Pic courtesy of US distributor Magnet Releasing (2008)

Horror lovers know that there is a clear distinction between what Hollywood constitutes as a romance movie…and what horror filmmakers consider a romance movie.  Hollywood chooses swooning and last-minute declarations of love within happily-ever-after endings; while horror films consist of blood pacts and killing the enemies of characters’ loved ones– just to show how much he/she really cares.  If you’re anything like me, Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 dark romance film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is the quintessential love film for a misfit kind of love that we all secretly crave, which is why I suggest you revisit this modern classic for your Valentine’s Day horror film viewing.

When timid 12-year-old Oskar meets his new neighbor named Eli— seemingly a girl of the same age who is suspiciously barefoot and underdressed for the snowy winter— he is longing for a connection to anyone, albeit friendly or romantic.  Oskar spends his evenings fantasizing about seeking revenge upon his monstrously cruel bullies, while Eli is revealed to be living with a much older man who is murdering people within the town, whose blood she feeds off of.  The two have little in common, except for a shared interest in solving a Rubik’s cube as well as a slight mutual attraction towards each other, which Eli initially resists.  Over time, however, their shared feelings of loneliness bring the two closer together, and they engage in a romance that is both beautifully rewarding and dangerously destructive.   

As romantic as the film can be, much of it is a relatable plight to the despair of what both loneliness and longing can do to all of us– sometimes for the better, and more oftentimes for the worse.  Hakan, the man who lives with and provides for Eli— and who is likely in love with her and is envious of her connection to Oskar—eventually sacrifices himself so Eli can remain inconspicuous and feed off of his blood, in a desperate attempt to provide for Eli one last time before his death.  In their innocence, before their lives have been convoluted by sex, Eli and Oskar lie next to each other during a night alone in his apartment, and Oskar politely asks Eli if she wants to “go steady,” and “be (his) girlfriend.”  Eli hesitates, as she still has dried blood on the corners of her lips from her most recent kill.  She is “not a girl,” as she says to him.  But Oskar is unfazed and accepts her unclear answer— so desperate for the young vampiress’s affections that he is willing to have her in his life in a limited way over not having her in his life at all, initially.  We all have been down that road before with potential partners who were one foot in and one foot out with us.

As we realize over the course of the film, Oskar and Eli’s relationship becomes liberating for both of them in different ways.  Eli pushes Oskar into giving into his sinister side and letting go of his inhibitions, while Oskar teaches Eli how to let her guard down and let him in.  No one wants to see violent children encouraging violence from other children, however, there is something so wickedly freeing for Oskar when Eli tells him to hit back against his bullies— something he’s never been told to do before.  The moment Oskar gives into his darker, animalistic instincts by striking the hell out of the bully in the side of the head, he smiles, and he cannot wait to go tell Eli about his revelation.  In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, in which its title is derived, Eli, at first, shuts Oskar out of her room, while he insists on coming inside and getting answers about her true identity.  Eventually, she slightly opens up the door to him and puts her hand against the window, before finally allowing him to come inside the room with her.  Eli always insists on being verbally invited inside by Oskar, but this time, he wants to be let in and embrace her world, even in all its murderous, bloody glory.   

One of the most refreshing aspects of Alfredson’s film and its peculiar perspective on romance is that gender tropes, and how they play into relationships, are deconstructed.  Sure, we’ve seen the femme fatale-type of character in film who (quite literally) digs her fangs into any man she sees in order to receive something out of him, but we do not often see a young woman depicted on-screen who originally chooses violence over a shot at a legitimate, romantic connection.  There’s just something fascinating about a 12-year-old, female monster wreaking havoc upon the community around her, and getting away with it because few people would never expect a young lady to do so— plus managing to steal a few men’s’ hearts along the way.  In the aforementioned scene in which Oskar asks for her to be his girlfriend, she is interestingly the big spoon in their bed positions, as well as the one who is hesitant to fully commit to him— something mostly depicted by the male character involved in a heteronormative relationship within other films.  Later, when Oskar wraps his arms around Eli, and she asks him if he would still like her if she weren’t a girl, he accepts her otherness —  a near desperation that is almost always given to the female characters in other films.  However, even as he falls for Eli, he grows colder to the world around him.  Unlike other typical Hollywood romance films, in which Oskar would be the hardened male who has been softened by the love he receives from the young woman he meets, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN allows Oskar to become the timid male who has become more violent and punishing because of the woman he meets.  Oskar does not fall for Eli because of her femininity, but instead, because she is the one person in his environment that embodies somewhat of a “masculine” violence that he craves within himself.  

In arguably the most memorable scene of the film, Eli finally shows her twisted love for Oscar the best way she knows how.  As Oskar is nearly drowning in the pool by a group of his torturous bullies, we start to see bodies being dragged across the water and dismembered limbs and decapitated heads sinking to the pool’s bottom.  The blood starts to spread across the chlorine water, and Eli is his savior, as she pulls him up from out of the water to his freedom, and they lock eyes and exchange smiles.  Killing for your beloved has never looked so alluring.

By the film’s haunting conclusion, the young pair, who are finally, fully committed to one another, make a deal with each other: he will kill people for the revenge he has always mused about, and she will feed off of the blood of his victims.  A victory for both: Eli has brought out a side to Oskar that was always lurking beneath the surface, and he will provide for her, as well as give her the companionship that she has never felt from her other providers.  Sure, their romance has never been conventional, but they’ve brought out equally the best and worst of each other, which is true of many romantic relationships.

For those of us who long for or already have a partner who accepts us and loves us for our darkness, Eli and Oskar are a couple to admire.  When the rest of the world shut them out, their mutual outsider-ness and isolation grew into infatuation, and their infatuation grew into love and sacrifice for one another.  (Even if a few people had to lose their heads and their blood in the process.)  Much like Frankenstein’s monster and his bride, The Fly‘s Seth and Veronica, and even Chucky and Tiffany, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN‘s Oskar and Eli will be revered in horror history as one of the most disturbing, yet thoughtful portrayals of romantic couples in horror. 

Is it better to be loved or feared? LET THE RIGHT ONE IN says you can have both, and we would not have it any other way.

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