Swedish vampires! What won't they think of next?

Actually, though it sounds weird the first time you hear it, it's no stranger than putting vampires in New York or the Louisiana bayou; at least Scandinavia is part of Europe, where the folklore of nosferatu-like vampires originated. Besides that, if there's one horror subgenre that could use a little bit of fun novelty, it would unquestionably have to be the poor vampire picture, which has been mired in rip-offs of knock-offs for decades now. Name a halfway decent and/or remotely original vampire film from the last 30 years, I dare you - I've heard from more than one dependable source that 30 Days of Night, boasting the delightful concept of wintry vampires in the endless dark of the Arctic Circle, is a pretty good film despite the presence of Josh Hartnett, but that's what, one movie. Before that, you have to go all the way back to George A. Romero's 1977 Martin for anything approaching a good vampire movie.*

So let's all be sure to spare a moment's thought to thank Tomas Alfredson, directing John Ajvide Lindqvist's adaptation of his own novel Let the Right One In, for giving a desperately-needed boost to the bloodsuckers' cinematic fortunes. And not just because it takes place in Sweden: no matter where it took place, this would still be an awfully wonderful vampire story, thanks largely to pushing itself so far beyond the limits that "vampire story" usually implies. This is a coming-of-age fable and tween romance with vampirism on the fringes, but not that crappy Anne Rice-style "tragic Gothic hero" vampirism, it's good honest "savage blood-eating demon" vampirism in the body of a 12-year-old girl.

Our hero is Oskar (KÃ¥re Hedebrant), a child of divorce living in a Stockholm suburb, constantly bullied at school, alone nearly every moment of the day, and obsessed with death - he keeps newspaper clippings of a series of murders that have been plaguing the area. One evening, on the snow-covered jungle gym where he spends most of his lonely nights playing, he meets the strange figure named Eli (Lina Leandersson), apparently a girl about his own age, and quite standoffish: almost her first words to him are to declare that they cannot be friends. That's not good enough for Oskar, though, who manages with very little effort to keep the girl coming back until eventually if they're not best friends and dating, they're the next best thing to it. It's right about this point that Oskar guesses, correctly, that Eli has something to do with all those murders leaving bloodless corpses behind, and when he confronts her with his suspicion that she's a vampire, her response consists solely of asking if it's going to hurt the friendship.

Of course, there's a lot more to it than that, but Let the Right One In is such a very deeply satisfying story on so many levels that I'd hate to give much of anything away. It's one of the very best films in recent years about that first touch of early pubescent love, for a start, and a tremendously effective look at the way that a little bit of encouragement and support can help a scared, weak boy overcome the problems in his life, and a beautiful example of the hoary old trope about how love can overcome seemingly insurmountable differences. And best of all, it's all of these things without ever for a moment forgetting that it is also a horror movie, and easily the best one of the year.

Drenched in some of the deepest black shadows you could imagine by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, the film makes it as clear as any film ever has that vampires are creatures of the night, and the dark in virtually every exterior scene of the film spills right of the screen into the audience's bones: it is one of those movies about winter where just looking at a still image makes you a bit chillier. It's dark enough to be suffocating, even, which doesn't sound like a very nice thing to say, but horror more than any other film genre has a long history of turning oppressive atmosphere into the stuff of masterpieces. And when that deep dark night gives way to a gaunt little girl with blood streaming down her front walking away from the corpse of a man four times her size that she just slaughtered, I defy even the strongest viewer to avoid shivering just a touch.

For all that, Let the Right One In is like so much other great horror in that it's not interested in atmosphere and the uncanny and nothing else: there's a great human peg that all of this is hanging on, as I said. More than anything else, this is because of the characters and the wonderful young actors playing them, including Elif Ceylan as Eli's overdubbed voice (to make the character more androgynous; in the book, Eli was a boy castrated before being turned into a vampire, although if even a hint of this backstory survived into the film, I completely missed it). Oskar and Eli are both very broken people, for very different reasons, and both are tremendously complex: the young boy is both an innocent and a cynic, alive to all the world's horrors and virtually none of its beauties but immature nonetheless; the vampire, meanwhile, is a perfectly-written combination of childlike enthusiasm and 200-year-old weariness, among the most-rounded vampires in cinema history, and without dropping into any of that godawful emo carping that has done so much to destroy the genre since the '80s. And both of them are played with a great deal of sensitivity by the two young leads, although there are isolated moments throughout (including one very awkward pause in Eli's very first scene) where it's hard to overlook just how green the actors really are.

There's a sweet spot where a horror film is both moving and scary in equal or at least complementary measures, and Let the Right One In fits into this narrow margin perfectly. A better film about children you won't see all year (I'd almost exclude Slumdog Millionaire, which is ultimately more about adolescence), nor one whose overwhelming darkness makes it more satisfyingly adult. I shall content myself with calling calling it a mini-masterpiece of humanist terror, and then be glad that someone out there in the world is still trying to make horror that speaks to the human condition, rather than just trying to make teenagers spend $10 a head to yell "eww!" at gore effects.

*Don't bother mention Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula; it will only inspire me to pity you.