In too many horror movies, it's all about the boo: cats springing from closets, sonic ear stings and hands reaching from off-camera to grab shoulders. • In others, filmmakers mistake goo for boo, believing graphically dismembered limbs and messily mutated flesh are scary. Maybe 30 years ago when colored Karo syrup subbed for blood and animal entrails passed for human innards. But each technical breakthrough making gore more realistic turns screen horror into med school doodles. It isn't frightening, just gross. • Which is why Tomas Alfredson's genuinely chilling Let the Right One In ranks as one of the best films — foreign or otherwise — of the past year. It's a movie built on pure dread, an overlooked concept these days.
There will be blood, of course. But not until the anticipation of it has been ratcheted up to nearly unbearable levels. This is, after all, a vampire movie. That subgenre has mostly been sucked dry of surprise, to the point that a toothless pretender like Twilight, with its High School Musical romanticism, is a hit.
Alfredson's movie also deals with love between a vampire and a mortal who may become a morsel at any time. But there are effective differences: Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is 12 years old, a Stockholm lad bullied at school and friendless at the apartment complex where he lives. That is, until he meets his new neighbor, Eli (Lina Leandersson), who appears to be the same age but isn't.
Eli is a vampire, living with a man who may not be her father but dutifully supplies her nutritional need. Maybe he just likes to kill, doing his duty with the precision of a hunter gutting a deer. Maybe that keeps Eli from killing him. She can't stand sunlight or traditional food, which Oskar notices but doesn't mind. He's in puppy love.
Let the Right One In traces their supernatural relationship and becomes more entrancing at each turn. Eli's hunger grows faster than her guardian can supply, with impulsive kills (and one near-kill) leading to tidy set pieces of terror.
Best of all, Alfredson adheres to classic, nearly forgotten rules of vampires: They can't enter a room until invited, cats detect them, and necks aren't their only blood suction points. Sunlight has a simple but shocking effect and is eerily avoided. Such detail allows Alfredson to skip the wooden stake and garlic garland cliches.
English subtitles are nearly needless. This story is primarily propelled by Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography, which is best described as Kubrickian. Like the late master, Van Hoytema frames scenes in their surrounding architecture and landscape, often at a voyeur's distance, which oddly increases the sickening effect. Perpetually snowbound surroundings sharply contrast the viscera and creepily blend with Eli's pallor. A climactic shot in a swimming pool is hands down 2008's most unforgettable movie vision. Wait until you see the movie leading to it.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.