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Movie Review

Let the Right One In (Lat den ratte komma in)

Young vampires in love, with a Scandinavian chill

Lina Leandersson plays one of two 12-year-old neighbors at the heart of ''Let the Right One In.'' Lina Leandersson plays one of two 12-year-old neighbors at the heart of ''Let the Right One In.'' (Magnet releasing)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / November 14, 2008

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Child vampires have it easy. They can lurk in the shadows beneath an overpass, feign a need for help, then pounce on an assisting stranger, the way 12-year-old Eli (Lina Leandersson) does in Tomas Alfredson's "Let the Right One In." She begs for help, then sucks her good Samaritan's blood. But the movie brings us the chillingly sad fate of certain creatures of the night: Someone has to die in order for her to live, and you worry momentarily that this someone might be Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), the thin, blond, pale fellow 12-year-old whose apartment is adjacent to Eli's. She doesn't want to bite him. She wants to be his friend.

Anyone under the assumption that this is a Disney Channel series waiting to happen should think again. Alfredson and screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist, adapting his 2004 novel, have brilliantly upended the cute pretexts of preadolescent entertainment. They've built that rare suspenseful horror film around Oskar, Eli, and the folks in their small snowbound Swedish town. It's true that Oskar dreams of defending himself against a posse of bullies at school, and his new neighbor would appear to be a perfect avenging angel. But the movie is up to much more than an undead bodyguard story.

For the first few scenes, it's unclear what exactly that is. A man hangs a body upside down among the trees in a frozen park at night, slides a plastic container beneath its head, and begins his grisly work, which two dog walkers interrupt. The man happens to be Eli's dad (Per Ragnar), who's murdering to feed his daughter. Once we're properly oriented, we can feel dad's awful moral dilemma. He knows what he does is wrong (his take-home rate these days is abysmal), and Ragnar makes this the business of a woebegone soul. As bodies go missing and corpses turn up, the shaggier townsfolk turn to sleuthing. Meanwhile, Eli has to start fending for herself, seeking companionship in Oskar.

The beauty of "Let the Right One In" resides in the way the horror remains grounded in a tragic kind of love, one not too distant from what Kirsten Dunst must have suffered in "Interview With the Vampire" when she realized she'd be a single, underage neck-biter forever. Eli at least has Oskar. What's sweet about him, of course, is that all he sees in Eli is a potential girlfriend. The sight of Leandersson fielding his request for a relationship upgrade while her mouth is caked with gore deserves to be as iconic an image of young romance as John Cusack holding a boombox up to Ione Skye's window in "Say Anything."

The filmmakers lay enough emotional foundation for many of the gruesome images to transcend dread. The nervous fear in watching Eli's dad hang a teenager upside down or the terror in seeing one townswoman attacked by housecats is equal to the comedy in Oskar's straining to lift 10 pounds on a bench press or Eli's scurrying up the side of a hospital.

While the movie's title refers to vampire etiquette, it could double as an allegorical assessment of a nation's immigration fears. Even without overplaying that angle, the filmmakers go curiously, deviously deep beneath the obvious surfaces. No one expects the sight of a severed head or floating bloody limb to be exhilarating. And yet as body parts sink to the bottom of a swimming pool, the heart soars all the same.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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