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A SECOND LOOK

'Let the Right One In' tackles vampires but is no 'Twilight'

The Swedish film tells a tender bloodsucking tale.

March 08, 2009|Dennis Lim

Vampire stories are always about desire and repression, which makes the teenage vampire an especially potent symbol of the hormonal confusion and awkward intensity of the wonder years.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" confirmed the pop-culture potential of adolescent bloodsuckers, and the phenomenon reached a frenzied peak with the recent teen-girl hit "Twilight" (out on DVD and Blu-ray March 21). But a more surprising and delicate treatment of youthful bloodlust can be found in one of last year's most beloved art-house imports, the Swedish coming-of-age tale "Let the Right One In" (out on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday).

"Let the Right One In" has made a little more than $2 million at the U.S. box office, not bad for a foreign-language film, but to put things in perspective, only about 1% of what "Twilight" has grossed. Both movies are based on books, revolve around interspecies relationships between two very pale loners, and recognize the larger-than-life emotions that come with being a teenager, but the similarities are skin deep.

"Twilight," directed by Catherine Hardwicke and faithfully adapted from the first installment in Stephenie Meyer's hugely successful young-adult franchise, is a Gothic romance that softens the vampire movie's usual edge of danger (undead dreamboat Robert Pattinson is a "vegetarian" who sticks to animal blood). It also sneakily turns the genre's fascination with illicit appetites into a pro-abstinence parable. And if Buffy, with her vampire-slaying prowess and fondness for cute boy vampires, was often held up as a credible feminist heroine, Kristen Stewart's smitten Bella dreams simply of being passively ravished, a fantasy that her gentlemanly suitor nobly declines to fulfill.

"Let the Right One In" is also more chaste than the average vampire movie -- its characters are barely pubescent -- but it's also a good deal more tender and intense. Directed by Tomas Alfredson from a screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapting his own novel), it unfolds in a sterile, permanently frozen Swedish suburb that makes for a stark counterpoint to the roiling emotions of the story. A frail, androgynous-looking 12-year-old from a broken home, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is a friendless kid who lives mainly in his own head -- that is, until he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the waif-like Goth girl next door, who doesn't go to school, never gets cold and sometimes smells a little strange.

No less sincere than "Twilight" but much less overwrought, "Let the Right One In" brings an unsentimental eye to the daily horrors of adolescence. In fact, its bloodline can be traced less to other vampire movies than to the tradition of Swedish films about childhood, from Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander" to Lasse Hallstrom's "My Life as a Dog" to Lukas Moodysson's "Show Me Love." The film is unnervingly clear-eyed about the cruelty of children (Oskar is mercilessly bullied by his classmates) and the deep scars that can be inflicted on formative psyches (he harbors violent revenge fantasies).

Alfredson is something of a polymath, best known in Sweden as a member of a Monty Python-esque troupe, with whom he made his previous film, "Four Shades of Brown"; he also directed a stage production of "My Fair Lady" in Stockholm last year. As a horror director, he's capable of stylistic flourishes (a spontaneous-combustion scene, a bravura climax in a swimming pool), but the film's most distinctive quality is its otherwordly stillness, a deadpan matter-of-factness that amplifies the dread -- gruesome scenes are often shot from afar and staged without fanfare.

Teen vampires show no sign of going out of fashion. "Twilight" follow-ups are rolling off the studio conveyor belt (the second film, "New Moon," directed by Chris Weitz, is out in November). And an American version of "Let the Right One In" is in the works, to be directed by Matt Reeves, who made "Cloverfield," a movie whose blunt, high-concept approach to horror is antithetical to Alfredson's. The remake, with its eye on the teeny-bopper market, will be superfluous at best. But fans of "Twilight" willing to brave the subtitles of the Swedish original might well find something they didn't know they were missing.

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