Review: Let Me In
There was certainly reason to cringe when Hollywood announced its plans to remake the majestic Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In. The track record for remakes in general is spotty, but the track record for English-language remakes of terrific foreign films is abysmal (it aches my heart whenever I think about the awful Keifer Sutherland rendition of The Vanishing). I loved Let The Right One In. I even included it in a draft of my Top 150 films ever made. But as it turns out, the beautifully spare storytelling had some cracks in it that a talented American filmmaker could use to make something truly special for himself. I had absolutely no reason to expect it, given historical precedent, and that’s probably why I was so floored when I saw what Matt Reeves managed to do with this material. He’s fashioned a gorgeous retelling of a powerful narrative, and he’s refined the themes in such a way as to make his Let Me In not only a compelling piece of cinema, but an important one as well.
The story is essentially the same, as are many of the scenes. This is still about a young alienated boy who finds companionship only when a girl vampire moves in next door. It’s hard to get an original out your mind while watching a remake, which makes it doubly hard to give the new filmmaker credit for what you see onscreen. But Reeve’s own style, the heightened insistence and consequence he’s given to those characters and their decisions, they grab you and enable you to get lost in a new film. Recognizing the scenes will make you smile as you wait to see what he does with them, not cringe as you anticipate how those scenes will be butchered. The changes may seem relatively minor, but in crafting the themes of the film, they are significant.
The most effective change is how Reeves positions the film’s sympathies. I felt sorry for the little Swedish boy in the original, and sympathized with his plight, but the performance was cold and rather inaccessible. By contrast, the vampire blossomed through the film as an alluring presence, a guardian angel whose penchant for murdering innocent victims to drink their blood seemed like a forgivable means to an end. Because of the way the two characters were presented, the monster became the good guy, and though the poetry of the overall presentation painted that dynamic in a touchingly tragic Romeo and Juliet light, it also made for some artistically dangerous lack of clarity. If the original has one distinct flaw, it is its occasionally excessive ambiguity. Characters’ natures and motives are clouded beyond the point of narrative purpose, and that leaves the viwer is much the same haze of moral uncertainty as the character. And I don’t think that’s what the filmmakers necessarily intended.
Reeves aims to sharpens this up, and he does it by switching the sympathy. He used a wonderful performance from Kodie Smit-McPhee to make the lonely boy a much more sensitive and appealing character, even if he does still fantasize about bloody vengeance against his classmates. The vampire, via another terrific performance from Chloe Morentz, is still provided a compelling melancholy and a protective inclination, but Reeves never lets us forget that this is a monster. When on the hunt, she transforms into a horrific demon who swiftly climbs up trees to descend on innocent victims and rip them to shreds. There is nothing positive about what this creature does. Yes, she is lonely and miserable and protective, and this keeps her a compelling character. But she is the evil in the film, an evil much more dangerous to the soul of an innocent then a pack of sadistic schoolyard bullies. She has already seduced and doomed one man to a life of slaughter and damnation, which was implied in the original but is deftly solidified here, and there is no reason to think this young boy awaits a different fate.
It is by clarifying the moral compass of the narrative that Reeves makes him film something unique, and something of social and artistic importance. He begins with a brilliant choice of setting: Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1983. It snows there in the winter time, and the town is just as chilly and forsaken as that village in Sweden. But here, Blue Oyster Cult croons their foreboding music on the radio, and Ronald Raegan speaks on television about the reality of good and evil. And I found it startling and effective that Reagan’s words are not used ironically, as they would be in almost any other Hollywood film. Here, no matter what your opinion of that president or your political leanings, the guy is saying something important. This film takes place at the beginnings of a “post-faith” America. We’ve lost faith in our government, our religious institutions, and each other. And Reeves views his setting as a very, very dangerous place for a child to grow up. The old moral constructs have been upended, for good reason in some cases, but they haven’t been replaced with anything. When the boy calls his father to ask if there is evil in the world, his father sighs and tells him to stop listening to his mother’s “religious crap,” as if any delineation between right and wrong must be rooted in religious dogma. This boy is coming of age in a world with no moral compass, a world with no respect for good and evil, a world where it’s possible for a decent boy to view a ravenous monster as a figure worthy of devotion and servitude. It’s a scary time and place to be a child, and the world has only continued along that slide into moral ambiguity.
There are many great scenes, including some that are clear departures from the original. This is far from the “shot-for-shot” remake some are ignorantly claiming. It’s marked by its own pace and its own visual style. The opening shot is one of the best I’ve ever seen in a horror film, a stark nighttime vista of the snow-covered desert landscape as the flashing lights of an ambulance come into view and glide along a winding road. A botched abduction attempt resulting in a car crash makes for one of the best single scenes of the year, the crackling tune of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burning For You” eeking painfully from the radio as predatory brutality leads from one tense beat to the next until the scene’s chaotic resolution. And that scene is new, a step up from a somewhat contrived corresponding scene in the original. The savagery of a certain law enforcement official’s murder is also amped up, and the scene makes a key decision by the protagonist all the more chilling and tragic.
The film is filled in with the ominous string-and-key combos of Oscar-winning composer Michael Giachinno, who has once again delivered one of the year best original scores. His softly menacing music underscores the drama and reinforces the themes without being overinsistant (common in horror films), and the results are often disturbing and devastating. Perhaps the only technical flaw with this film is some iffy CGI work on some of the vampire attacks. It’s meant to look swift and inhuman, and it does, but not always in the most convincing fashion.
It’s always hard to give a filmmaker total credit for a great remake. We often feel as though the work’s brilliance is mitigated by the existence of its predecessor. But to my eye, this idea doesn’t hold water when the orginal is based on a novel. Why should the original get more credit if it’s based on a preexisting narrative? Well, it should, because adaptations are art if they are a distinct vision of their creators. The original film was an artist’s imagining of a very potent story, and Let Me In is an equally artful vision of that same tale. The greatness of both films speaks to the incredible power of this narrative, and you could set this story in places all over the globe and get many superb yet distinct takes, none lesser for building on what came before. All art builds on history anyway. That’s how it mirrors and advances the development of the human race.
I guess what I’m trying to say is…I give this film full credit for its brilliance. This is a magnificent adaption of a great story that has been sharpened and retooled to make a resonant statement about where we are as a people, and where our descent into anarchic moral ambiguity may lead us. The author of the novel, John Linqvidst, said it well: “Let The Right One In is a great Swedish film. Let Me In is a great American film.”
The world of horror cinema is lucky to have them both.