Let the Right One In: Cheering for the Monster

Darkness. Snow. Soft flakes fall evenly, descending at a slight angle. White against black: a foreshadowing of the visual contrast between our protagonist and our antihero.

When we first see Oskar, an unusually fair-skinned boy with very blonde, longish hair, he is wearing only his white underwear as he threatens an invisible enemy with a knife, demanding he “squeal like a pig.” He’s distracted by his reflection in the window and places his hand against the glass: his identity is as vague as his reflection. Some transparent barrier alienates him from the world.

From this window Oskar watches as a man and a dark-haired girl exit a cab. The girl walks straight into the building, while the man lifts their unwieldy boxes and carries them in behind her. The balance of power between them is clear. A minute later, the man covers their window with a piece of cardboard and a magazine picture of a woman with bright red nails.

The next day, we discover that Oskar is the victim of bullies who push him against the wall and call him “pig.” Oskar is frozen into powerlessness and waits for them to leave. We understand that this is one in a long series of violent episodes enacted on our protagonist by these pubescent assholes bullies.

In the next few scenes, we discover who—or what—the girl is. After night falls, her guardian, Håkan, attacks a man in the woods, renders him unconscious by forcing halothane gas into his lungs via an anesthesia mask, strings him up in a tree, slits his throat, and begins draining his blood into a plastic jug. Apparently dead blood won’t do. A snow-white poodle interrupts his work, and as he hears people approaching, he packs up his equipment and runs, forgetting the jug of blood.

Oskar practices his revenge in the dark, snowy courtyard, using a tree as a stand-in for a bully, first threatening, then stabbing the tree. He turns around—the girl is watching him as she stands on the jungle gym. He approaches her in a stunning visual: she stands, much higher than Oskar, unarmed and at ease, while he steps forward, guarded, knife in hand. She jumps and lands uninjured from a height that should at least sprain an ankle. She asks what he’s doing. He says, “Nothing.” Their brief meeting ends with her statement: “I can’t be your friend.”

The girl discovers that Håkan has returned with no blood. She is angry and yells, “You’re supposed to help me!” He looks defeated and guilty. She leaves.

The next day, we learn that a school-age child has been murdered. Oskar cuts out a newspaper clipping about the murder and places it in his scrapbook containing article after article about killings. He leaves to sit in the courtyard to practice solving a Rubik’s Cube, when the girl find him and they sit together. Oskar says she smells funny and wonders why she doesn’t feel the cold. He lets her borrow the Rubik’s Cube, and after he leaves, she bends over from the pain of severe, growling hunger pangs.

Eli leaves and hides under a bridge. She calls out for help to a local man named Jocke who has just left the pub. He picks her up and she attacks, biting into his neck, wrestling him easily to the ground, then loudly gulping his blood. When she’s finished, blood covering her face and clothes, she cries. She mercifully breaks his neck.

She does not know that a man named Gösta, watching from the pub window, has witnessed the whole thing.

Håkan comes and cleans up the killing site. He drags the body to a nearby hot spring, and pushes it into the water with a heavy, bright red stick. He quickly walks off, leaving the stick behind.

Oskar returns to the courtyard the next night to discover the Rubik’s Cube, solved, sitting on the jungle gym. They talk. her name is Eli, which surprises Oskar, because it is normally a boy’s name. She is twelve, she says, “more or less.” She teaches him how to solve the Rubik’s Cube.

Oskar stays late at school the next day to study Morse code. It’s dark when he begins to walk home. The little assholes bullies grab and hold him as the lead bully, Conny, demands to know what he is studying. Oskar says nothing. He has gained some courage—he is afraid, but refuses to give in. A student—a smaller version of Oskar, with the same longish, blond hair and pale skin—is forced to whip Oskar on the back of his legs with a branch. Another student whips him once on the face, leaving a bloody gash—the strike is so hard, we hear the high ring of tinnitus in Oskar’s ear. Still he stays resolved and quiet. The bullies give up and run off, for now.

When they next meet, Eli tells Oskar that when he is attacked, he must hit back. Hard. She places her hand on his and says she will help him. When they return home, they communicate by knocking in Morse code on the wall connecting their two apartments.

Håkan finds a young victim at the school gym and strings him up on some equipment. He doesn’t know that the boy’s friends are waiting for him, and they knock on the door just as he is preparing to slash his throat. The boy comes to and yells for help; an open jar of acid, brought to burn the boy’s body and make him difficult to identify, falls to the floor and burns through a green jacket. Knowing he is defeated, he takes what acid remains in the jar, carried it to another room, and sits on the floor. His last word is “Eli.” He pours the acid on his face.

Later, Eli climbs easily up the hospital wall and knocks on the window of Håkan’s room. He rises and with a few, painful steps moves to the window. He pulls out his breathing tube. After he opens the window, we see that much of his face is dissolved down the bone. He exchanges a final, knowing look with Eli. She gently—lovingly—bites his neck and drinks his blood. She lets him fall to the ground where he dies instantly.

At home in bed, Oskar hears a knock at his door: it’s Eli, just returned from the hospital. She takes off her clothes, climbs in next to him, and lightly strokes his arm. He asks her to go steady with him. She agrees.

The next day, Oskar’s class goes to the frozen pond to ice skate. Conny and his lackeys find Oskar, asks if he wants to go for a swim, then walk off, smug. Oskar searches for something with which he can defend himself, and finds the bright red stick left behind by the man. He returns to the pond where the bullies arrive. Conny again asks if Oskar is ready to go for a swim. Oskar says no. Sensing that his target has gained some courage, the bully says he will push Oskar and Oskar will not do a thing. He walks toward our protagonist, and in one of the most satisfying scenes in the film, Oskar whacks that little shit Conny hard on the side of the face with the red stick. The bully, briefly senseless, falls to his knees, then screams. Blood runs down his face. Oskar breathes fast, smiles, and stands a little taller.

On the other side of the pond, two girls discover Jocke’s body. The police come and use a chainsaw to cut out a large piece of ice with Jocke inside.

When Eli sees Oskar back at the apartment, she says, “Bravo.” Oskar is pleased. He pulls out his knife, wanting to symbolize their bond by exchanging blood—a blood brother pact. Despite Eli’s protestations, he draws the knife across his hand. He turns to face Eli. Blood from his hand drips and quickly pools on the floor. Unable to control herself, Eli lunges for the blood and laps it up like a dog. She looks up at Oskar and yells at him go away: for a moment, she morphs into an adult version of herself, bigger, weary, graying. Oskar is frozen in place. Eli runs off.

Meanwhile at the pub, Gösta, the man who witnessed Eli killing Jocke, tries to convince his friends to call the police. One of them a Virginia, leaves alone, upset after being insulted by her boyfriend Lacke. Eli, lying in wait, hungry and on her own now that her guardian is dead, attacks Virginia, biting her neck; but just as she begins to gulp her blood, the friends from the pub approach. Eli runs off.

The next day, Virginia is home resting, feeling a strange discomfort. She checks the wound on her neck—two telltale bite marks—and blood seeps out. She salivates. Disturbed, she gets up to open the blinds, but the streaming sunlight burns her skin. She drops the blinds.

The next day Virginia visits the home of a friend who has may cats. The cats, in primal, instinctive recognition, immediately growl and hiss at her. Confused, she begins to back away; but the cats, in a nearly synchronous leap, attack the woman, driving their nails and teeth into her skin. She is rushed to the hospital.

Virginia begins to grow weak. She understands that to survive, she must kill. As her final decision—a choice which provides an alternative to the choice made by Eli—she asks a nurse to open the blinds. He does, and she instantly bursts into flames.

Oskar discovers a note. It’s from Eli: “I must be gone and live, or stay and die.” He hitchhikes in the dark to find her. He knocks on her door and she lets him in. She confesses that she lives off blood. Oskar, disturbed, leaves.

Eli finds him at her apartment and asks if she can stay with him a while. He agrees. She says he must invite her in. He refuses, even taunts her a little. She walks in and immediately blood begins to pool and spill over from her eyes, her nose, her ears. Oskar, frightened, quickly says. “You can come in!” The bleeding stops. She goes into the bathroom to change, and Oskar, curious, glances inside. He sees that Eli has no genitalia; only a large, sprawling scar, crawling across her pubic bone like broken glass.

Lacke, having lost both his best friend and girlfriend to Eli, has found her apartment. He enters and finds Eli sleeping in the tub under layers of blankets. Holding a knife, he begins to open the window blinds, but Oskar has crept up behind him. His own knife in hand, Oskar yells “No!” The man turns, and Eli attacks him from behind. Oskar leaves; he knows what she’s going to do.

When she’s finished, she comes out of the bathroom. She thanks Oskar for saving her. She kisses him with her wet, bloody mouth.

The next day, the bullies find Oskar swimming at the gym; only this time the group is led by Conny’s older brother Jimmy, out for revenge for Conny’s injured face. Jimmy, holding a knife, bends down and tells Oskar he has a choice: he can either stay underwater for three minutes, or have one of his eyes cut out. Jimmy grabs Oskar by the hair and pushes him under.

We are underwater with Oskar, watching as he struggles and tries not to breathe. He closes his eyes, ready to give in. Suddenly, to the left, we see Jimmy’s legs being pulled fast across the pool. A moment later, his head falls in. The hand grasping Oskar hair loosens its grip; the dismembered arms drops in. Another arm reaches for Oskar and pulls him up from the water. Oskar looks up and see Eli’s bloody face. He smiles a toothy smile.

Eli has killed all of the bullies, save one: the small, Oskar-doppelganger, who sits on a bench, in shock and covering his face. The screen goes black, then:

Darkness. Snow. Soft flakes fall evenly, descending at a slight angle.

Oskar sits on a train watching the daytime scenery go by. His red bag sits in the opposite seat. A cardboard box containing Eli sits on the floor. He taps Morse code on the box; she responds. The word they exchange in Swedish is “puss”—little kiss.

We sit back, watch the credits roll across a black screen, then red, then black. It dawns on us, perhaps a bit more slowly than it should, that we have felt satisfaction at the gory deaths of human beings while we have cheered on their vampire killer.

About taoreader

Writer and Editor. Pianist and singer. Feminist and proponent of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. I don't get it either. I wish I could have dinner with Marie Curie.
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18 Responses to Let the Right One In: Cheering for the Monster

  1. facetaco says:

    I…didn’t really like this movie? I think I’m the only one. Scandinavian films in general have a certain bleakness to them that I can’t really tolerate. Except for Rare Exports, because that film is a goddamn treasure.

    • taoreader says:

      I think the bleakness it what attracts me to Scandinavian films. I’m not always in the mood for them, but when I am, I love it. They’re highly character driven and tend to rely on beautiful visuals.

      Have not seen Rare Exports–Netflix streaming?

      • facetaco says:

        I THINK so, but don’t quote me on that one. It’s still pretty bleak (It IS Finnish, which are a depressed people even by Scandinavian standards), but it’s a family movie, so there’s at least a semblance of some happiness in there.

        Other than that one, though, I just cannot do it with the Scandinavian films. Show Me Love was okay, I guess, except for the weird focus on chocolate milk. Young Gods, though, is basically the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen.

    • Erika says:

      I have a pretty low tolerance for Scandinavian movies. If the bleakness fits with the theme, I’m okay with it. If bleakness is the entire point (I’m looking at you, von Trier), then I want nothing to do with it.

  2. Well, there’s only one vampire more insufferable than tween bullies, and he’s too busy eating bears and stalking his girlfriend, so.

  3. hotspur says:

    I really like the 1980s-Finland setting. I never saw the US remake, which I figure is set in present-day US, but I heard it’s better in some ways — though I don’t believe it. (Just cuz I’m prejudiced against American remakes. A prejudice that is proven wrong time and again. WHEN WILL I LEARN. My country is pretty good at movies!)

  4. Commentatrix says:

    I’m so proud of myself for making it through this one! The absence of horror conventions is what made it palatable to me, even though there are gross parts, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not the kind of movie that will have you checking behind you for weeks after watching it.

  5. Erika says:

    I really want to read the book. Unless I heard wrong, apparently Eli is actually a boy.

    • taoreader says:

      That’s what I’ve heard. In the movie, oblique references are made to that fact. I think Eli comes off as more or less genderless in the film.

  6. safire says:

    Really enjoyed this movie, its one that I think I’d pick up new details if I watched it again. For example, I recall being puzzled in the final scene as to why she was in a box … wasn’t until I read through your recap that it “dawned” on me that it’s daylight out there.

    I love your screenshots. The second to last one where Eli has dried blood on her face captures that scene so well. Eli wears it through that scene like an old worn out sweater, almost comfortable. So creepy.

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