Swedish director Tomas Alfredson cuts through the horror to deliver an honest story of pre-teen love. Story by Simon Foster.
18 Mar 2009 - 10:07 AM  UPDATED 3 Feb 2020 - 1:50 PM

When Tomas Alfredson took the directing duties on Let The Right One In, the fact that the protagonist was a 12 year-old vampiress was the least of his concerns.

“My main goal was to find a very unsexual, very romantic young love story”, says the director, observing from his hotel window, the bleak, snowed-under cityscape of Stockholm.

His internationally acclaimed film, based upon the cult bestseller from author John Ajvide Lindqvist (here adapting his own work for the screen), has stunned audiences around the world with its minimalist, unsentimental take on the purity of first love and the brutality required to keep it alive. In the film, Oscar (played by Kare Hedebrandt) is a bullied, lonely boy, living in the tenements of working class Blackburg, and verging on the tortured confusion that is puberty. He finds a new friend in Eli (Lina Leandersson), the girl-next-door who outwardly appears to be as lonely, perplexed and anxious as Oscar, but who leads a housebound life as one of the eternal undead.

One of Sweden's most acclaimed directors with an impressive list of series television and film festival favourites, the Stockholm-native is still amazed he was offered the film at all. With no horror film on his resume, he counted upon the author of the novel to educate him. “I really am ignorant about these matters,” says Alfredson, “(John) Lindqvist had to teach me all about that stuff.”

Vampire fans will appreciate the respect and attention to detail Alfredson and Lindqvist apply to vampire lore. Though a significant section of the novel that involves Eli's ability to fly has been excised, all other aspects of classic vampire literature are adhered to – sunlight is the destroyer, salt and garlic are protectors, Eli possesses incredible strength and gravity-defying agility. The most memorably horrifying and heartbreaking scene in the film is when Oscar dares Eli to enter his home uninvited.

Alfredson masterfully conveys the physical horror of Eli's life but found far more satisfaction in exploring the essence of vampirism – the mindset that a 12 year old girl must embrace to live a life craving the blood of humans to survive.

“It's the difference between being evil and cruel,” he says, his stare fixated. “Certain animals have to be cruel sometimes. I considered Eli to be a dog or a wolf or a bird of some kind, that just needs to be fed.”

A smile beams across his face. “But she's a good-hearted vampire. She doesn't want the disease to be spread so she always kills rather than seeing (her victims) become vampire themselves.”

The role of Eli required a mature young actress that could convey the wisdom of centuries of bloodshed, but also the longing for companionship and understanding that teenagers long for. In Lina Leandersson, Alfredson knew he had found someone special. “She is like an 80 year old woman inside. She is a very quiet person, exudes a high level of integrity. Lina has that aura around her.”

The responsibility of the director to provide care and nurturing for his young cast was not lost on Alfredson, who inspired intense moments during the shoot by employing a method of script interpretation that has served him well. “I never show young actors the full script; it gives them too heavy a burden.” He is very protective of his young stars, especially on a gruelling shoot like Let The Right One In, which involved a great deal of night work, not to mention scenes of carnivorous brutality. “I deconstruct the story for them, find the essence of the scene, find the here-and-now.”

Social realism is central to John Lindqvist's novel – the packed housing-estate apartments that Oscar and Eli call home are also the setting for despair, loneliness and carnage. The landscape - a treeless, indistinguishable suburban desert that Alfredson says reflects an “unequivocal Swedishness” - is central to the audiences interpretation of the lead characters isolation. When I suggest that it represents a very alien setting for Australian audiences, he laughs. “For you guys, yes, the setting must seem...um...very exotic, I guess.”

But if the setting is disorientingly foreign, the yearnings of an unrequited longing and the ultimate acceptance of an unconditional love are instantly recognisable. Having travelled the world's film festival circuit with Let The Right One In, Tomas Alfredson acknowledges his film has an emotionality that transcends borders. “I found that the more specific I was in my themes, the more honest I was with my characters emotions, the more universally familiar even the most foreign settings will seem.”


Let the Right One In

Thursday 13 February, 9:45PM on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)

Sweden, 2008
Genre: Horror
Language: Swedish
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Lina Leandersson, Kare Hedebrant, Per Ragnar
What's it about?
Oskar (Hedebrant) is bullied at school and at home tends to retreat into his own violent fantasies. Oskar’s life changes when he makes friends with the mysterious and unkempt twelve-year-old Eli (Leandersson). However, when locals start falling victim to a series of gruesome murders, many drained of their blood, Oskar starts to put two and two together and realises Eli might just be exactly what she seems.

Let the Right One In review: A masterful story of outsiders and urges