Invite one in

Spoiler alert: this movie has been out for a year and a half, so minor discussion of the plot seems tolerable.

Let the Right One In has been hailed as one of the smartest vampire movies ever. It has 97% on Rotten Tomatoes (as opposed to 50% for Twilight, for example). Critics see it as choppy, vague, amoral, with flat effect. But might a smart vampire movie not be just that? It plays by all the rules, and as a result, the vampire gains a lot of humanity.

The main character, Oskar, is a bullied loner with revenge fantasies living in a drab corner of Sweden in mid-winter. The bright spot in his life is the weird girl from next door, Eli, who is likewise drawn to him because she identifies with the savage way he’s stabbing a tree in the courtyard. Promising relationship, no?

Speaking of this at a much later point, Oskar defends himself, and you get the impression that he’d like to think he’s better than the girl: he “doesn’t kill people,” and wants to hurt only the bullies who have tormented him for so long. Eli counters: I do it to live. And she does, with a slightly conflicted detachment tied to the innocence of her tiny frame, managing, oddly, to be endearing in the process. She is a reserved, motherless child, with unkempt hair, and seems to feed off Oskar’s admiration as much as she feeds off the lifeblood of the townspeople.

The link between her need for (unconditional) love and her need to survive is so strong that it permeates the movie, but so subtle that it’s difficult to find reviews pointing it out. Eli is introduced as living with a strange older fellow, whom she refers to as her father, but who appears to be anything but. He goes hunting for her clad in a plastic parka, and asks, with a hint of jealousy, that she not hang out with Oskar; she responds by touching his face and not saying a word. Which is creepier, the creepy old guy with a thing for young vampires, or the young vampire who uses him up?

The subtlety lies in how sexless the whole thing is. If Eli and Oskar were a few years older, the entire feel of the movie would be thrown. But they’re 12. They relate as children relate, even when Eli takes off her soaking clothes and hides in Oskar’s bed. And Eli denies herself repeatedly so as not to hurt Oskar. She’s something of a heroine, even given the background gore and the hints that she has done this many times before to get her guardians and benefactors. In the final scene, Eli and Oskar depart together into the unknown, smiling, gleeful, all their past woes behind them for the few hours that Eli won’t have to eat someone else.

Their grand escape. Which is funny, because there’s an offhand snippet of the Hobbit in the movie, read to Oskar’s class, ending in “Bilbo had escaped.” Triumphant snap of the book. It isn’t clear from the few sentences present in the movie, but in this passage, Bilbo has just escaped being eaten, with the ring in his pocket; tragedy will befall him and his because of this, and the whole world will be endangered. But for the moment, all is well again, and Bilbo is thrilled with the magic he has discovered.

I can’t imagine an Americanized remake being that pointed, or that subtle.

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