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If Gus Van Sant directed a vampire movie, it would look a lot like Let the Right One In. The protagonist of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s lethargic thriller is an adolescent boy with skin more translucent than tissue paper and a blond, overgrown Prince Valiant ’do. He and other young characters frequently appear half-dressed, with sexual and even masochistic overtones pervading the story. But its most kindred quality with Van Sant’s oeuvre is that nothing much happens.
John Ajvide Lindqvist adapted the screenplay from his own novel and thus wins the blame for not exactly introducing his characters as much as dropping them in front of us like puppets. Excepting a snowy small-town milieu, there’s no context thickening the experiences of 12-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and a random handful of barflies. We know that Oskar is bullied—he’s rarely shown at school not being bullied—and that he lives with his mother, his collection of knives and serial-killer articles his only companions. And we know that the middle-aged drinking buddies are longtime friends.
But personality traits besides reticence and boisterousness are unimportant as the film gets to the good stuff: Eli (Lina Leandersson), the “more or less” 12-year-old girl who moves next door to Oskar with her alleged father, is a vampire. She immediately tells Oskar she can’t be friends with him, then proceeds to turn up whenever he’s outside, so what’s a pale, lonely boy to do? Meanwhile, townsfolk are being murdered, often strung up by their feet and drained of blood.
There’s a commendable amount of originality in Lindqvist’s story and even in Alfredson’s elegant vision of it. This isn’t a fright fest, though there are a handful of gruesome scenes and sudden bursts of violence punctuating what is otherwise a tale of friendship. But underplaying Eli’s otherworldliness and its attendant horror—and the narrative in general—is both the film’s strength and downfall. You get the feeling the book supplied a lot of details that didn’t make it into the screenplay, such as how Eli became a vampire, whether the man living with her is truly her father, and what leads Eli to ask Oskar questions such as, “Would you still like me if I wasn’t a girl?” The adults, few actually named, seem interchangeable. Worse is the glacier-like Lifetime music that plays throughout, often turning scenes that might have been chilling into stretches that seem more suited to a tween version of Dying Young. For every mildly frightening and well-shot detail—particularly what happens to a vampire if she enters a residence without being invited—a few more questions pop up, rendering the film more frustrating than engrossing.