By the standards of contemporary horror movies, Let Me In has several things going for it. It isn’t about somebody being tortured to death, its leading characters aren’t played by the usual vapid twentysomething actors pretending to be high-school students, and, by and large, it eschews some of the more tedious horror fads of our time, such as herky-jerky editing, or big “Boo!” musical cues designed to make you jump.
Unfortunately, the Swedish film of which it’s a remake – Let the Right One In – is one of the finest horror movies of the past 30 years, maybe even one of the best vampire movies ever made, so it’s hard to shake off the notion that Let Me In is not so much a film in its own right as a watered-down digest for Anglophones too stupid or too lazy to read subtitles.
But let us try to be fair, and assume you haven’t seen and liked Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 film, adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel Låt den rätte komma in, and have no intention of watching it in the near future. In which case, you may well find the remake quite satisfactory. The director and screenwriter is Matt Reeves, who has form in the horror genre; he was co-creator, with J. J. Abrams, of TV’s Felicity, but made his feature-directing debut with Cloverfield, an effective shaky-cam monster-in-Manhattan movie.
It’s 1983 and there’s snow on the ground. The dark, dark story has been transposed from suburban Stockholm to a housing estate in Los Alamos, New Mexico. That this location is, for many of us, synonymous with the atomic bomb is significant only in that, like the original setting of Blackeberg in Sweden, it originated as a planned community, in this case to provide housing for employees of The Manhattan Project. In other words, despite the sinister nuclear baggage, it’s a place lacking in the cobwebbed history of the traditional Gothic yarn. I guess you could call it a social realist vampire film. If it were set in the U.K. (and since this is an Anglo-American production from the latest reincarnation of Hammer, it’s rather a shame it isn’t) they would probably have picked Milton Keynes.
First, the good news. Kodi Smit-McPhee, miscast and annoyingly whiney in The Road, is fine as Owen, a lonely 12-year-old who spies on his neighbours through a telescope, and is just creepy enough for you to understand why he’s bullied at school. Chloë Grace Moretz, who stole all her scenes as Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass, looks too cute and coltishly long-legged for the role of Abby, the little girl who moves in next door with her “father”, though perfectly conveys the weary innocence of a girl who describes herself as “12, more or less”, but who has been around a lot longer than that.
Predictably missing is the sexual ambiguity of the Swedish original, which made Eli’s protestations of, “I’m not a girl” so double-edged. And when bloodlust causes Abby’s face to morph, it’s not into a centuries-old creature but into a bog-standard scary-movie monster, which is less troubling. Abby’s “dad” is played by Richard Jenkins (probably best known as the father in Six Feet Under) who is presented as more of an ageing Platonic boyfriend than paedophile helpmate. His function is to provide Abby with fresh blood, and the tense scenes in which he stalks his victims are one of the few areas in which Reeves profitably leaves the original film behind and stakes out his own territory, making one wish he’d started from scratch from Lindqvist’s novel instead of merely parroting his screenplay.
But Reeves also feels the need, several times, to spell out in pedantic detail what was left to viewers of the original to work out for themselves. “Maybe I’m getting sloppy,” Jenkins says after botching his latest kill. “Maybe I want to get caught. Maybe I’m just tired of all this.” Well duh, and maybe you’re spoon-feeding us. The cat attack, least successful scene in the original thanks to some fairly dodgy CGI, has been dropped, and while the remake concentrates on the relationship between the world-weary vampire and the boy (who, it’s hinted, is only the latest in a long line of romantic partners), it lets most of the secondary characters go hang, relegating Abby’s victims to anonymous cyphers, except for a dogged cop played by Elias Koteas, who takes over the vampire hunter role from the original’s drunken would-be avenger.
But what the original suggests with sparse, eloquent camera movements and elegant pulled focus, the remake tries to hammer home, disastrously, with music. Michael Giacchino’s score is not bad in itself, but it’s plastered all over the film, dictating our every mood and emotion, barely letting up for a moment. Oh look (ominous chord) here come the bullies and (delicate tinkly accompaniment) here we have heart-to-heart bonding and (tremulous strings) gosh, this bit is scary. It’s like someone finishing all your sentences for you when you’re trying to speak.
It’s a shame, because otherwise, in remake terms, this is an honourable attempt which doesn’t betray its source material and, aside from the aforementioned on-the-nose dialogue, actually requires viewers to use their imaginations. Alas, thanks mostly to the soundtrack, they might as well have retitled it Let the Bleeding Obvious One In.
This review was first posted on theartsdesk.com in 2010.
I wrote a monograph on Tomas Alfredson’s Låt den rätte komma in aka Let the Right One In (2008) for Auteur Publishing’s Devil’s Advocates series. Click here to see it on amazon.co.uk