In 2008 a little film from Sweden swept through the film festivals and earned a rightful and well-deserved place in many film critics and film circles “best of 2008” and “top ten” lists. This was Swedish filmmaker’s film adaptation of the John Ajvide Lindqvist vampire novel, Let The Right One In. It was a vampire film that appealed not just to horror genre fans hungry for a vampire film that was the polar opposite of the current “Twilight” vampire craze. Horror fans wanted something that wasn’t watered down and emasculated to better appeal to the tween girl set. So, Alfredson’s vampire film was embraced by these horror fans and when news came that the rights to the novel was licensed by British-studio Hammer Film and an American-remake was set for production the reaction was decisively negative.
Fans of the original Swedish film were quite protective of the film and saw any plans to remake it for the North American audience as a cynical cash-grab. Their argument was that the original film was such a great one that there should be no need to remake it. Why fix something that wasn’t broken was another point made. It didn’t help the side of those supporting the remake that Matt Reeves was chosen to direct the remake. Reeves was better known as J. J. Abrams friend (some would say Reeves owes his success to Abrams and that he was coattailing the successful producer-director) and the director of the POV monster film, Cloverfield.
As strident fans of the original continued to vent and complain about the remake already failing (despite not an inch of film being shot) the producers were gradually filling the roles in the remake with some very interesting names. Fresh off her break-out performance in Kick-Ass was Chloe Grace Moretz taking on the role of Abby (the vampire child in the original was named Eli) with Kodi-Smit McPhee (The Road) taking on the role of the young boy Owen who befriends her. One name after the other filled out the cast with some very good veteran actors from Elias Koteas to Richard Jenkins (taking on the role of Abby’s Renfield).
Matt Reeeves’ version of Lindqvist novel from Alfredson comes from using the novel itself as the base for the screenplay Reeves himself wrote for the remake. While Let Me In shares many similarities in characters and situations from the original Swedish film, Reeves film does use more of the themes and details from the novel than Alfredson did for his adaptation. Let Me In definitely has enough about it which will distinguish itself from its Swedish counterpart and stand on its own.
The film switches locales from a suburb of in Sweden to a snowy Los Alamos, New Mexico (yes, it does snow in New Mexico). We learn quickly that Owen has become quite the loner due to the constant bullying by classmates. He spends time alone in the plaza area of the apartment complex he lives in with his mother (played by Carla Buono who we never fully see). He fantasizes of getting back at those who have and still bullying him even to the point that he buys a small pocketknife and practices his retribution on one of the trees in the plaza. It’s during one of his nighttime practices with the pocketknife that he first encounters Abby. There’s a certain wariness during their encounter with Abby proclaiming that Owen will not become a friend. But in time the two do become friends with Abby becoming quite protective of Owen once learning about the bullying he has to endure on a daily basis.
The change in Abby’s relationship with Owen doesn’t sit well with Abby’s Renfield. He asks Abby never to see Owen again as he goes out to procure Abby more fresh blood (a previous attempt goes awry forcing Abby to go out into the night to hunt). It’s in the scenes between Abby and Jenkins character that we see more of the duo’s relationship mirroring the novel’s. The novel explores the theme of pedophilia and while Reeves adaptation wasn’t quite obvious about it there are clues and small character interactions which hint at this pedophilic relationship which the Swedish original never really touched upon.
It’s in these small character interactions that Reeves’ film begins to differentiate itself from Alfredson’s version. The narrative between the two films still remain the same, but Reeves’ version explores the darker themes in the novel source while Alfredson concentrates more on the growing relationship between the two primary characters. These differences could be seen in how Reeves films Abby’s attacks while hunting her prey to be more animalistic (though at times the CGI seems too apparent when Abby attacks) and Abby’s subtle manipulation of Owen. I say manipulation because Abby seems very intent on trying to befriend and put Owen at ease despite the earlier comment that they will never be friends. Not to mention her Renfield admitting to Abby that he has gotten tired of what he has done to keep Abby safe and that maybe he wants to get caught to just end it all.
The film moves along quite leisurely but with a sense of growing dread not just between Owen and his bullies, but between Abby, her Renfield and those suspecting the duo. Owen gets caught in the lives of these two newcomers and soon gets confronted by Abby’s true nature and his own reaction to this. It’s a reaction that at first shows Owen fearing Abby and wanting to escape the growing bond between the two of them, but seeing how Abby’s been nothing but helpful to Owen he chooses to remain at her side. Abby rewards Owen’s protective nature by saving Owen from a near-deadly encounter with the school bullies at the school swimming pool.
This is the one sequence in Reeves’ film which many fans scrutinized to no end. The original film shot the scene with an almost arthouse eye despite the obvious violence involved. It was a scene where Alfredson filmed it as “less is more” and let the audience’s imagination run wild. Reeves’ does the same but adds his own stylistic touches to the sequence. not too much to make it so different from Alfredson’s version, but enough that it’s not a shot-for-shot copy. Again Reeves’ chose to show Abby’s violent predator aspect in this scene, but still keeps the focus of the scene on Owen as he struggles underwater. It’s only once he is out that we see — just as he does — the aftermath of Abby’s promise to protect Owen.
The question remains whether this American-remake stands up to the original. In terms of storytelling it more than holds it own from the original film and at times actually surpasses Alfredson’s version. This Reeves version journeys through the darkside more than the original film. It definitely strips away much of the arthouse sensibilities of Alfredson’s film which made it such a beauty to watch even if at times the narrative became more than too slow to keep one’s attention. Reeves’ adaptation doesn’t ramp up the pacing of the film, but keeps it moving forward even if at a gradual pace. When violence does occur in the remake it happens quickly and with a sense of brutality that the original film fails to deliver. The remake doesn’t linger on the gore and violence, but does show enough of it to remind everyone in the audience that this is a horror film first and foremost.
If there was one quibble to be made about this remake its that Reeves relies too much on CGI to show Abby at her most dangerous. Each attack made by Abby was shot at a wide-angle and we see every move but with each move done using CGI which gives it too much of an artificial look to it. It’s a testament to Moretz’ performance as she switches from a friendly Abby when interacting with Owen during their time together at night to one of a predator older than anyone in the film doing what was necessary to attain the blood needed to survive. Reeves could definitely have used less CGI and went for a more natural approach using sudden edits to show the ferocious nature of Abby’s attacks.
The film’s cast does a great job with the roles given to them. While it was Moretz’s and McPhee’s performances as Abby and Owen that keeps the audience’s attention and keeps it from wavering it’s the supporting cast around them which provides the glue. Koteas as the detective who begins to suspect Abby as having to do more with the attacks than previously mentioned was very good, but in the end it was Richard Jenkins in the Renfield role who would steal every scene he’s in. His character’s fatalistic acceptance of his role when it came to Abby was palpable. We watch him do horrible things to people and to himself, but we also get a sense that he couldn’t stop on his own if he wanted to. He has been doing the role of blood procurer for Abby for so long that he doesn’t know what else to do. I will say that Jenkin’s with the garbage bag mask when out hunting for victims will be the images that will stick to people’s minds long after they’ve left the theater. Some will even unconsciously check the back seat of their cars at night before getting in.
In the end, this remake of Let The Right One In doesn’t feel, look and sound like the cash-grab that cynical fans of the original have proclaimed it to be. Matt Reeves does a great job in adapting more of the novel in his version and using some of the darker themes in that source to allow his film to stand on its own when compared next to Alfredson’s version. The performances by everyone involved was wonderful and keeps the story’s slow pacing from losing the audience. While this remake doesn’t have the arthouse quality of the original film it does have a certain grittiness to its look which lends quite well in pointing out how brutal the narrative really was not just in physical violence but in how one of the two leads manipulates the situation to benefit it’s survival even if there was some genuine affection between Abby and Owen. In the end, Abby gets everything and continues to exist for another boy’s lifetime.
Fans so vocal of their negative attitudes towards this film will not have their minds changed, but those keeping an open-mind will be rewarded with one of the better horror films of the year. If the original Swedish adaptation never existed I’m quite sure that all the accolades heaped on Tomas Alfredson’s film would be given to Matt Reeves instead. A remake should never be discounted because its one of an original that’s already lauded for its quality. There’s been bad remakes but thankfully Let Me In is not one of them.