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.


Erich Kuersten said...

Nice review, Ed. I think I like the film more than you did, especially with Mortez as a much more Nordic vampire (and Smit-McPhee almost lupine by contrast - a reversal in coloring from the original).

I'm fascinated by the idea of 'Swedish' cinema remakes (pairing Let Me In with the upcoming Girl with a Dragon Tattoo remake) as it seems Hollywood feels they can go in taboo directions like childhood sexuality since it's 'based on' something the Swedes already did - as since the 1950s Swedish cinema has been the vanguard of loosening American mores. Since the Swedes dove in already, we can follow dipping our toes in, without fear of getting overly stoned and condemned by our moral reactionaries. Or something.

Ed Howard said...

It's weird, I probably would have liked it a lot more if not for the original. It's just so strange to me to remake a not particularly old film for no other reason than to change the language. I did like the little casting changes like the ones you mention, and the subtly expanded subtext involving the "father," but a lot of the film just felt like a retread of the same ground as Let the Right One In with, as you say, a somewhat safer approach to some of the more taboo themes of the original.

Leroysghost said...

haven't seen the remake (like Ed i don't really see the need for one), and as much as i like Richard Jenkins, the "expanded subtext" seems like a dumbing down to me. it doesn't deliver anything that wasn't hinted at in the original, it just seems like hollywood has to distance themselves as far as possible from the pedophilia angle. it's like how every incest plotline in this country has to be qualified at some point as an adoption or something.

Sam Juliano said...

"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."

This is absolutely true Ed, though I always took the original character as more of a symbol, not needing any fleshing out. In the end, I have never found this film approaching the original, and saw it's major achievement was that it didn't turn out to be a fiasco as the American-made THE VANISHING did.

It's practically a scene-by-scene replication of the far more brooding and atmospheric Swedish original and it fails at making it's central two characters as fascinating and mysterious as the Swedish counterparts.

In large measure I am with you here throughout this exceptional review.

Ed Howard said...

Sam and Leroy, I definitely agree that there's a sense of this movie being kind of pointless in relation to the original. It hews so closely to it, as Sam says it's basically scene-for-scene for long stretches of the movie. And it just doesn't have the same level of intensity and atmosphere as its source. I suspect if I'd seen it on its own, without knowledge of the original, I would've loved it just for how much it borrows in terms of visuals and mood from the Swedish movie. Sam's right, it's not a fiasco by any means; as far as remakes go, it's actually a respectable translation job. But it's impossible to ignore that someone else did this first and better.

Jason Bellamy said...

Strangely I think the closeness to the original was more beneficial than anything. I was lukewarm to the original (that's probably part of it), so I found the subtle changes to be wonderful little surprises, as if the CD you'd already listened to suddenly added a few new instruments. I respect, though, coming at it from the other end, where you notice what's missing.

I thought the chemistry between the kids was terrific, and you're spot on that the treatment of the Jenkins character adds some confrontational depth where previously there was mystery.

I'm saddened by the whole remake trend (it's especially irritating with these Dragon Tattoo movies, where are so fucking American in their original state that I can hardly stand it), but if the remakes are this solid, they can keep copying away.

Ed Howard said...

Jason, I can definitely understand how those who weren't that big on the original would think that the remake's little tweaks are improvements. Oddly enough, though, I thought the chemistry between the leads was virtually non-existent in the American version. There's so much more tension/sparks between the kids in the Swedish film.

Still, this is probably a better remake than most. Which admittedly is saying almost nothing.

Al Jones said...

after years of inconsequential work as a writer and director, Matt Reeves is now on my watch list as a result of this little gem.

I'll admit to thinking "wtf" when I heard that Let the Right One In was being Americanized, and so shortly after the original. Immediate skeptic. That said, I swatched it anyway (twice now), and the remake is amazingly done, with a perfect balance of props to Alfredson's work and clever and worthy story re-telling from the director's own vantage.

Other elements that stand out: 95% perfect cast and attentiveness to them by Reeves. While the film overall is almost segment-by-segment true to the original, it's pretty clear to me that Reeves wanted the originality to lie in the portrayal of the characters. The bullies were pitch-perfect. Smit-McPhee, same. Richard Jenkins brought only the emotional and contextual depth necessary to make his character a major piece of the narrative. In fact, where you hint to a simple transfer in Owen's character from the original to the remake, Ed, I think Jenkins' character elevates the idea that Owen is truly, depressingly, hopelessly situated within a fully nihilistic world (a sad conclusion to come to at such a young age). This is gently amplified by the economy in the dialogue coming from the parents, the mother wanting to protect Owen from overhearing divorce drama, yet too readily taking her wine glass into the other room to finish the conversation, where Owen can overhear, anyway. And the father's insistence on the phone to Owen that his confusion stems directly from his mother, when all Owen wants is attention and to be heard. The negative 5% comes from Moretz, who I was excited about for this role but feel that she overplayed it by trying to use pregnant pauses, mysterious sweetness and expressionless musing to convey depth.

I agree with you that the insertion of the photo as a piece to she vampire/father relationship was brilliant, and without forcing the "a-ha".

Would love to see Reeves take on more suspense, and not the Cloverfield brand. The (apparently) single-take scene involving the flipping car was top-notch.

Great review. Thanks for writing this one up.

On the Alfredson tip, can't wait for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Bruce Reid said...

Considering that Reagan is seen giving his "Evil Empire" speech and that the action is relocated not merely to New Mexico but specifically to Los Alamos undeniably gives political context to a film much more concerned than its predecessor about its characters' self-justifications. Abby's predations are consistently written off as necessary, even acts of self-defense, which she herself doesn't even carry out; a projection of helpless innocence belied by the ferocity with which she leaps, spider-like, on and about her victim' torso in the tunnel.

Or how she stalks Owen. One reason Abby's seduction of Owen lacks the original's sexual spark is that, in keeping with Let Me In's more explicit identification of Owen's future with Jenkins's past, her pursuit of the young man is nakedly strategic, the necessary testing and grooming of a replacement for her aging, weary servant. So their playground and parking lot assignations circle more around his humiliation by the bullies and how he should respond than any attraction between the two. Once he's taken the part such desire will only ever run one way; as seen by Abby's cruel dominion over her protector, who runs out his last nights cramped and cowering in the back seats of strangers' cars, anxious and sad-eyed behind his garbage-bag mask, burning for her.

And let's not forget that other mournful presence wandering around, Elias Koteas's glum cop, who flips the film's central metaphor by knocking on doors that won't let him in until one smeared red with his blood slams shut behind him. With his sorrowful mouth and balding forehead he could be Jenkins's long-lost brother; and IMDB tells me it's Koteas's voice on the phone as Owen's father. Which unites the three in stumbling into fate even as it makes Owen's acquiescence to the trap more devastating and total a surrender to Abby's insistence that he stand with her against the forces aligned in opposition.

Original vs. Remake? There are points in both films' favor, and I'm not sure I could pick between them if forced. (To your wish that American audiences accepted subtitled films I'd amend my own, that American distributors went ahead and dubbed populist films from overseas.) I am intrigued by what differences between Europeans and Hollywood cinema can be gleaned by comparing the two swimming pool scenes--the original so distant and still, the terror all in how a figure is dragged from foreground to rear; the remake straight-up dropping a severed head in your lap--but that might merely be Reeves's attempt to distinguish his version from such a highly-praised scene.

So call it a draw, which is certainly better than anybody I knew expected.

Joel Bocko said...

I enjoyed seeing this, mostly because it offered insight as to how different filmmakers and different cultures handle the same thematic and narrative material (which originated not in the Swedish film, but in the book it was based upon). Last fall I wrote an essay comparing the book, the Swedish film, and the American film, which may be of interest to you & your readers:

Among other things, I found that the Swedish film & book especially focused on loneliness as (ironically) a collective phenomenon rather than just an individual one, but that the compassion of the book "skipped a generation" so to speak and was better manifested in Let Me In than Let the Right One In. I really like Bruce's observation above - I think he's spot-on about the cop and the cold "strategic" element of Moretz's friendship is compelling, something I hadn't fully considered until now.

Like you, I think the insertion of that photo may be the best thing in the American version, and it completely transforms the whole context of the story when you think about it.