Monday, August 15, 2011
Let Me In
Let Me In is Matt Reeves' remake of Tomas Alfredson's Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In, which was itself based on John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel. Reeves' film is part of a not-so-honorable tradition of remaking foreign movies — particularly foreign horror movies, and particularly Japanese horror movies — in the English language in order to make them more palatable to American audiences. The main reason for the prominence of this trend in the last decade or so is fairly obvious, as well as regrettable: the original films, for the most part, are interesting, creepy, frightening, well-made horror fare, and they would be eagerly consumed by mass audiences if not for the fact that so much of that English-speaking mass audience, certainly in the United States, is very averse to reading subtitles. Reeves' film starts with one strike against it, then, in that its origins are so blatantly commercial, motivated not by the artistic necessity of remaking Let the Right One In a mere two years after the compelling original film, but the commercial necessity.
Reeves both lives up to those low expectations and, in some ways and more surprisingly, surpasses them. The film is almost slavishly faithful to Alfredson's film: it leaves out some of the subplots and scenes from the original, but what it includes is often copied from the Swedish film, if not in exact dialogue or exact shots then at least in close paraphrases and images that evoke the mood of the original very strongly. The relationship between the perpetually young vampire Abby (Chloe Moretz) and Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the disturbed, violently simmering boy she befriends, plays out very similarly to the same relationship in Alfredson's film (where the characters were called Eli and Oskar, as in the book). What's missing is the full extent of the warped, ambiguous sexuality that wafts through the original — not surprising considering American audiences' skittishness about sex and especially the developing sexuality of children — and some of the warmth and tenderness of this vampire/human friendship. A few chopped shots aside (including the infamous closeup that explicitly called Abby's gender into question) Reeves includes most of the same scenes that Alfredson staged between Abby and Owen, but some crucial spark, some energy and intensity and mood, seems to have been lost in translation. The relationship goes through the same motions and winds up in the same place, but the strange chemistry between the leads is missing the vitality and dark humor of the original.
In another respect, however, Reeves expands upon and possibly improves the original, by subtly drawing more out of the character of the older man (Richard Jenkins) who accompanies Abby and kills for her, gathering blood for her to drink from his victims. Reeves perhaps suggests the heightened importance of this character by opening the film with him, pushing back the introduction of Owen; the young boy had the first lines of Alfredson's film, creepily intoning "squeal like a pig" as he imagined violent vengeance on the schoolboys who bully him. In Reeves' film, the killings of Abby's "father" play out very differently from the corresponding scenes in the original film. Where Alfredson made the old man seem like an incompetent killer, floundering and past his prime, the father in this film simply hits a run of bad luck that leads to his horrifying climax. Jenkins also delivers a deep, powerful performance that makes this character even more poignant: he seems weary, done, tired of a long life mostly spent killing for Abby. One of Reeves' cleverest changes is inserting a brief scene in which Owen finds an old photo of Abby with a young boy who doesn't look very different from Owen himself. It's obviously the "father," and by including this detail, Reeves makes explicit a subtext that haunted the earlier film: that Abby's friendship with Owen is the beginning of a relationship very like the one she once had with the old man. This more fully developed subtext gives special weight to the scene where the old man tells Abby to stop seeing Owen: it's not fatherly protectiveness that motivates him, but jealousy, and perhaps the hard-won knowledge that a friendship with Abby isn't a gift to the young boy who is obviously already falling in love with her.
In other respects, Reeves' film simply trims a lot from the original without adding much new material to counterbalance. Alfredson's focus on some of the characters around Abby and Owen — Owen's parents, the other inhabitants of the apartment complex — is mostly reduced to a few token scenes. That's a shame, because though Let the Right One In was also always focused on the young vampire and her new human friend, Alfredson also found time to develop other characters in surprising ways. Alfredson lingered much longer than expected with one victim of Abby's bloodlust, creating pathos and horror (and also some absurdist bleak humor) from this character's fate. The few disjointed scenes with that character that remain in Let Me In don't do justice to that tonal and emotional complexity at all. Similarly, Alfredson spent time hanging out with some of the men who lived in and around this apartment complex, listening to their casual banter and their political dialogues, many of which centered on the death penalty, an important theme in Alfredson's film. Reeves moves the time and setting of the story to 80s Reaganite New Mexico, but curiously not only drops the death penalty thread but fails to develop any political context. Reagan is purposefully evoked in a striking shot in which the president's face, on a TV, is reflected in the glass door of a hospital, but this political reference is just empty window-dressing, never mentioned again.
The development of the "father" aside, what Let Me In does well is more or less limited to effectively and faithfully repeating the central ideas of Let the Right One In: the burgeoning friendship between a vampire and a malcontent loser whose violent impulses are slowly building up. The film captures the confused emotions and simmering rage of a kid who is tormented at school and ignored at home (Reeves' decision to condense the roles of Owen's parents accomplishes something similar to the more fully fleshed out portrait of familial neglect in Alfredson's film). To a lesser extent, it captures the sexual confusion of adolescence, particularly in the scene where the sexless Abby slips into bed naked with Owen, who's obviously equal parts baffled and titillated as he asks her to "go steady."
Taken on its own merits, Let Me In is a fascinating twist on the vampire myth, exploring the vampiric condition as a metaphor for adolescent fantasies of violence and revenge. The film's snowbound atmosphere doesn't come close to matching the eerie beauty of the original, which got a lot of mileage out of the contrast between pitch-black night and the fluffy white snow on the ground, but it's still effective. If the film wasn't so closely related to its superior Swedish source, it could even be considered a very fine modern horror movie in its own right. But comparing the remake to its source is nearly unavoidable, as most of the time it follows the original film slavishly, and where it departs it's usually to simplify the subtext and peripheral plots of the original. Reeves makes some intelligent decisions in adapting Let the Right One In for English-speaking audiences, and he does a decent job of repeating some of what made the original film so memorable and powerful. What he doesn't do is establish Let Me In as its own film with its own reason for existing and its own set of concerns, which would've gone some way towards legitimizing this otherwise rote remake effort.