Running time: 95 min. Rating: R for strong bloody horror violence, language and a brief sexual situation.
Directed by: Matt Reeves. Written by: Matt Reeves & John Lindvquist
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Moretz, Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas, Cara Buono, Sasha Barrese
Matt Reeves ‘Let Me In’ might be one of the best surprises of the fall movie going season. A remake of the excellent 2008 Swedish vampire drama ‘Let the Right One In, Reeves’ rendition isn’t a shot for shot recreation or n mainstream dumb-down of the unsettling and hauntingly poignant original. Instead, the experience is like visiting a really great funhouse attraction, except this time you get the opportunity to peek into rooms that were closed on the first go-round. Atmospheric, elegantly creepy, and subtly changing emphasis and scope, Let Me In spins the same story with more focus on the beguiling relationship at its center, the growing bond between a bullied 12-year old boy and the lonely vampire next door.
The film opens with a shot of the snow falling in New Mexico, and in the distance we see a string of police cars and ambulances navigating a winding road through the wilderness. Far away at first, we close in and see them racing to the scene of a car accident that reveals a man with severe acid burns on his body. It’s an unsettling opening, and rearranges some of the events from its predecessor, setting up Elias Koteas’ police officer as a good man hunting what he believes to be a serial killer stalking his town. And then, the story doubles back on itself to introduce the real focus, which is more a darkly twisted coming-of-age-story than a full-blown horror thriller. Set in the winter of1983, Let Me In finds the dark heart of Lindvquist’s novel and transplants it into a body with slightly more American sensibilities.
Young Owen, like Oskar before him, is a boy headed down a troubled road. He’s a quintessential latch-key kid of the 80’s, wandering around on his own while his mother tries to drink away the pain of a divorce. He’s taken up spinning fantasies of revenge against the kids who brutally bully him at school, and when he’s not doing that, he’s spying on the neighbors who share his shabby apartment complex, among them an amorous couple who give him his first glimpses into the world of adult sexuality. Owen’s life is drab and painful, punctuated by moments where he imagines stabbing the kids who torment him. Then, Abby and her ‘father’ move into the apartment next door and everything in his life starts to change.
Abbie, as is painfully obvious at this point, is a vampire. Owen doesn’t know at first, and in truth, he’s probably a little slow on the uptake. She may not sparkle, but the signs are there; she walks barefoot through the frozen snow, looks sick, pale and gaunt one day, and the next is a vision of adolescent energy and loveliness. He is also confused by the relationship she shares with the man he assumes is her dad; at night he can hear voices through the wall, shouting angrily at one another. Abby has an insatiable hunger that Owen doesn’t realize. In fact, all he’s aware of, truly, is that she’s a welcome playmate and someone who talks to him with interest in her voice, not the angry accusations of the schoolyard or the bland resignation of his mother. He gives her a Rubix cube and she leaves it for him on the jungle-gym the next morning, finished. A friendship is born, and when Abby sees that Owen’s starting to show the physical signs of the school abuse, she urges him to ‘hit harder.’
So, lets address that elephant in the room that likely has some genre fans spewing with rage or shrugging in ambivalence; is there any real reason that Let Me In needs to exist in the face of the smashing original film? In terms of necessity ,no. Alfredson’s film was a spellbinding and appropriately somber take on vampire/human interaction, without any of the dippy romanticism of Rice or Meyers and injected with plenty of creeping dread and icy malaise, relevant to the dour Swedish setting. Yes, we could have gotten along just fine without this American counterpart, which is also,oddly, the first new release from the renovated Hammer studios, those kings of Brit horror in the 60’s and 70’s. But, on it’s own terms, Let Me In is a surprisingly good movie, and one that keeps the essence of the beloved version, while shuffling around the rest of the pieces to make a movie that feels fresh and capable of standing on it’s own. Think of it as a continuation of the same conversation that began with Let the Right One In; a response of sorts to the subtly textured world of Lindvquist’s vampire lore.
For one thing, the change in era and setting add an underlying context that slightly solidifies the moral ambiguities related to Owen ushering Abby and her darkness into his life. Reagan is overheard giving his speech that espouses America ‘as a good nation’ and calls for the quashing of evil where it may be found. Tones of kitschy 80’s religious iconography are also always present, down to Owen being confronted by an airbrushed picture of Christ on his mother’s mirror while he’s thieving money from her purse. There’s an air of moral ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ here that was only slightly suggested in the first picture, and here it takes on greater resonance, particularly in regards to Koteas’ righteous policeman that offers a counterpoint to Abby’s tragic brutality. Owen struggles with the choices, but kindness and warmth emanate from Abby, and the world of Reagan-era politics hasn’t offered him any help at home or at school. The expansion of the character who serves as Abby’s guardian (Richard Jenkins) also establishes the inevitable consequences of a life with this strange girl. Now, we go on the car rides and abduction trips used to secure her blood supply. There’s some odd humor built in here, as Jenkins waits in the back of a grungy teenager’s van, trying not to drown amidst the Twinkie wrappers while his prey makes a Slurpee pit stop.
The other significant difference is down to the focus. Owen (Kodi-Smit McPhee) and Abby (Chloe Moretz) are pushed even further into the foreground of Let Me In than their Swedish counterparts in Let the Right One In. Alfredson’s original took the characters of the novel and created a kind of gothic triptych out of them. The subplot of an aging good ol’ boy and his girlfriend ran counter to Eli and Oskar, but it helped establish a structure that really banged home the oppression and resignation of the world Oskar lived in. Being a vampire might be well preferred to living and dying a sad footnote of an existence in a nothing town. Those characters still exist in the new film, but they have been pushed into the background, and are out of focus, gaining just enough definition so they register on our radar. Now, all the drama is filtered into those scenes on the playground and in a secret basement apartment that Owen finds; it’s down to the conversations and moments shared by these two kids. The big gamble here is that now, Let Me In rides almost completely on the performances of its young stars.
I love the original film, but there’s a coldness to all of the interaction—including Oskar and Eli—that has been melted away here. It isn’t that the first version was incomplete, but we are looking a little more deeply into what the first film showed us mostly in passing. There’s more of Owen testing the waters between he and Abby, and for her part, Abby is more inquisitive, more sensitive and aware of her role as Owen’s friend. There’s a touching scene where Owen buys them both candy from the convenience store and he’s crestfallen when she won’t try it. She sees his disappointment, and accepts one, pretends to eat it with satisfaction and then he finds her outside, wretching. Turns out Now n’Laters aren’t compatible with vampire physiology. A similar exploration of this same dynamic occurs later, when Owen, and the audience, get to see first hand what happens to Abby if she enters into his home uninvited.
The sexuality of the first film, which lingered over every scene, and was oddly challenged by the brief glimpse of Eli’s mutilated body, has been reduced greatly here, but then rolled over into subtext. The motivations of Owen and Abby’s protector aren’t driven by carnal need but by emotional love, and yet the boundaries of the adult world of physical intimacy and all it implies charges everything else. There are even suggestions that it’s a latent, nurtured homophobia that spurs on the violence that is inflicted on Owen at school. The part that blood plays in the story, and Abby’s desire for it, accounts for most of the moral darkness, with many of the uncomfortable intimations drained out.
If nothing else, Let Me In deserves to exist because of the performances, which are distinguished and interesting interpretations of the characters.It’s like watching a different acting troupe take on Shakespeare. Both films’ portrayals are made more interesting by the fact that the other exists McPhee is excellent as Owen, and he puts a spin on the character of Oskar by embracing his innocence and naivety first, and then letting the undercurrents of anger and stifled frustration bleed through. It makes him more endearing and fragile, and it opens up his relationship with Abby, who is played by Moretz as more of an outcast orphan than the weary vagabond that Lina Lindearsson brought to life in 08. She comes off both like a little girl and a feral animal, and through her eyes we get a better look at the life of her ‘familiars’ those that would help serve her in exchange for her companionship. Jenkins actually improves upon the character from the first film, making this man a forecast of what could be in store for Owen in the future; he’s tired, committed, and steadfast to Abby even though he’s asked to do terrible things. Koteas character should be throwaway but it anchors the picture’s resolve and exploration of good vs.evil. I was thankful for it’s inclusion.
As a filmmaker Matt Reeves makes Let Me In more fearsome and less languid than the other film, but he doesn’t do away the haunting atmosphere. It’s clear he has great respect for Alfredson’s original and that respect goes so far as to know when he can’t improve on something and chooses another tactic or approach. There’s a car crash filmed from the inside of the vehicle that is startling and visually impressive. It’s a thrilling moment, and the same goes for a late-in-the-game sequence where Koteas is creeping up on Abby’s hideout and Owen sits crouched in the shadows behind him, frozen. The sequence at the school pool at the end is mostly similar but it takes on a more hysterical verve. The 80’s setting is detailed and engrossing, and it ensures that no scene between the two pictures is exactly alike. Of all the films I’ve seen trying to recreate the experience of a kid in the 80s, this one comes closest to capturing what I remember. Particularly, that young restlessness, chained up by needlepoint sweaters with giraffes and bad hair-band music. Now, when Owen glimpses Abby undressing, Billy Idol is crooning on the soundtrack.
There are a shortage of great horror movies in the world, and in 2010, the list is even shorter still. American audiences rarely get to enjoy a thriller done with such restraint and passion. The world has three Twilight films and with each one, there’s less reason for them being. Through this lens, is it such a crime that now we also have two very good films based off Let The Right One In?