Roger Ebert called it the best modern vampire movie and I think he's right. You can't compare it with the black-and-white Universal classics, but that'll be why Ebert said "modern". It probably should have won that year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film, except that Sweden didn't even submit it for the Academy's consideration and instead chose to put forward a film based on the true story of a Swedish working class woman in the early 1900s who won a camera in a lottery and became a photographer. It's called Everlasting Moments and in fairness it did make it through to the January shortlist, but even so we're looking at some towering idiocy here.
However I'm not talking about the Swedish Film Institute, but about Let The Right One In. It's adapted from a novel of the same name by the original writer. His name's John Ajvide Lindqvist and of all things he used to be a stand-up comedian, although you'd never guess from this dark, intimate film based on what's apparently an even nastier novel. Lindqvist simplified the screenplay and in particular removed one unpleasant detail because he didn't think a movie could deal satisfyingly with such a serious issue without pulling focus from the main story. Thus the film's Hakan isn't a paedophile and no details are given about his relationship with Eli. Furthermore the novel's Eli is a castrated boy, which somehow never got across to me in the film even though it's getting strong dialogue pointers (and a glimpse!), since it simply never occurred to me that that could be an intended interpretation. The actress is female! As for the glimpse, who knows what a vampire has down there? Even the dialogue about "I'm not a girl" is open to at least three interpretations and I'd been taking it as a reference either to being no longer human or else no longer a child.
You're probably already starting to get a feel for the film's tone. In short, it's realistic. There's nothing romanticised about Lindqvist's vampires and their sordid, disgusting lives. Hakan's like a serial killer and we see him putting together his kit as matter-of-factly as if he's about to go camping, after which the film goes into detail on the practicalities of killing someone, draining their blood and disposing of the body without attracting unwanted attention. Looks tricky.
As for Eli, she's trapped in a miserable, gross existence that she no longer even really thinks about. (Yes, I'm going with "she".) She's fascinating, both as a character in her own right and as a development in vampire cinema. This is the only film I know that's successfully achieved the angle of "it sucks to be a vampire", although there have been many unsuccessful attempts. Anne Rice is in love with her vampires, for instance. They're a goth wet dream with superpowers. Here though you've got a little girl with no friends and a physiology that forces her to do gross things and tortures her. I adore what they do with the "vampires can't come in if they're not invited" rule, for instance. This is a down-to-earth film that's paying attention to the day-to-day practicalities and showing nothing that couldn't happen in the real world until we're nearly an hour in.
Sometimes Eli's even sweet. Every so often she'll meekly do something that she can bet is going to smack her in the face.
The other half of the film is Kare Hedebrant as Oskar, who frankly scared me almost as much as Eli when he'd get out that knife. Oskar is a meek twelve-year-old boy who's being bulled at school and is bottling it all up. He might perhaps be physically capable of sex, but essentially he's a pre-pubescent and this makes him both more surprising and more interesting than he'd have been if our two protagonists had been a decade older. "You smell funny." He's arguably more important than Eli, actually. Everything about her makes perfect sense once you've learned about it, but Oskar's a bit screwed up and taking his life in his hands by hanging out with his new neighbour.
I like the way they're old-school about vampire lore. You're never quite sure because the tone's so realistic that it always seems a little unlikely that they'll actually go for the full kaboodle, but in fact the film's using this tension to keep you off-balance about what might or might not happen. Note the way Tomas Alfredson keeps teasing us with mirrors, for instance. There are no crucifixes, garlic, stakes or holy water, but they never break the rules and there's even a wacky bit of improvisation with cats. That was freaky.
Like Chan-wook Park's Thirst, this is a brutally un-romantic vampire film that's absolutely refusing to wank over itself (known these days as "doing a Twilight"). Thirst is the more ambitious of the two, but this one's much more in control of itself and emotionally accessible. It's rather stunning for its clarity and focus, actually. It also has perhaps the more impressive performances, given that these are child actors. The casting process took a year with open castings held all over Sweden and the children they found, Hedebrant and Leandersson, are astonishing. Mature professionals would be proud of work like this. Alfredson has said that "casting is 70 percent of the job; it's not about picking the right people to make the roles. It is about creating chords, how a B and a Minor interact together, and are played together." More specifically talking about Hedebrant and Leandersson, he's said they're "extremely intelligent", "incredibly wise" and "unprecedentedly fantastic." All of that is true.
Needless to say, there's an American remake on its way. It actually has some good people involved, but I don't think anyone in the world expects it to be half as good as this. One of my favourite stories about this film is the one about Alfredson realising in post-production that a particular scene wasn't working because the music and sound effects made it "American, in a bad way" and so took them out again.
Sweden was having a spurt of vampire films around this time, oddly. As well as this, they made Frostbiten (2006) and Vampyrer (2008). The former was Sweden's first ever vampire flick and a horror-comedy with dialogue like "Can you please stop throwing garden gnomes at me?" This however is a serious movie that's also cool as all hell, with meaty material like bullying, suicide and self-actualisation through violence. It's easily the biggest foreign-language movie of recent years, not to mention a vampire film that'll please even people who can't stand vampire films. It ends on its left foot, so to speak, but we'd just had such a cool scene that I was happy anyway. I bet it's almost addictively rewatchable, too.