As the last of the Oscar contenders wash up in Detroit theaters, it's worth taking a moment to consider the newly competitive foreign language category and its messed-up rules. You see, unlike other Oscar categories, contenders must be submitted by their native country, and only one film per nation is allowed. Not only do a whole slew of worthy pictures get ignored, the process fails to address the obvious question: How likely is a country like, say, China, to nominate a film that's critical of its ruling party?
While it's pretty unlikely that Sweden failed to put forth Let the Right One In for political reasons, this remarkable little film was probably dismissed as not high-minded enough to rate an Oscar berth. What a shame. Tomas Alfredson's haunting and poignant vampire film is one of the most memorable releases of 2008, in any language.
Living in a drab working-class suburb of Stockholm with his neurotic mother, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is a fragile, 12-year-old loner who fantasizes about getting revenge on the cruel bullies who torment him daily at school. One cold snowy night in the courtyard outside his apartment he meets doe-eyed Eli (Lina Leandersson), the strange pallid girl who has moved in next door. She smells funny, her stomach gurgles painfully and she seems immune to cold. Still, Oskar has found a friend, one with the confidence he lacks. Too bad she's a vampire. Worse, Eli's a vampire who takes no joy in her need to feed. Aching loneliness and isolation bind the two together as Eli teaches Oskar to defend himself, and Oskar seems to accept Eli for who she is. In the end, each saves the other in acts of shocking and beautiful brutality. Is it true love or an unholy union? The final moments feel hopeful but hint that Oskar may be just be another lonely boy lured into Eli's ageless fight to survive.
Mixing blood-sucking mythology with a painful coming-of-age tale, Alfredson has created a tender and poetic horror film that transcends its genre roots. Its Scandinavian gloominess is perfectly suited to the story, and by focusing more on the primal fears of adolescence than creature-feature scares, Let the Right One In draws us into Oskar and Eli's vulnerabilities, winning our allegiance even if the path they choose is monstrous. The filmmaker suggests that the things that make us strong and the dark instincts we hide from the world may be the same. It's a clever ruse, making the audience complicit in the children's acts of murder and vengeance.
Alfredson's direction is effectively stark and understated, never once relying on quick cuts or gimmicky camera angles. Instead, the vampire attacks are filmed dispassionately and at a distance, subduing the mayhem but heightening the eeriness. Each act of violence carries with it the jolt of stumbling across it as a helpless bystander.
Forget the teen-romance-novel approach of Twilight or the inevitable American remake (slated for 2010), Let The Right One In is an elegant, touching and creepy horror film that proves cinema has yet to put a stake through the heart of the vampire genre.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, Jan. 23-24, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 25. It also shows at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 30-31, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 1. Call 313-833-3237 for more info.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.