Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a 12-year-old punching bag. As pale, blond and weedy as a miniature Edgar Winter, he spends his school days fending off the attacks of his sadistic classmates. At home, he nurses a fascination for true-crime stories and acts out private revenge fantasies at the end of a knife.
His world changes forever when a taxi arrives at his Stockholm apartment complex in the dead of night, depositing two new neighbors. One is a furtive, haunted-looking man, the other a quiet waif who appears to be his daughter. Eli (Lina Leandersson) is as pale as Oskar, albeit dark-haired. She is also 12 years old ' or so she guesses.
Why the imprecision? If you will always associate the young Kirsten Dunst with Interview With the Vampire and not Little Women, you're well on your way to the answer. Adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his novel of the same name, Let the Right One In is an undead romance that conflates post-Stoker shocks with the yearnings of first love. It's like a Gothic My Girl in which the heroine can't die in the last reel because she was a stiff from the first frame.
There's nothing stiff, however, about the tenderness director Tomas Alfredson brings to the graveyard courtship at the heart of the film. In their own ways, the filmmaker demonstrates, Oskar and Eli are both leading lives that have been thrust upon them. You can hear more than one century's worth of enforced isolation speaking in the way she implores him to start asserting himself on the playground: 'Hit back.â?�
In terms of shot composition, choreography and pacing, the movie is a witty piece of work, investing fresh creativity in set pieces the vampire genre has shown us a million times before. It's often wickedly funny, especially whenever Eli's 'dadâ?� ventures out to slaughter an unwary local to feed his ward's eternal hunger. After he renders his victims unconscious, he suspends them upside-down in midair and drains their blood into big buckets ' or rather, he would, if not for his perpetual, butter-fingered bungling. It's like a black-humored spoof of the outrageous demands wrought by single parenting. These kids; where do they put it?
Though the story is set at what appears to be the tail end of the Brezhnev era, it effectively rehabilitates the 'bullied lonerâ?� archetype that has, ever since Columbine, been marginalized as a ticking time bomb. This is not to say that Eli isn't as dangerous as Oskar could become: She's adept at putting the bite on human prey. But the movie takes care to mitigate such horrors with scenes that preach the purifying power of simple tweener rituals like nervous hand-holding. Sweet within its own bloodthirsty idiom, the film inhabits a twilight world in which love doesn't merely conquer all; it'll rip your damn head off if you get in its way.
(Opening Friday, Oct. 31,2009, at Enzian Theater, Maitland)