Oh, those wacky Swedes – leave it to them to energize the always-popular vampire genre by setting it in an Arctic climate and making it a coming-of-age story.
OK – so vampire coming-of-age is already in the zeitgeist with the popular “Twilight” series. Or go back to “Buffy” – or to the current “True Blood” on HBO. And the mediocre “30 Days of Night” set the bloodsuckers in the deep freeze.
But Tomas Alfredson’s spirited, dark take on the topic still has a freshness that’s as bracing as a naked roll in the snow.
Based on a novel that was popular in Sweden, “Right One” focuses on Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a middle-schooler who lives with his single mother and has become a bully magnet at school. The cool kids pick on him mercilessly; at home, he can only act out his own “Taxi Driver”-like fantasies, brandishing a knife and muttering the equivalent of “You talking to me?
Then a new family moves into the apartment next door and he meets the neighbor girl, Eli (Lina Leandersson). The preadolescent Oskar is attracted to this mysterious, quiet girl for a couple of reasons. For one thing, she doesn’t immediately dismiss him, like everyone else; for another, she’s got a broody quality that’s attractive to a reluctant loner like Oskar. Plus she’s cute (despite those dark circles under her eyes). And she’s kind of kooky, hanging out on the apartment’s jungle gym without a winter coat, despite what’s apparently bone-chilling weather.
For Oskar, not being rejected is the equivalent of a declaration of love by Eli. He never sees her during the day – but he’s got his eye out for her at night and tags along like a puppy. She’s mildly pleased to have someone her own age to talk to, though she rejects his youthful romantic impulses – as long as she can.
She also provides counsel regarding the bullies who torment him, telling him to fight back. That gives him the courage to face down the chief bully during a school outing, though it leads to grief later on. But just having her encouragement energizes him to stand up for himself.
Eli, however, has her own problems. Her adult companion, tasked with finding her blood, botches the effort to secure the blood from a human victim – a couple of times – because it’s hard to find an unpopulated spot at which to truss the subject, hang him by his feet, then slit his throat and drain him into a bucket.
So Eli has to do her own hunting. Her technique is feral, scrabbling eagerly for the throat and tearing into it with gory vigor. But it brings an element of jeopardy into her life, as more and more people begin to figure out that there’s a vampire loose in the snowy little town.
But when Oskar figures out Eli’s backstory, well, love conquers all and forgives many sins. She resists his advances until human nature – even in the undead – takes over. It’s a sweet, ineffectual courtship that ultimately finds its target.
Alfredson’s film mixes atmospherics with horror-movie staples: the occasional gout of blood, the blood-smeared Eli’s face after a feeding, the alternately amusing and horrifying sight of a grown man helpless against the attack of a skinny little girl – and, of course, the incineration of a newly born vampire that accidentally suffers exposure to the sun.
But there’s always a note of mischief to the mayhem. The tone shifts from gloomy to sunny to scary with a certain well-greased slipperiness that keeps you guessing and off-balance.
“Let the Right One In” is a wonderfully gruesome little import that blends young love with horror movie theatrics in ways that will tickle and amuse. Let it into your life and you’ll be glad you did.