According to the established lore, vampires cannot enter a house uninvited. In Let the Right One In, 12-year-old Oskar discovers what happens if a vampire bends the rule when he dares Eli (for all appearances, a 12-year-old girl who has recently moved in next door) to enter his apartment without formally inviting her in. As Eli steps across the threshold, she begins to alarmingly ooze blood from her mouth, nose, eyes and skin pores. Horrified, Oskar hastens to say the magic words and the bleeding stops. In a striking reversal of the tradition, the vampire is not a frightening figure threatening penetration of the victim’s private space, but a vulnerable creature harmed by her friend’s reluctance to trust her. A lonely, passive, sleepy-looking boy who can only dream of revenge against the bullies who torment him at school, Oskar learns that letting in the seemingly dangerous other is the best thing he can do. In Eli, an outsider like him, he finds the possibility of love.
Let the Right One In is one of a recent number of vampire films that have focused primarily on love. Since its appearance in Victorian literature, the vampire has always symbolised socially unacceptable sexual practices and desires, and film adaptations have thoroughly mined the steamy repressed sexuality that underlies Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. But as female desire, lesbian relationships or fellatio, for example, have stopped being seen as risqué subject matter, a preoccupation with love, rather than sex, has become more central to recent revisitations of vampire mythology (although the success of Twilight shows that in the USA’s current neo-Puritan climate at least, the vampire as metaphor for the dangers of teenage sex still has life in it – no pun intended).
Let the Right One In takes the focus on love further than some of the recent vampire films on the subject in that the relationship it centres on is entirely asexual. Even when Oskar and Eli share the same bed one night, there is nothing sexual about it. When Oskar asks Eli to be his girlfriend, it is through the sweetly quaint ‘Want to go steady?’ Eli, whose main objection is that she’s not really a girl, agrees when Oskar explains that it wouldn’t involve anything more than hanging out.
In this, Let the Right One In is close to Guillermo del Toro’s debut feature Cronos (1993), a vampire movie that revolves around the relationship between a little girl, Aurora, and her grand-father. Both Cronos and Let the Right One In are concerned with a love that is not only asexual but also unconditional. In Let the Right One In, Oskar gradually learns to love and accept Eli for what she is, whatever that may be. In Cronos, there is a great tenderness between Aurora and her grandfather and she unquestioningly accepts him, whether human or ghoul, alive or undead.
In both films, it is an imperfect, tainted kind of love: the first time Eli sees Oskar, he is stabbing at a tree with a knife, repeating ‘squeal, pig, squeal’ in a fantasy of revenge against his tormentors. From the start, their relationship is marked by intimations of violence, and in the end their love is indeed sealed in blood. There is an ever-present sense of danger whenever Eli and Oskar are together (subtly maintained through evocative sound effects): her animal nature is revealed early on and we can never be sure that she would not harm him. It is this threat underlying their love that makes the film so touching and melancholy, so real and unsentimental. Let the Right One In, perhaps more subtly than its predecessors in the sub-genre, perfectly captures the nature of love as a delicate and dangerous balancing act, lovers poised for a fleeting, magical moment between need and defiance, trust and menace, sweetness and violence.
This is an edited extract from ‘A Stake Through the Heart: Vampire Love’. Read the whole article as well as an interview with writer John Ajvide Lindqvist in our spring 09 print issue. Focusing on Tainted Love, it includes articles on incestuous cinematic siblings, François Ozon’s tales of tortuous relationships, destructive passion in Nic Roeg’s Bad Timing, Julio Medem‘s ambiguous lovers and nihilistic tenderness from Kôji Wakamatsu. Also in this issue: Interview with Pascal Laugier (Martyrs), the Polish New Wave that never existed and comic strip on the Watchmen film adaptation + much more!