One of my very favorite vampire movies is a low-key Swedish masterpiece called Let the Right One In, a melancholy tale about the unlikely friendship between a young boy and the vampire living next door. This is not a story about bloodsuckers rampaging through the night, even though they do. And it is not a story about vampire hunters who want to rid their town of a nosferatu, even though they do. It is the story about the kind of relationship that can only blossom between two people so without companionship that finding each other isn’t just a matter of feeling whole, it is a matter of survival.
The story takes place in the early 1980s, in a suburb of Stockholm, Sweden, during winter. It is almost always dark and lightly snowing. It looks like the kind of cold that just sinks into your bones and stays there. Here we meet young Oskar, a scrawny and meek 12-year-old boy living with his single mom. Dad’s a drunk living out in the boonies, and poor Oskar is tormented so ruthlessly by bullies at school that he actively fantasizes about murdering them. Oskar is not a bad kid. But he needs somebody to look out for him before he becomes a horrifying item on the nightly news. When a strange young girl named Eli moves into the apartment next to Oskar’s, the two become friends, even though it’s clear that there is something seriously unusual about Eli. Meanwhile, people start disappearing around town, thanks to the work of Eli’s elderly caretaker, Håkan. Eli is a vampire, and Håkan is her familiar, although not a particularly good one. He suffers a string of failed murder attempts while trying to harvest blood for Eli and after one botch too many that threatens to land Håkan in jail, he melts his face with acid in order to obscure his identity and protect Eli from discovery. Meanwhile, encouraged by his early interactions with Eli, Oskar stands up to his bullies, unfazed by the violent payback he knows he will receive for it. With their respective worlds closing in on them, Oskar learns Eli’s true nature and he accepts his unusual and deadly friend on his friend’s terms, without judgement. Oskar and Eli realize that their future lies anywhere but on the outskirts of Stockholm and prepare to leave for a new life together. But both of them soon find out that leaving home is never as easy as it seems.
This is a vampire movie with surprising pathos, as we get under the hood of the lonely little vampire Eli (who, of course, is not so little), as well as the even lonelier Oskar. There is a fair bit of carnage throughout the movie, but it never plays out like a traditional horror story. The dread comes more from the dark winter and a personal isolation than from the presence of a nosferatu in town. And the drama comes from the lengths people are willing to go to protect each other. As we see the relationship between Eli and Hakan end, and a new one between Eli an Oskar begin, we are reminded that everybody needs somebody in their life on whom they can depend, especially if one of those people is going to live forever.
There are a number of memorable scenes in this movie, such as the moment one Eli’s victims realizes that she has been turned into a vampire and chooses to immolate herself with sunlight than to accept a life of nocturnal predation—proving that being a vampire isn’t so much a curse as it is a choice. There is another where Eli shows Oskar in graphic fashion exactly what happens to a vampire when they enter somebody’s home uninvited. But the best of them all is the movie’s climax, when Oskar’s bullies trap him in the school swimming pool and force him to choose between drowning himself or taking a knife through the eye. What follows is an intense scene that grows even more so as events unfold above the water that Oskar can’t see, but the audience does. Some things are more horrifying the less you see of them.
But none of these are the movie’s moment of truth. For me, it is a quiet little moment early on when we see Håkan try to dissuade Eli from befriending Oskar. At first we think that he’s doing this to minimize Eli’s risk of discovery, but later, we realize he’s doing it because he is not ready to give up being Eli’s familiar. He knows his time is drawing to a close. He knows he will never live forever like Eli. He has served his friend and master like a dog serves a human, aging so much faster than his charge. And yet, all he wants is one more day to be with Eli, to kill for Eli, to keep Eli fed and safe. It’s a powerful scene, especially as we see Oskar and Eli turn to each other later, and Oskar become Eli’s new Håkan. He, too will watch his dearest friend stay young in a relationship that can never be between equals. Oskar doesn’t really know what he’s getting into—no mortal ever could, be they 12, 24, 48 or 96. But he bonds with Eli as one of two people who really need each other, and that’s the only reason that ever really matters. Everything else is just a detail. Perhaps one that involves murder, but a detail, nonetheless.