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American directors just can't make vampire movies quite like the Swedes can. Hampered by things like three-act structures, romantic comedy conventions and a general opposition to seeing children mutilated and killed, Hollywood would never have been able to make Let the Right One In, and thank God for that. The atmospheric, gently romantic movie is a weird little gem, an oddball and moving exploration of adolescence through the tried-and-true concept of a vampire moving in next door. It sounds like an R.L. Stine book for kids, but grown-ups are the only possible audience here.
12-year-old Kare Hedebrant stars as Oskar, the kind of sullen, bullied little boy found in every middle school in the world. He's out in the courtyard of his apartment complex, where he lives alone with his mother, pretending to stab his tormenters when Eli (Lina Leandersson) comes to introduce herself. There's something otherworldly about her from the start, both in her strange way of speaking and the fact that she's wearing a T-shirt in the middle of the Swedish winter.
Eli, of course, is a vampire, living with a man who may or may not be her father, a non-vampire who goes out at night and murders random strangers in order to feed Eli. But sometimes she gets desperate, and when bodies start being found around town with bite marks on their necks, the news makes headlines.
When Oskar figures out that Eli is a vampire, he's not horrified so much as intrigued by his new friend, who has taught him to stick up for himself against the school bullies. But as more bodies show up and Eli accidentally turns another woman into a vampire, Eli may have to leave town, and Oskar faces the idea of life without his new friend and source of strength.
The movie takes its time unfolding its story, and the slow pace will be maddening for some viewers. Some parts of the story, like Oskar's relationship with his distant father and the group of friends whose friend is one of Eli's first victims, are left dangling after the movie's fresh, startling ending. But the central story, of the innocent romance between Oskar and Eli and what Oskar learns as a result, is flawless and touching.
Let the Right One In is scheduled for a Hollywood remake, an even worse idea than most of the remakes that get cooked up. The Swedish movie's careful combination of nostalgia, romance, sci-fi and occasional violence will almost definitely be impossible to reproduce, especially without Leandersson's dark, spooky eyes and Hadebrant's washed-out youthful face. It's a weird mix of elements that makes Right One work, which makes it all the more worth it to catch the original before the remake tarnishes your memory.