By KJ Doughton | December 28, 2008

Originally ran on on 10/22/08

Dog-tired of Beverly Hills Chihuahuas? Bored senseless by all things Big Brother, Middle East espionage, and Shia LaBeouf? Then “Let the Right One In.” Open the door, extend your arms, and cradle Tomas Alfredson’s fresh, stunningly macabre romance with an effusive hug. Sing its praises. Offer it a beer. Just keep the garlic and crucifixes at arm’s length.

“Let the Right One In” doesn’t look, feel, smell, or sound like anything else projecting off a current movie screen. It’s a vampire flick with no coffins or bats. It’s a coming-of-age story with no food fights, mall bunnies, or sweaty backseat groping sessions. It’s a romance without sex, lover’s quarrels, or Keira Knightley.

Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), the film’s hero, is a frail twelve year-old towhead whose meek appearance masks ferocious anger. A schoolyard outcast bullied by various Future Sociopaths of Sweden, Oskar channels his deep-set rage into Travis Bickle-styled monologues. “Are you looking at me?” he asks a snow-covered tree outside the apartment shared with Mom, before stabbing its trunk with his gleaming, silver pocketknife.

This tormented, friendless loner is attracted to raven-haired Eli, a wide-eyed new girl recently moved in next door with her reclusive father. Seemingly impervious to the chilly Stockholm weather, Eli warns Oskar, “I can’t be your friend.” This changes, however, when the bashful blonde boy teaches his mysterious female peer how to use a Rubik’s Cube. The seeds of true love are planted. Eli educates Oskar about self-worth, while blood-drained bodies pile up stiffly in the frozen woods surrounding their town.

Is Eli the cause of this mayhem?

There have been many films about vampires, young love, and bullying. However, there’s never been anything quite like Alfredson’s artful, compelling vision. Speaking with the director from a Tacoma telephone line, his voice comes through in a thick Swedish accent. Holding and punctuating final syllables, each of Alfredson’s comments sounds like a lilting question. He explains that he’s in LA, “doing thees press junket theeengh.”

In speaking with Alfredson, whose resume also includes four previous feature films and years of Swedish television, my agenda is simple. I want to define the essence of what makes “Let the Right One In” so refreshing and unique.

The director is straightforward and no-nonsense. In fact, “unsentimental,” a term Alfredson uses to describe the John Ajvide Lindqvist novel on which his movie is based, might also describe this filmmaker’s personality. “I read the book three years ago,” he reveals. “A friend of mine gave it to me. I immediately fell in love with the story.”

“I especially liked how the boy, Oskar, was portrayed. It’s so unsentimental. Very harsh. That was the element that struck me the hardest, I think. Maybe the success of this book and story is because of the unique combination between super-real actions and being very naturalistic at the same time.”

A huge bestseller in Sweden, Lindqvist’s novel is reputed as a tough, bloody, pitch-black glimpse at the most disturbing fringes of humanity. While the film certainly doesn’t pull punches, it also floats above depressing depravity with fairy-tale buoyancy. There’s light to counter the dark. While his movie remains faithful to the book, Alfredson admits that certain changes were made to reflect this slight lightening of tone.

“I struggled to take out certain things about Hakan (Per Ragnar), the one that the vampire lived with, whom you assume is her father. In the book, that guy is an outspoken pedophile. I thought that was something that filmmakers use today for horror effect. For sort of an emotional special effect, without taking responsibility enough for it. I wanted to keep that out of the film, because it’s too complicated to just show very shortly.”

Kudos to the film’s charismatic two leads, who bring warm blood and a beating heart to this frigid tale. As the hungry-eyed vampire Eli, Lina Leandersson conveys both love-starved longing and a fiercely protective streak towards Oskar. One look at Hedebrant as the delicate Oskar will have viewers vicariously racing to his defense against relentless bullies, even as they question his unhealthy obsessions (like a scrapbook filled with newspaper crime clippings).

I ask Alfredson whether the bullying theme was something he could relate to on a personal level. “I have been in a similar situation when I was younger,” he confirms. “It was the unsentimental view on this (in the book) that struck me the hardest. When children are being bullied this way, I don’t think they get sad and sentimental over it. They grow a lot of anger. I think that the film’s vampire is a (manifestation) of this anger.”

Oskar’s rage is palpable and compelling. We’re immediately sympathetic to the boy’s plight. However, there’s more to “Let the Right One In” than convincing emotional angst. Eschewing the trendy, fast-cut chaos of many contemporary horror films like “30 Days of Night,” his film resurrects the art of careful composition. Alfredson establishes common locales – a playground, an ice-covered lake, a school gymnasium – then delicately fills in the open spaces with human inhabitants. The resulting visuals hypnotize our eyes. Like Stanley Kubrick’s body of work, or more recently, Gavin Hood’s “Tsotsi,” the film resembles a series of gorgeously framed still photos.

“I think today, everything is handheld,” says Alfredson. “Filmmakers don’t use framing enough.”

Alright, then. Let’s recap the ingredients that flavor Alfredson’s tasty witches’ stew. “Let the Right One In” boasts a realistic depiction of tormented youth, and some strikingly-framed scenes. But there’s more to the recipe. Additional interrogation is required of the film’s creator.

Perhaps “Let the Right One In” is accented by something inherently Swedish. Alfredson ponders this concept during a short pause. “Maybe it’s (an example of) our way to communicate through silence,” he suggests. “That silence is also a way of speaking. Not answering a question can actually be a way of answering a question.”

Indeed. Images from “Let the Right One In” certainly speak louder than its sparse dialogue. Clouds of cold breath. Bloodstained faces. Eli’s dark locks contrasting Oskar’s pale skin. Hair standing straight up on a cat’s back. The final, spellbinding set piece, using visuals in a fresh, inventive, and startling combination which will be talked about for years to come.

“Also, there’s the brutal beauty of the Swedish winter landscape,” says Alfredson, “which is very hard and very bright.”

This hard, bright, white stuff wasn’t the product of studio snow machines or CGI. What you see is bona fide Swedish snowflakes. “Much of the film was made in extreme cold – thirteen degrees minus Celsius. It’s very hard to make fake snow. I would notice it immediately. Some things were made in a super cool studio, to get the breathing and everything.”

The interview winds down. While I’ve established that “Let the Right One In” acquires much of its unique personality through nonverbal communication and a cruel, wintry landscape, it’s still difficult to extract and reveal precisely what makes the film so unusually compelling.

In fact, the mystery of “Let the Right One In” is made all the more intriguing by the fact that Alfredson isn’t a particularly big fan of horror films. Unlike, say, Quentin Tarantino, who ingests, processes, and re-invents cinema through an encyclopedic awareness of genres, Alfredson doesn’t eat, live, and breathe Anne Rice and Dracula.

“I couldn’t say that I am a horror fan,” he admits. “However, I’m not a horror hater, either. I’m just ignorant on these matters. But it has been interesting to explore horror, and what scares us. I haven’t had that interest before.”

The magic of film cannot be captured in an interview. When it’s done right, perhaps it’s best just to savor the moment. Maybe there is no formula for “Let the Right One In,” just like there’s no predicting the future direction of its director.

What’s next for Alfredson? More horror? Werewolves, perhaps? Not on your life. “I’m currently doing a Stockholm stage production of ‘My Fair Lady,’ he proclaims with a laugh.

For now, I’m content to throw up my arms and abandon the search for what gives “Let the Right One In” its potent bite, and just let sleeping vampires lie.

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