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Entries in Let Me In [2010] (1)

Tuesday
Oct052010

Let Me In (2010)

Found in Translation

I suspect most people who call 2008’s Let the Right One In the best vampire/horror movie ever made have either not watched a lot of vampire/horror movies or—more likely—just want to impress their non-movie-goer friends with their knowledge of foreign cinema.  I thought it was an okay film with brilliant ideas and a hell of a cinematographer.  When it was over, my first thought was that it’d be cool to see an American remake that kept what worked and ditched what didn't.

I was curious to see how a director who’d cut his or her teeth in the Hollywood studio system would approach the material.  If they could move the pace along without losing the somber tone—and maybe liven up the cast a bit—they might deliver a true masterpiece.

This week saw the release of Matt Reeves’s Let Me In.  Reeves planted himself firmly on the map a couple years ago when his faux-doc monster invasion film, Cloverfield, made a bazillion dollars and established January as a profitable month for the movies.  I was excited, but it was impossible for me to shake the original while watching the remake.

I didn’t consciously compare the two.  Rather, I kept getting these flashes of recognition as Reeves’s very faithful update unfolded; these were accompanied by weird moments of panic as I struggled to remember if the tweaks he made to the story were actually new, or if my mind had filled in gaps from the original with things I’d wanted to see.

Set in Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1983, the movie stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as Owen, a scrawny, sensitive pre-teen.  He grapples with his parents’ messy divorce and a vicious pack of school bullies by bumming around his apartment complex and stabbing trees with a pocket knife.  One day, a girl named Abby (Chloe Moretz) moves in with her father (Richard Jenkins).  Abby is mysterious and aloof, and she doesn’t wear shoes—strange, because Los Alamos is at a very snowy elevation.

We learn pretty quickly that Abby’s “father” is actually her henchman, and that she’s a vampire; he stalks townies at night, drugs them, and drains their blood into jugs for Abby to consume later.  At least, he tries to do those things; he’s getting sloppy, you see, spilling the buckets into a ravine or being spotted during an attempted kidnapping.  Whatever relationship he and Abby have had, it’s no longer working out.

This sets Owen up as Abby’s new friend, though it’s clear he wants to be more than that.  He takes her to the arcade; he shares his obsession with Now ‘n Later candy; he promises that “going steady” is the same as being regular friends.  Though Abby’s affection doesn’t come easily, she’s Owen’s only refuge in a world that he sees as either having forgotten him or wants to kill him.

As layered stories go, you don’t get much better than Let Me In (and, by extension, Let the Right One In).  Sitting through the 80s European glumness of the original was a real chore, but Reeves has punched up his screenplay with a few key changes that smooth out the rough patches.

For example, the father’s last job for Abby ends in disaster.  Reeves preserves the intent and consequences of this plot point, but blows out this particular sequence of events into a suspenseful spectacle that the original filmmakers likely wouldn’t have considered (granted, I haven’t read the book on which both movies are based, so I’m speculating).  I don’t want to give too much away here, as this is one of the film’s big surprises—especially for fans of the original—but I applaud Reeves for keeping me guessing for a good ten minutes.

The most notable improvement, though, is in the casting.  Moretz and Smit-McPhee have had a very good year; she broke out as foul-mouthed murderess Hit Girl in Kick-Ass; he builds upon the natural performance he gave in The Road, layering the Dour Kid act with hints of mischief and the ability to smile.  These actors’ chemistry is sweet, and they give more well-rounded performances than the kids in the previous version (Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson were fine, but their heavy-eyed mopiness contributed to the interminability of Let Me In’s run-time).

The bullies are also nastier in Reeves’s picture, due in equal parts to writing and performance.  Rather than the puzzling “Squeal like a pig” taunt from the original, these little bastards tease Owen about being a girl.  If you’re an excavator of subtext, you’ll find all sorts of great messages about confused sexuality and the pubescent search for identity.  If you’re not, you can simply marvel at the nastiness and await the bullies’ comeuppance.

One thing keeps Let Me In from being fully superior to the original, and that’s the baffling decision to use a computer-generated version of Abby during the vampire attacks.  Abby becomes a feral monster when she needs blood, climbing all over her victims and throwing them around.  Since many of these incidents happen in shadow, it’s not like the filmmakers gained anything by resorting to the most weightless, unbelievable CG I’ve seen since Sharktopus.  These effects are embarrassing to watch, and come very close to undermining the subtlety and imagination of the rest of the movie.

It’s not often that I recommend skipping one movie in favor of another, but if you’re thinking about watching either version of this story for the first time, I say, “Buy American”.  Watching both back-to-back may prove tedious, as it did for me.  Let the Right One In is a sketch.  Let Me In is a fully realized work of art.