If LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) – the excellent Swedish vampire film – was an exhilarating rush of cinematic ecstasy – the kind of shot to the nervous system that reminds you why you enjoy the horror genre – watching the Americanized remake LET ME IN is a bit like taking a second hit and finding you don’t reach the same high. The experience is still a pleasant one, but there is a faint whiff of nostalgia in the air, a reminder of better times. Those who never experienced LET THE RIGHT ONE IN should be satisfied with the remake; fans of the original may be pleasantly surprised to find that LET ME IN is a worthy successor that retains the essential virtues of its progenitor.
The 1980s setting has been retained, but the location has been shifted to Los Alamos, New Mexico. (If any thematic resonances are intended, regarding the creation of the atomic bomb, they elude me.) The story remains much the same: Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a lonely boy tormented by school bullies, meets a mysterious new neighbor named Abby (Chloe Moretz) as a series of murders begin. It turns out that Abby is a vampire, and her “father” (Richard Jenkins) is actually a sort of Renfield character, helping procure victims to ease her thirst for blood. “Father,” however, has outlived his usefulness; making sloppy mistakes, he is eventually caught, opening the door for Abby to find a new companion in Owen.
The creepiness of the tale lies in the way the audience is invited to identify emotionally with the two leads, even though Abby is a homicidal predator and Owen seems like a psychopath in the making (we sympathize with his victimization, but it seems to be lighting a quench for vengeance and violence in his soul). Ultimately, whatever the ambiguities of the characters (does Abby really like Owen or does she simply need a replacement helper), LET ME IN comes across like a love story about two lonely souls who find each other and bond for reasons that are symbiotic rather than parasitic.
Writer-director Matt Reeves (CLOVERFIELD) shows a sold understanding of what made LET THE RIGHT ONE IN a great film, and he transplants those qualities to LET ME IN without embalming them; as close as the remake is to the original, it does not feel like a complete carbon copy but a film in its own right.
There are some missteps. Before flashing back to the main story, LET ME IN opens with a prologue in which the “Father” is driven to a hospital, where he takes a tumble out an open floor window. The strategy is clearly use ambulance sirens and a memorable visual to capture the attention of bored American viewers who might walk out of a film with a slow start; unfortunately, the sequence sets the wrong tone, suggesting the film will be a mystery explaining how this situation came to be. Really, the story is about the relationship between Abby and Owen, and anything distracting attention from that is a mistake.
Also, it is not entirely clear why Owen is introduced in a sequence that apes REAR WINDOW, with the boy spying on his neighbors’ activities from his bedroom. This may provide another reason to view Owen as a slightly suspect character even before Abby arrives, but the scene adds little to the narrative.
Some bad computer-generated effects are used to depict Abby’s attacks on her victims, which end up resembling discards of Golum from LORD OF THE RINGS. Especially disappointing is Abby’s ascent up the hospital wall – a surreal and unnerving moment in the original, it lies flat and lifeless in the remake. (Those who criticized the CGI cat attack in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN should really go ballistic over the effects here.)
One might also question the resources of the Los Alamos police: as depicted here, the force seems to consist of one lone officer (Elias Koteas) despite the alarming body count in his jurisdiction. There has not been a police department this understaffed since the Boston PD in PIECES way back in the 1980s (although NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN came close).
Whatever its deficiencies, LET ME IN is not the disaster one might have feared. As far as remakes of foreign films are concerned, it ranks well above the standard J-Horror do-over. It does not surpass the original, and it does not rank as a genre masterpiece, but it overcomes any critical reservations one might have had about a remake, standing on its own as an interesting variation on a memorable theme.
GENDER CONFUSION OR THE LACK THEREOF
One issue in LET ME IN deserves separate discussion. The remake’s only major omission is the confusing suggestion of the vampire’s self-castration that flashed by without explanation in the original. In both films, the mysterious new neighbor looks like a prepubescent female, and she asks her new friend whether he would still like her if she were not a girl. The audience assumes this is a reference to the character’s vampire nature, which renders her genderless in traditional terms (i.e., like Claudia in INTERVIEW with a vampire, she is not going to develop into a woman who can bear children).
However, in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, there is brief shot of Eli’s genital area showing a scar meant to suggest that “she” is actually a castrated male. The glimpse is so brief that it could just as easily suggest female circumcision or some other surgical weirdness. The audience has no idea what to make of it: apparently Eli decided there would be advantages to going through eternity looking like a girl, but there is no way of knowing whether the change was made before or after becoming a vampire. And it doesn’t really make sense: since vampire neither age nor mature, it is not as if castration was necessary to prevent masculine characteristics from developing as the years passed. And there is the issue of healing: both Eli and Abby are shown recovering from heavy-duty hemorrhaging, yet for some reason Eli’s scar remains, presumably for decades.
Considering the somewhat androgynous look that Moretz adopts as Abby in LET ME IN, we imagine that this element of gender self-reassignment was originally intended to be included; the equivalent of the revelation scene even exists in the final cut, minus the confusing insert shot. Fortunately, this confusing tidbit was deleted, and the remake is better for it. Abby’s status of “not being a girl” remains rooted in her vampire nature, where it belongs.
One other note: both LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and LET ME IN suggest that Owen (Oskar in the original) is a replacement for the discarded “Father” character, and the audience is let to wonder whether Owen will eventually come to a similar fate. Yet this is not inevitable. Both films clearly show that Eli/Abby is capable of changing her victims into vampires; therefore, it is at least possible that Oskar/Owen is not necessarily fated to grow old until he is no longer of use to his vampire mistress.
LET ME IN (2010). Directed by Matt Reeves. Screenplay by Matt Reeves, adapted from the screenplay for LET THE RIGHT ONE IN by John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on his novel. Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Moretz, Richard Jenkins, Cara Buono, Elias Koteas, Sasha Barrese, Dylan Kenin, Chris Browning. Ritchie Coster.