This review was originally published at Good Letters, the daily blog for Image journal.

NOTE: The following (including the comment thread) contains spoilers about scenes in the film Let the Right One In.

Blood on her lips, eyes wide with lust, Eli stares at Oskar and commands him to run.

Oskar is confused. To seal a child’s contract of friendship — a “blood bond” — he’s carved open his hand with a knife. Little does he know he’s just awakened the worst in his new friend. It doesn’t take him long to see the truth: she’s a vampire. No matter. Eli’s his only friend, and he’s not about to let that change.

Ah, young love.

Last Saturday was Valentine’s Day, and several people asked me to recommend a romantic date movie. I resisted the urge to say Let the Right One In. I worried about the phone calls I’d get in return.

But why not Let the Right One In? Tomas Alfredson’s moody horror movie is, above all, a love story—and one of the most thoughtful to play big screens in years.

Alfredson’s film introduces us to twelve-year-old boy Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) who lives a lonely existence in suburban Swedish tenement complex. Born with a “Kick Me” sign on his back, he’s bullied at school and left to fantasize about knifing them when he’s alone at home.

Like a ghost he moves unseen past those responsible for loving and protecting him. Who can blame him for accepting the friendship of Eli (Lina Leandersson), the waifish, androgynous vampire next door? Never mind that this creepy twelve-year-old may actually be hundreds of years old. After a few moments of sharing a Rubik’s Cube, they develop a delicate trust.

Let the Right One In isn’t for the squeamish—Eli’s diet is human blood, and her longtime supplier, Håkan, has blood-collection down to a science. But there’s more meditation than murder here. Eli’s vampiric qualities are revealed slowly and without fanfare—barefoot strolls in the snow, an aversion to sunlight, and wide-eyed paralysis in doorways. (Vampires can’t come in unless you invite them.)

By minimizing moments of wild violence and supernatural mayhem that most directors would recklessly indulge, Alfredson gives us time to find pity for Eli, and space to consider correlations between the plight of the vampire and the poor, the alcoholic, the television addict, and other manifestations of loneliness and destructive dependency.

But the film’s not preachy, nor overly political. Its heart is broken over Oskar’s isolation from meaningful human contact. All around him, marriages fail, teachers are distracted, and friendships have been formed from necessity rather than delight. The possibility of asking adults for help seems never to have occurred to him.

One friend, knowing my taste in movies, encouraged me to see Let the Right One In, saying, “You’ll love it! It’s a Krzysztof Kieslowski vampire movie!” And Oskar’s sprawling tenement complex does indeed recall that oppressive apartment building in The Decalogue, as do the bleak winter backdrops. (Cinephiles may be reminded of Bergman and Kaurismaki as well.)

But while it is one of the most artful of its genre, it’s still limited by genre conventions. The crowd-pleasing conclusion—a revenge-oriented bloodbath filmed with riveting intensity and a POV trick that’s pure genius — seems convenient and predictable considering the surprises and courageous choices of the first ninety minutes. John Ajvide Lindqvist’s screenplay, based on his novel, sets us up to tolerate and even excuse the monster’s killings by lining up disposable blood donors. Thus, as with The Silence of the Lambs, viewers are easily drawn into rooting for the monster.

Still, why quibble? Compared to other vampire films, it’s remarkable how many conventions this one avoids. For every moment of bloodshed, subtle special effects, and CGI cats throwing spectacular hissy fits, there are subtleties and surprises that transcend this exhausted genre.

Perhaps it would be more useful to consider this film in the context of another genre — stories of youthful alienation and coming-of-age in an age of parental neglect.

This is easily the best film about children I’ve seen since Shane Black’s This is England. Young Shaun, that film’s persecuted subject, is also twelve years old. He responds to poverty, neglect, and his father’s death in the Balkans by seeking companionship and respect among a community of resourceful, supportive, and exciting friends — the local gang of skinheads.

Similarly troubling, Jacob Aaron Estes’s Mean Creek takes us into Lord of the Flies territory, putting a bunch of young teens out in a boat, where they gang up against a misunderstood bully, with consequences that change their lives forever.

I was also reminded of Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows, which dramatizes a true story about a Tokyo twelve-year-old abandoned to sustain himself and his younger siblings through cleverness and thievery. The title of that film is a cry for help, just as this monster movie’s title is an exhortation, a warning to the lonely and the vulnerable.

Here’s a horror film with truly haunting implications. You may walk away thinking about how young people fall into street-gang warfare or religious extremism. When the proper role models fail to step up, charismatic and powerful monsters too easily fill the void. In This is England, Shaun walks past the Church of Christ. The windows are boarded shut. There’s not a believer in sight. He’s off to play with the neo-Nazis. In Let the Right One In, Oskar smiles for joy when his guardian demon comes to the rescue. Whether his beloved is male or female, we know he’ll rise up and return the favor.

As I write this, kids are shouting obscenities at one another on the street corner outside. It’s the language they’ve been taught. They’re turning to those who have time for them. Who can blame them? All these lonely twelve-year-olds, looking for love and failing to find it in all the right places. I pray for some of “the right ones” to intervene.

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