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Let the Right One In it Excels By Being Equal Parts Tender and Terrifying

One of the best vampire movies of all time is also a surprisingly sweet coming-of-age tale.

When you think of young adult love stories, certain movie titles always come to mind. There’s My Girl. The Fault in Our Stars. A Walk to Remember. Films that bring characters together in a beautiful and heartwarming fashion. They confess their love, kiss, and then…heartbreak. Someone gets tragically ill, or attacked by bees, and the funeral procession begins.

These are spectacular films in their own right; they evoke emotion, and that’s what moviegoing is all about. But imagine a different kind of romance – a story where both characters actually have a shot at surviving beyond the end credits.

Of course, movies like that do exist – happy endings aren’t a total myth. That said, one of the best examples isn’t a romantic comedy or a lighthearted drama. Surprisingly, it’s the Swedish horror film Let the Right One In. If you haven’t yet seen it, beware of spoilers ahead, but if you have, it’s worth revisiting from a new perspective.

If you don’t consider yourself a fan of the vampire genre, that’s okay. There’s a lot more to this film than initially meets the eye. Director Tomas Alfredson does a masterful job of adapting the novelization of Let the Right One In, penned by author John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also wrote the screenplay for the film), creating a touching love story between a 12-year-old boy named Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) and his neighbor, a girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson) who just so happens to be a vampire. Ah, young love.

The pair begin their courtship by communicating through Morse code, tapping on the walls between their adjacent apartments. Eli is the silent type anyway, and Oskar isn’t overly talkative due to the relentless bullying he endures at school. There’s something genuinely sweet about the relationship between these two misunderstood characters – he’s awkward and smaller than his classmates, while she consumes blood to survive. While their differences are unique, they also serve to bring them together. Oskar’s feelings for Eli are genuine; she tells him that she’s not actually a girl and he still stands by her. It’s a brief but important moment that illustrates how this is about connection and understanding.

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So what makes this love story work in a world inhabited by vampires? Sure, sucking blood from other living beings doesn’t exactly make for a great hero, but in the case of this story it’s easy to forgive young Eli. It’s not like she asked for this need…the girl is doing what she has to do to stay alive. But it’s the way she defends Oskar that endears us to her. The easy path would be to sit down with the group of bullies harassing Oskar and act as a mediator to get to the root of the problem, but since she can’t really talk, she opts instead to dismember them next to a swimming pool. Mission accomplished.

It’s a graphic scene, but the heart behind it is what makes you root for Eli. She’s doing this to help her friend, and we even see a bit of compassion from her as she chooses to spare the life of one boy who ran with the tough crowd but was more of a benchwarmer than an active player. After witnessing the horrific fate of his friends, chances are he’s scared straight and likely won’t be messing with Oskar anytime soon. It’s subtle, but it shows a character with heart, rather than someone who kills out of greed, or jealousy, or pure evil.

Eli lives with a man named Hakan (Per Ragnar) who acts as a caretaker and provider for her, going out to collect blood so that she can stay at home and watch The Real Housewives of Transylvania or whatever it is vampires do offscreen. Because Hakan cares so deeply for Eli, he’s willing to risk his own life to protect her: At one point, fearing that the police will track him down and eventually find Eli, he burns his own face with acid so as not to be identified.

While a painfully mangled image on his driver’s license photo seems like the biggest sacrifice Hakan could make, he takes it one step further and offers his own blood to Eli so that she may continue to survive. It’s a painful way to go but it’s another illustration of what these characters are willing to do for each other.

Not to be outdone in the kindness department, Oskar makes his own sacrifice by continuing to protect Eli after he discovers her secret, uh, appetite. It’s apparent that he loves her, but he knows they can’t stay where they are. Their method of communicating through Morse code comes full circle as they take off for parts unknown on a train, Oskar in his seat and Eli in a box protected from the light but tapping away on the lid from the inside.

If you’re a horror buff and find yourself quickly writing off a romantic film, fear not – the best parts of a true vampire movie still exist here.