Let the Right One In

Pop Theology contributor Wendy Arce reviews the Swedish vampire film, Let the Right One In.

When I think about vampires, I think of highly sexualized and seductive blood-sucking creatures. In fact, in most vampire movies and television shows (like Interview with the Vampire, Bram Stoker’s Dracula or, most recently, True Blood), the vampires have been played by attractive men or women who lure people into their lairs to either feed or turn an innocent victim into a vampire. However, last year’s Swedish vampire movie, Let the Right One In (now on DVD) defies this tendency.  After all, how do you sexualize a vampire that is a 12-year-old girl?  Surely she can’t seduce people like a typical female vampire–she’s prepubescent and undeveloped.  How does she then lure her prey?  The film presents a variety of alternatives to the overly sexualized vampire and, in the process, portrays a simple and subtle story, far different from the tween-dream Twilight and sensually sizzling True Blood (pictured here), both of which simultaneously aired alongside Let the Right One In.

Let the Right One In tells the story of Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), an outcast young boy who is bullied at school and acts out his revenge by stabbing a tree with his pocket knife.  During one outburst, he yells, “Squeal pig!” just seconds before he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the new girl who recently moved in next door. This girl is different and a loner, just like Oskar. She has an unkempt appearance and, according to Oskar, smells.  She stands bare foot in deep powdery white snow, dressed only in pants and a shirt:  she has “forgotten how to feel cold,” she explains to Oskar.  Eli doesn’t go to school either and must be invited into a room before she will enter.  Eli is certainly a strange girl, but that doesn’t matter to Oskar as the two develop a close bond, and Eli agrees to be his girlfriend.  Oskar is slightly freaked about by her identity as a vampire and the typical characteristics like an inability to eat food, the need to feed on human blood, and the speculation that she might be the cause of a recent string of murders in the neighborhood.  Yet Oskar cannot be too appalled because, after all, he frequently plays at killing his bullies and seems to enjoy it.  The film thus creates a palpable tension between acting and doing, enhanced by the fact that Eli does not enjoy her animalistic urges (she often waits until she is painfully hungry) in the way that Oskar does.

How does this 12-year-old girl capture her prey? How does she move from town to town, undetected by modern-day social services?  Eli is not alone in her wanderings as she is accompanied by a middle-aged man that, we assume, is her father.  Each night, he goes out to drain people of their blood for Eli.  On subsequent nights, his search for “food” are foiled by passersby or he is caught.  He intentionally harms himself and is placed in the hospital where Eli, alone and hungry, will eventually drain him herself.  Eli must now find her own way.

Although Eli is trapped inside a 12-year-old human body, she is really much older than this.  When she doesn’t receive a feeding or is poised to attack, her voice deepens into the voice of an old woman with hints of animalistic groans. Her face also ages dramatically, and rejuvenates only after she feeds or calms herself down. We rarely see her in vampire form though–no fangs and only subtle glimpses of her old face with the occasional smears of blood on her mouth and clothing.  Most often, we see the mousy brunette with big gray blue eyes who keeps the soft-featured, blonde Oskar company.  In the process, Let the Right One In heightens a tension between innocence and evil in a way that other vampire films may not.

Avoiding the problems of sexualizing a 12-year-old girl, the filmmakers do the next best thing by creating an innocent romance with the next person who would take care of her.  As we see Oskar riding a train, alone with his bags, we hear the distinct Morse code tappings, which gave him a way to communicate with Eli between their apartments.  She hides in a cardboard box, guarded by her new companion on her next move. As a perpetual prepubescent girl, she must lure protectors who will eventually outgrow her and possibly be killed out of their devotion to her.

Religion and film professor Michael Morris often claims that horror films are the last venue for the supernatural and spiritual in our post-modern, secularized age.  He also notes, as do many film scholars, the demonization of sexuality…made most explicit in vampire films.  These are two troublesome assertions.  What does it say about our society when the supernatural can only be conveyed by evil?  At the same time, how does the “vampirization” of sexuality affect our views of sex(uality) and sensuality?  In very real ways, Let the Right One In complicates these two thoughts with its 12-year-old prepubescent vampire.  The tension between innocence and evil (victimization and perpetration) complicate the often easy horror film dichotomies of good and evil.  Her under-developed body prevents Eli from using it to attract prey in “conventional” ways.  Instead, like all children, she must rely on protectors, who start as “childhood friends” that must inevitably grow up, for food and shelter, even though she can occasionally fend for herself.

Let the Right One In (115 mins.) is rated R for some bloody violence including disturbing images, brief nudity, and language.