, without consequences, and so on. She is immensely powerful, but she can’t get along without the help of others. We see it in her relationship with Oskar – she genuinely likes him, she longs for friendship, for communication – but she also sees that she can use him, that he can replace Hakan. She uses him – his anger and fear, his loneliness – while at the same time responding to him directly, as one lonely child to another. The film handles this with great care, we can see both; it is a superb balancing act.
And it is a superb film throughout. I’ve written before about its look, the cold spare spaces of Blackeberg, all square buildings and empty courtyards, a fair version of hell, but that excellence is everywhere in the film. It’s beautiful, and it uses its look and feel to advance the themes. It is a film about the end of childhood, about transition – and plays that out, all the shots of doorways and windows and gates we see. The themes come from the book – the importance of those liminal spaces, the central metaphor of the vampire’s inability to go in uninvited, with Eli as the ultimate liminal character, forever caught <i>between</i> – and the film finds the imagery to give them weight and power.
So we come back to adolescence, to the traumatic transition from a childhood to maturity, to the loss of oneself, and the discovery of a new self – and the importance of that part of the change. Oskar, at the end of the film, has lost everything – abandoned his family, his life, left a trail of devastation in his wake – he is moving into a very uncertain future, very possibly headed for a life of slavery to a vampire who needs him to kill for her, and certainly obliged to drag her around with him wherever he goes…. But he is on his way somewhere – moving, alive, sane, not locked in a trunk until sunset. He has put off the childish things, and become someone else, something no one else, not even Eli, can do.