The Horror Film Project
M. Keith Booker
Let the Right One In is a love story that tells the tale of two misfit twelve-year-olds who make a genuine connection then decide to stay together forever, despite being faced with huge obstacles in their relationship. These obstacles are considerable. For one thing, he’s a boy and she’s … not a girl. For another, he’s a twelve-year-old human and she’s a vampire who has been twelve for two hundred years. Despite such differences, the echoes of Romeo and Juliet are obvious—and intentional (at one point she even quotes lines in the play in a note to him). It isn’t a match made in heaven, but Eli (Lina Leandersson) and Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) seem perfect for each other—if only because they are equally unable to fit in with the rest of the society around them.
This relationship forms the backbone of the film, and it is ultimately a touching one, but this is no romanticization of the glamorous vampire life. This film might draw upon elements of the teen romance (or, in this case, the pre-teen romance), but it is about as far from being a romantic film in the mode of the Twilight series as one could possibly imagine. Being a vampire in this film is difficult and dangerous. Drinking human blood is a biological necessity, but a very unpleasant one, something like an unbreakable (and unbearable) drug addiction. Living forever while never aging is not all it’s cracked up to be, either—especially if one became a vampire at the age of twelve and had one’s male genitals removed in the process.
The relationship to narratives of teen romance does, however, point to the fact that Let the Right One In is an extremely rich film that draws upon a number of generic traditions, if it ultimately subverts most of them. Rochelle Wright, for example, has argued that the multi-generic character of the film is one of the keys to its success. For Wright, the film
“seamlessly merges several apparently disparate genres to create a hybrid form that appeals to widely divergent audiences. A detailed analysis of the film demonstrates how it simultaneously draws on and departs from common themes and motifs of indigenous Swedish film as well as vampire film tradition, combining elements of the horror film, the coming-of-age story and the realistic socio-psychological drama to create a unique mix of the innovative and the familiar” (56).
If Let the Right One In draws upon a number of different genres, it also invites a number of different allegorical interpretations. Helena Karlsson, for example, sees it as a very Swedish narrative in which the setting in a Swedish suburb stands in for Sweden itself, while the vampire serves as a figure of the many social and demographic changes that have been underway in Sweden since the 1980s, when the film is set. In particular, Karlsson sees the vampire as a double-edged figure of Swedish national anxieties in a postindustrial and multicultural age, as an emblem of the forces that both threaten Sweden’s traditional social fabric and invest the country with new energies. In a completely different mode, John Calhoun, reading the film within the context of other horror films about monster children, suggests that Eli in Let the Right One In is best read as “a repository of adult fears about children” (27). More than anything, however, critical discussions of the novel have focused on its treatment of the intertwined issues of Otherness and sexuality, both of which have long been central to the vampire film.
Based on the 2004 novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also wrote the screenplay), Let the Right One In is a highly unconventional vampire narrative, though it draws heavily on conventional vampire mythology—most importantly the motifs of immortality and of the drinking of blood. And, as the title indicates, the conventional notion that vampires cannot enter any human dwelling unless they are invited in is central as well. It is clear, in the film, that Eli has typical vampire limitations (such as not being able to endure sunlight), but that she also has superhuman strength and speed. She can perhaps fly, a possibility that is hinted at much more clearly in the novel than in the film, which often operates through mere hints, allowing viewers to fill in the gaps by inferring what they will. Indeed, the vague nature of the film (which is, incidentally, one of its strengths) makes it almost irresistible to try to find additional details in the novel. My approach here is that the novel and the film are separate works of fiction. What is in the film is in the film and that is all we know about the film. The novel cannot be taken as a gloss that fills in details that are missing or unclear in the film. I mention details from the novel here only because they are interesting and sometimes raise questions about the film, not because they supply answers.
Let the Right One In is set in Blackeburg, a suburb to the West of Stockholm that was built in the 1950s to provide additional housing for the city’s burgeoning population. It is hardly luxurious, consisting mainly of large apartment buildings in the unadorned modernist style that was popular in that decade. It seems a bit soulless, but it is efficient and functional. The apartments are small, but comfortable; the accommodations are middle-class. Blackeburg is declaredly modern and not in the least bit Gothic. But the suburb’s rather stark buildings provide a perfect setting for the grim action of the film, especially because the Swedish winter seems so dreary and inhospitable. The film’s first shot, in fact, is a nighttime shot of falling snow, helping to set the stage for what is to come. Then we see Oskar’s apartment complex, as Oskar, inside the apartment he shares with his mother, enacts an enigmatic scene that we will later realize is a fantasy of revenge against the bullies who have been tormenting him (and who continue to torment him throughout the film, until Oskar—aided by Eli—puts an end to it).
The film then cuts to the arrival of Eli and her aging human protector, Håkan (Per Ragnar), in Blackeberg, where they will be moving into the apartment next to that of Oskar and his mother. The lonely (and apparently disturbed) Oskar watches their arrival through his window, then goes back to his revenge fantasy, before going to bed, where he realizes that he can hear Eli and Håkan through the wall. Håkan immediately sets about papering over the windows of the new apartment he will share with Eli—obviously to keep out the sun.
A quick cut to Oskar at school in the next scene makes it clear that he is surprisingly knowledgeable about murder and forensics, which turn out to be hobbies of his. It is already clear that he is no ordinary twelve-year-old. Nor is Håkan an ordinary middle-aged man, however unremarkable he might seem. He is, in fact, a serial killer who drains his victims of blood so that he can provide sustenance for Eli, to whom he is clearly quite devoted, but who seems to feel little or nothing for him, regarding him as a just a means to acquire fresh blood without the danger and nastiness of having to kill for it herself. Håkan, we quickly realize, is completely unsuited to being a serial killer and blood collector (and quite incompetent at it); he is clearly so devoted to Eli that he will do things that go against his very nature in order to take care of her, though the film never really makes clear whether she exercises a vampire-like power over him (as Dracula does over his victims) or whether he is simply pathologically in love with her.
In the end, as he realizes he is about to be apprehended, Håkan goes to the extreme of pouring acid over his own face so that he will not be recognized and linked to Eli. Later, while in the hospital, he performs the presumably final sacrifice by allowing Eli to feed on him before he tumbles lifelessly from his seventh-story window onto the snow-covered ground below. In the book, however, we learn that he survives the fall and becomes a vampire himself, which provides us with another hint of Eli’s tragic dilemma: apparently, anyone she bites will subsequently be infected and become a vampire unless she kills them outright—something that happens in the film with Virginia (Ika Nord) when Eli attacks her but is interrupted and driven off before she can kill her.
We get no backstory on Håkan in the film and know nothing of how and why he might have initially become attached to Eli. We do, however, learn a great deal about Oskar and why he might find Eli attractive. We learn early in the film, for example, that he has a number of pathological tendencies—as when we discover that his hobby is collecting newspaper clippings that recount gruesome killings, including one just performed by Håkan in the neighboring suburb of Vällingby. The newspaper containing that story is dated February 6, 1982, allowing us to date the beginning of the film, as this killing is one of the first events narrated. Among other things, the clippings that we see in Oskar’s collection include a picture of the knife he has been using to act out his revenge fantasies (with hints that this model of knife had been used in one of the killings for which Oskar has been collecting clippings). We also see that Oskar has been collecting clippings concerning the sectarian violence that was ripping through Lebanon at this time, suggesting that he is interested in a variety of forms of violent death, not just conventional murders.
Of course, the character whose behavior is most outside the human norm is Eli, though we get very few firm details about what she is like. We know that she can solve Rubik’s cubes with ease, but we get few details about what unusual intellectual abilities she might have. We know she has unusual physical abilities as well (and at one point we see her scurrying up the side of the building), but we do not know just what she can do physically or how she can do it. Unlike the typical movie vampire, she is not a figure of evil; her need for blood seems purely physical, not supernatural. She is, however, cold and inhuman, an enigma whose emotional life is foreign and inscrutable to us, though she is somewhat humanized in the course of the film through the growth of her relationship with Oskar, which seems to be a genuine connection, though one that is made possible because his own emotional life is outside the human norm.
Perhaps the most enigmatic feature of Eli is his or her sexuality, which is entirely appropriate if one views the film through Michel Foucault’s discussion of the epistemological function of sexuality in modern Western civilization. As outlined in the introductory volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault sees sexuality as a focal point for an entire array of discursive practices through which modern society has attempted to constitute the individual as a subject of administrative control. Exploring the way discourses like psychoanalysis participate in a quite general fascination with sexuality as the locus of epistemological inquiry in the late nineteenth century, Foucault concludes that such discourses are all informed by the common conviction that sexuality is a mysterious, dark, and hidden area that is somehow “harboring a fundamental secret,” and that this secret contains the key to understanding the true nature of the self (69). For Foucault, discourses such as psychoanalysis are driven by a conviction that sexuality is a privileged locus of truth, resulting in an obsession with the sexual that participates in the general Western epistemological drive that Foucault refers to as the “will to knowledge.”
We get a few more details in the novel, but, from this Foucauldian point of view, the film’s decision to leave Eli’s sexuality unexplained is highly appropriate as the most effective way of leaving the true details about her most fundamental nature mysterious. All she says about her gender in the film is that “I am not a girl,” which, of course, could simply refer to the fact that she is not human. It could also refer to her advanced age, though the film again does not specify her age other than to note that she has been twelve for a long time. If the comment is a reference to her gender, the film gives us no further details, other than a fleeting glimpse of the area where her genitals once were, but where now she has only scars. There are no scars in the book, suggesting that his genitals were perhaps taken by magical, rather than surgical methods. In any case, the film leaves the matter of Eli’s missing genitals entirely unexplained, though the novel makes clear that Eli was once a boy (named Elias) and that her genitals were taken from her by the vampire who turned her and drank her blood from the wound made by her genital mutilation.
On one level, that the relationship between Eli and Oskar will clearly be asexual and yet potentially passionate can be taken as a commentary on the role of the erotic in vampire narratives as a whole. Vampires are frequently highly erotic figures, and numerous observers have noted the sexually-charged nature of vampirism—and especially of the eroticism that seems inherent in the vampire’s drinking of blood from his or her victims. And, while the drinking of blood can certainly be taken as an emblem of oral sex, it is nevertheless non-genital. It is also non-gender specific. Vampires have long tended to drink the blood of victims without regard to their gender, though Le Fanu’s Carmilla prefers other women and Dracula himself himself also prefers women, especially as his wives. But people of all sexualities can have teeth and necks; genitals are not necessarily crucial to vampire sexuality.
From another point of view, however, that Eli’s lack of genitals does not seem much of an impediment to the relationship between Eli and Oskar also suggests that truly deep and meaningful emotional connections need not follow the heterosexual (or even the sexual) paradigm. Though he seems very innocent in a sexual sense, he has no doubt been conditioned by the society around him to assume that his most important emotional connections will be heterosexual ones. It thus seems natural that he might establish a connection with someone like Eli, whom he initially assumes to be a girl. When he discovers that she is not a girl in any traditional sense, he is momentarily bothered but decides to proceed with the relationship anyway. Desperately lonely, Oskar has finally found a friend, and he is not going to let something like gender get in the way of pursuing that friendship.
Oskar’s decision might at first glance be reminiscent of Osgood Fielding’s declaration at the end of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) that “nobody’s perfect” when he discovers that the “woman” he loves is, in fact, a man. However, Wilder’s intention is to produce comedy that depends for its effect on the acceptance of the heterosexual norm, making Fielding’s attitude incongruous. In Let the Right One In, however, the effect is entirely serious and entirely subversive. Fielding’s attitude is humorous on the assumption that of course it matters that his intended is a man. Oskar’s acceptance of Eli, despite her lack of sexuality, is serious and subversive because it suggests that, in some cases, biological gender really doesn’t matter and that people can get together in all sorts of configurations for all sorts of reasons.
Granted, part of Oskar’s acceptance of Eli has to do with age and innocence. As Jamieson Ridenhour points out,
“In context of how Let the Right One In functions on a thematic level, it makes sense that Eli’s gender would ultimately be a non-issue. The film is not about sex, per se, not concerned at all with sexual desire. The prepubescent protagonists of Let the Right One In are also pre-sexual” (175).
It is certainly the case that Oskar, especially, seems almost achingly innocent in sexual matters. However, one also suspects that the revelation of Eli’s lack of genitals is almost a relief to Oskar, because it frees him of the need to enact a conventional performance of masculine sexuality for which he seems ill-suited. It never seems to occur to him that Eli’s condition will prevent conventional heterosexual intercourse. Even in the novel, where he reacts in more detail, he never seems to think about sex in this regard. His only reaction in the novel, in fact, is to wonder how Eli pees, or if she pees at all. In either case, though, his reaction primarily involves an initial confusion over the fact that, as a couple, he and Eli will not be able to function according to the expected heterosexual norms. But, of course, functioning according to human norms is not really an option when one person in a couple is not a “person” in the usual sense, but a vampire.
In any case, Oskar himself is hardly a figure of masculine power, as can be seen in the numerous scenes of the film in which he is tormented by bullies. Actually, this aspect of Oskar’s character is captured much more overtly in the American remake of the film, Let Me In (2010). In the Swedish film, as in the original novel, the bullies habitually taunt Oskar by calling him “Piggy.” In the American version, however, they taunt “Oscar” (now named “Owen”) by simply calling him a girl, which is apparently the worst insult they can think of. Meanwhile there is a scene in the Swedish film in which Oskar goes to spend time with his father in the country, his parents apparently being divorced. The boy and his father have a great time together, until the father’s friend drops by, and the two men start drinking together, leaving Oskar to fend for himself. It’s an odd moment, and it is not entirely clear whether there is some sort of homoerotic spark between the two men. What is clear, though, is that they are men and Oskar isn’t, so that he is not welcome to share their vodka or their camaraderie.
The clearest signal in Let the Right One In of Oskar’s sense of masculine inadequacy is in his fascination with the clearly phallic knife that is one of his most treasured possessions and a key ingredient in his fantasies of getting even with the bullies who have been tormenting him. The knife thus serves as a sort of substitute phallus for a young boy who feels emasculated by the bullying to which he has continually been exposed—and by life in general. One of the things, then, that Eli and Oskar have in common, one of the things that binds them, is that both, in a sense, have been castrated. Both are also entirely alone. (Eli is not only alienated from humans by her vampirism, but appears to be alienated from other vampires as well.) They are certainly both outsiders, both individuals who do not (or cannot) abide by society’s expected norms, so perhaps it is natural that they would get together.
In this sense, Let the Right One In makes especially good use of the vampire motif as a metaphor for Otherness, for the isolation of someone who feels irredeemably separated from human society. By inviting us to sympathize with Eli (though without romanticizing her and while still making it clear that she can be a savage killer when the need overtakes her), the film deftly avoids the trap of demonizing the Other, which is always the easiest way to use the vampire as a metaphorical Other. It is also important to recognize that the film does very much the same with Oskar. It is not clear exactly how psychologically disturbed he really is, but his potential for very real and very serious psychological problems is made very clear. Even without partnering up with a vampire, he might well have become a serial killer. Eli and Oskar both seem to have suffered some serious traumas—and by the end of the film they have suffered even more. The film thus asks us to consider what sort of torments others might have suffered before we condemn them for being the way they are.
In addition, no matter how far outside the norm they might be, Let the Right One In invites audiences to identify with both Eli and Oskar. Presumably no one watching the film will be a vampire, and probably few will be fanboys of death and murder. But many, if not most, people watching the film will have, at some time or another, felt alienated from those around them, rejected and alone, condemned for being different in whatever way. The film asks us, then, to accept the unconventional, even “abnormal” nature of the film’s two central characters and to perform an ethical exercise in respect for the Other in which we allow them their difference but refuse to objectify or demonize them for it.
Let the Right One In concludes with what appears to be a happy ending, with Oskar headed out of town on a train, accompanied by Eli, who is hidden inside a box so that she can be protected from the sun. As the film ends, the two signal kisses to one another through the box, employing the Morse Code that they had earlier learned so they could communicate through the common wall of their apartments. It’s a nice ending, though it almost certainly implies that, thanks to his relationship with Eli, Oskar will eventually be able to fulfill his fantasy of being a murderer so that he can supply blood to her. He will take care of her as she has just taken care of him by killing the bullies who were tormenting him—which means that their sweet and touching relationship is sealed with murder from the beginning. But Oskar and Eli will not grow old together, because she will stay twelve until something kills her. For his part, Oskar might grow old if he can avoid capture long enough, but he seems certain ultimately to end up no better than had Håkan. In a very real sense, though, his life has ended at twelve, as had hers.
One could argue, then, that the final pairing of Eli and Oskar as a couple has at least two problems associated with it. For one, it is hard to imagine how it might end, other than badly. One might remember here the echoes of Romeo and Juliet that run through the film. For another, however unconventional a couple they might be, they are still a couple, so that the film, however much it might challenge conventional gender roles, does not challenge the conventional notion that people must ultimately pair up, forming a unit in comparison to which everyone else to some extent occupies the role of Other. In this sense, the film fails to get beyond one of the most fundamental of all social conventions—the convention that human beings such pair up into couples as the basic unit of social organization. One can imagine, of course, that Eli might eventually turn Oskar so that they can live together forever, at which point they might find it necessary to find another human protector, but surely, in that case, Eli and Oskar would still be a couple, while the human would simply be a servant, however loyal he or she might be.
In my view, then, to view this ending as a happy one goes against the grain of the entire rest of the film by romanticizing the relationship between Eli and Oskar, when the rest of the film staunchly refuses such romanticization. In addition, reading this ending as a happy one and as a liberation from their problems tends to suggest that they can in some sense be a “normal couple,” when the rest of the film has encouraged us to think beyond the opposition of normal vs. abnormal. These two unhappy outsiders still live in a world in which they will be outsiders and in which they are likely to be unhappy. Taken as a whole, Let the Right One In gestures toward the conventional romantic Hollywood ending, but then takes that ending away from us. Viewing the ending carefully, we can see that this film is not telling us that there is someone for everyone and that the secret to happiness is to find that one special Other who can complete us. Instead, it tells us that a truly happy ending can occur only when we have gotten beyond the habit of viewing our fellow humans as Others in the first place.
Calhoun, John. “Childhood’s End: Let the Right One In and Other Deaths of Innocence.” Cineaste 35.1 (Winter 2009): 27–31.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Volume I, An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1980.
Karlsson, Helena. “The Vampire and the Anxieties of a Globalizing Swedish Welfare State: Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In).” European Journal of Scandinavian Studies 43.2 (October 2013): 184-199.
Ridenhour, Jamieson. “‘If I Wasn’t a Girl, Would You Like Me Anyway?’: Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Alfredson’s Let the Right One In.” The Universal Vampire: Origins and Evolution of a Legend. Eds. Barbara Brodman and James E. Doan. Vancouver: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015. 165–175.
Wright, Rochelle. “Vampire in the Stockholm Suburbs: Let the Right One In and Genre Hybridity.” Journal of Scandinavian Cinema 1.1 (2010): 55–70.
 Throughout this discussion, I will refer to Eli as a “vampire,” as have most viewers and critics of the film. As the wide variety of cultural representations of vampires indicates, however, the term “vampire” is not a simple one with a clear set of characteristics associated with it. In the novel on which this film is based, however, Eli insists that she is not a vampire, though she must consume human blood in order to survive. She doesn’t really elaborate on this claim, other than to declare that “there’s a big difference.” She also says that she would never infect anyone else with her condition, the implication presumably being that vampires do infect others.
 The title of the novel is actually more complex than it might first appear, because it clearly applies both to conventional vampire mythology and to the ways in which the emotionally isolated Eli and Oskar ultimately let each other into their lives. A further wrinkle occurs in the original Swedish title, Låt den rätte komma in. The word den rätte (“the right one”) is masculine in gender (it has connotations similar to the English “Mr. Right”), so that, if it refers to vampire mythology, it is a giveaway to the fact that Eli is a boy.
 In the novel, Håkan is specified to be forty-five years old, but he appears much older in the film, where he is played by an actor who was approaching seventy at the time.
 The novel makes it clear that he is a pedophile who is drawn to Eli by sexual attraction. He has joined up with her, in fact, after having been disgraced by his pedophilia in his former life.
 The events of the novel begin slightly earlier, in late 1981.
 Ironically, the most notorious case of this violence in Lebanon, the Sabra and Shatilla Massacre, did not occur until September of 1982, and so could not have been included in Oskar’s collection. The novel, incidentally, does not mention such violence, but limits itself to a clipping about a particularly barbaric Swedish murderer (“Could be me in twenty years,” thinks Oskar) and one taken from The Home Journal concerning an American serial killer in the 1940s who poisoned fourteen people before being caught and ultimately executed in the electric chair. Clearly making Oskar seem even more disturbed than he does in the film, the novel points out that “to see someone executed in the electric chair” was “one of Oskar’s dreams” (18). The motif of collecting clippings relating to gruesome deaths has been entirely eliminated in the American version of the film, pointing to its general sanitization relative to the two Swedish originals.
 Wright notes that advanced abilities in puzzle solving has been suggested as an element of vampire lore, but admits that she has been able to find a reliable source for this information (58).
 See also Ridenhour for a number of comparisons between Let the Right One In and Carmilla.
 This motif, of course, reverses the indication in the Swedish film that Eli is not a girl. Indeed, it gives Owen an uncertain gender position that mirrors that of Eli in the Swedish version. Incidentally, the American version also has “Eli” (now named “Abby”) proclaim that she is not a girl, but there are no shots of genital mutilation to reinforce that statement, which could easily, in the American film, simply be taken as a declaration that she is neither young nor human.