Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The undead invade a Scandinavian suburb, where the Swedish dream turned sour.
This month, CityLab will be rounding up essential scary movies about cities—films that speak to the anxieties of urban life, showcase urban settings to terrifying effect, or forever change the way you see the cities they depict.
If Jane Jacobs had nightmares, they probably took place somewhere that looked a lot like the setting of Let the Right One In. In this 2008 Swedish vampire flick set in the 1980s, Stockholm’s modernist housing projects appear as a character just as threatening as the fanged predator they harbor. The film opens on anonymous slabs of housing lying in permanent darkness, while the snowbound pathways outside their windows are almost entirely unpeopled. Trucks pass in the murk unaware that bloody things are going on in the woods just beyond the windshield. These suburban projects aren’t just grim, the film says: They’re the kind of disconnected, lonely places where you could get away with murder.
Sure enough, this blank environment becomes the stage set for just that, when a bloodsucking adolescent girl called Eli, and Håkan, the older man who helps her, move into an empty apartment one night. But while Eli and her friend commence ripping their way through the local drunks and strays with all the grisliness one might expect, Let the Right One In mainly steers attention away from the usual shocks and chills. What comes out instead is a picture of a cul-de-sac world where even a vampire can seem as cornered as her victims.
It’s the friendship between Eli and Oscar, the bullied and not especially bright boy who lives in the apartment next door, that takes center stage. In Oscar’s lonely life, school is far more frightening than a brush with the supernatural, and when we first see him, staring blankly out into the dusk through a huge window, the world around him already seems half-dead. Oscar meets Eli one night hanging out on a jungle gym and instantly recognizes this thinly clad and odd-smelling creature as a fellow adolescent misfit. She may suck people dry, but she’s also lonely and isolated, and her apartment is a dump. And when it comes to killing, both she and Håkan prove to be surprisingly incompetent. Even the wealth they’ve acquired in their vampiring career—in one brilliantly improbable scene Eli produces a priceless Fabergé egg—isn’t much use to them. The only things Eli needs to survive are blood, darkness and anonymity.
From a country famous for excellent housing and social welfare, the idea that Swedish housing projects are so miserable not even the immortal undead have any fun there is pretty damning. Everything in the film’s world looks well-scrubbed and starkly Scandinavian—even a scene of (SPOILER ALERT) mass dismemberment and attempted drowning that takes place in a sparkling modern swimming pool complex. But this Stockholm does not seem like somewhere you’d like to live, let alone get stuck in for eternity.
The reality of Stockholm’s suburbs is somewhat less grim. Based on a 2004 novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In is set in the Blackeberg neighborhood, built in the 1950s on what was then Stockholm’s edge. Compared to similar areas in other European countries or the U.S., suburbs like Blackeberg are still a model—a denser version of the suburban dream where spacious, well laid-out homes are all within easy walking distance of shops, schools, transit lines, and wooded open spaces. It’s telling that the real Blackeberg was not bleak and snowy enough for the film’s purposes. While the neighborhood’s subway station makes an appearance, many exterior shots had to be filmed in Sweden’s far north.
Still, horror is a genre that transforms buildings for its own uses, both as a shadow-throwing backdrop to fear and as a monstrous projection of general angst about society and decay. The descent of Blackeberg into a place of terror is thus pretty revealing of shifts within Sweden. During the years when wealthy Americans were fleeing to modern suburbs, horror films often camped out in elaborate versions of the Victorian houses they left behind moldering in streetcar suburbs. Now, the post-war developments on the fringes of European cities, once models of enlightened planning, are often associated with riots and social exclusion. Little wonder that they’re being reframed by filmmakers as sites of the macabre and the marginal. With age and neglect, anything can become sinister—even pristine, car-free streets laid out to deliver a brighter future.