Variations on a Theme: “Let Me In” Review

When I first learned that they were making an American version of Let the Right One In, one of my favorite films of 2008, I was less than thrilled. The original Swedish version is a beautifully bleak horror-fantasy, an understated, macabre pseudo-fairytale, equal parts eeriness and whimsy. Very good. Very dark. Very Swedish. To be perfectly honest, I was kinda pissed that they would try to Americanize Let the Right One In. How could they? But, when I learned that Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) was directing, Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass) was starring, and Hammer (a name long synonymous with horror films) was producing, I decided to look on the bright side of life, if you will, hoping Let Me In would be good… and would therefore lead people to check out the amazing source material. That’s the nature of the beast, right? A foreign movie gets made, does well, piques enough interest that the studios think, “Hey, maybe we should remake this for all the people who are put off by subtitles,” and voila, Wings of Desire spawns City of Angels… fortunately, Let Me In is no City of Angels.

Instead of going the way of the romantic dramedy, Let Me In stays fairly close to the source material. Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a lonely kid. Between his parents getting divorced, his drunken evangelical mother and the merciless torment of a gang of kids, he’s got some serious issues to work out. Enter Abby (Chloe Moretz), the mysterious girl next door.

She and her taciturn “father” (Richard Jenkins) move in to Owen’s apartment building during the dead of night. In spite of her initial warning that she can’t be Owen’s friend, the two seem inextricably drawn together, two outsiders, united in ostracism. But as their friendship blooms and citizens of Los Alamos start dying bloody deaths, Owen begins to suspect something sinister in his fellow misfit. Of course, freaks flock together, and with issues like Owen’s, there are worse things than being best friends with a vampire.

Working in close collaboration with John Ajvide Lindqvist, the author of both the original novel and screenplay, Matt Reeves crafts a film that is both true to the source material and intriguing in its own right. Transporting the story from the cold, sterile, manufactured Swedish suburb to the cold, encroaching wilderness of Los Alamos, New Mexico adds a feeling of feral abandon to a story that was presented in a much more meticulous manner originally. The wild west was a bloody place… perfect for a vampire.

In addition to changing the setting, Reeves introduces “the policeman,” played by Elias Koteas, who investigates the string of mysterious deaths and begins to suspect a child’s involvement. (Koteas is a long-time personal favorite… ever since he played Casey Jones in 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles… I wonder how he feels about that role.)

Of course, Koteas isn’t the only great actor in Let Me In. Oscar-nominated Richard Jenkins’ turn as Abby’s “father” is wonderfully nuanced. He brings a subtle wounded quality to the character. When he asks Abby not see Owen anymore, there is a clear sense of weariness that weighs down his devotion, enhancing the dynamic of their relationship. Kodi Smit-McPhee makes Owen a much more melancholy character than Oskar in Let the Right One In. He takes a character who was clearly on the road to becoming a monster himself and makes him a bit more sympathetic, bringing more emotion to the character than in the original film. There’s a heart-wrenchingly revealing moment when Owen, on the phone, tearfully asks his father if he believes in evil. You see how utterly alone Owen feels, and how this loneliness paves the way for his bond with Abby.

Then there’s Chloe Moretz, perfectly playing Abby as a childlike innocent,  world-weary old soul and ferocious creature of the night. And she does it all without having her voice dubbed over by an older actress, as they did with Lina Leandersson in Let the Right One In (not to slight Leandersson’s performance, she was perfect as Eli, capable of conveying so much emotion with just a look). Moretz is an excellent fit for Abby. She herself seems beyond her years. Brilliant casting all around. And I love Reeves’ take on Owen’s mother. You never clearly see her face. She’s there, but not really. It’s very effective.

One complaint I do have, though, is that Let Me In loses some of the whimsy found in the original, which is odd considering New Mexico is “the land of enchantment.” It felt like in order to crank up the horror, Reeves lost some of the fantasy. And that was part of the appeal, for me, of the original. I love Let the Right One In because it is this sort of neo-Gothic, Swedish fantasy. However, I can definitely appreciate making things scarier… gorier. Also, there’s a lack of the original gallows humor. For those who have seen the original, I’ll tell you right now, before you get your hopes up, no one is interrupted by a poodle in Let Me In. And the moment we learn what happens to a vampire who enters your house without permission doesn’t come off quite as eerie or disturbing, partly because the blood seems less like blood and more like corn syrup.

Still, Let Me In is a great film in its own right. And were it not for the fact that I have the original film to compare it to, I’d probably hold it in even higher regard, as there is a dearth of truly great horror films of late. Reeves delivers a smart, dark film, without watering it down, swapping some of the original challenging elements for new, slightly more accessible but equally challenging elements. Also, the ominous use of the old Now & Later jingle, “Eat some now and save some for later,” is amazingly creepy. You should definitely check out Let Me In, and if you haven’t seen Let the Right One In, see it too.

Grade: B+


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