Let Me In is every bit as unnerving, absorbing, tragic, touching, and compelling as Let the Right One In, the 2008 Swedish horror film on which it’s based. This is remarkable given all the ways it could have gone wrong, which is really an underhanded way of saying all the ways it could have been Americanized. The original film, and the novel on which it was based, was a vampire story in the strictest sense, but is wasn’t a two-hour ordeal of tired vampire clichés like crucifixes and garlic; rather, it was a reserved, disturbing peek into the lives of two lonely kids, one of whom just happens to be a vampire. The remake, despite the conversion from Swedish to English, gives us the exact same peek, which was a wise move on writer/director Matt Reeves’ part since it allows the audience to connect to the story on a more emotional level.
Indeed, the story is one of deep, primal emotions – isolation, neglect, fear, uncertainty, and, in its own disturbing way, love. This isn’t to suggest that the film romanticizes the leads. That would not only be inappropriate given their ages, it would also ruin the suspense the story builds, for it’s a convention used in far too many vampire movies. When I say love, I’m referring to the deep seeded need these kids share for some kind of attachment, some sense that someone out there actually cares for them. Despite vast differences in age and category of species, the two are very much alike. The boy, twelve-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), has no friends, is mercilessly bullied in school, and lives in a broken him, his parents divorced and his father no longer in the picture. The vampire, Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), who has been twelve for a very long time, is forced to move from place to place and cannot get close with anyone. Her only companion is an older man (Richard Jenkins) who roams the city streets in search of unwilling blood donors.
The film, which takes place in Los Alamos, New Mexico during the winter of 1983, shows Owen and Abby finding solace in each other’s company. Owen doesn’t initially know what Abby is. Why does she smell funny? Why does she walk barefoot through the snow? Why is she only seen at night? Why does she have to be invited into someone’s home? And what could she possibly means by asking him, “Would you like me even if I wasn’t a girl?” When he finally learns the truth, he hardly seems bothered or even surprised by it; perhaps his unfortunate family and academic circumstances have permanently numbed him. When Abby learns of the abuse he endures at school, she encourages him to hit back, and if the bullies persist, then he must simply hit harder. Indeed, the bullies are just this side of sadistic, subjecting him to the kind of psychical and psychological torment exhibited by sociopaths. When Owen whacks one of the boys across the head with a stick during a field trip, severely gashing his ear, it’s only natural that we should feel immensely satisfied.
One of the more interesting symbolic approaches to Owen’s emotional neglect was keeping his mother’s face hidden throughout the entire film. Whenever she’s in a scene, the camera is angled so that only her body is revealed; if we do see her head, it’s either hidden in shadow, shot at a distance, obstructed by an object, or filmed from the back. Even her driver’s license photo is obscured by an official seal stamped into the plastic. Perhaps the divorce was too much for her to handle. Or perhaps she’s too devoutly religious. In any case, if there is any love between mother and son, it has clearly been stripped to the barest of expressions. We’re not meant to see this woman as a mother. We’re barely meant to see her as a person.
I suppose I should address the film’s violence. Strangely enough, this leads me to this year’s comic book adaptation Kick-Ass, in which Chloë Grace Moretz played a young vigilante superhero groomed by her father to be an unstoppable killing machine. I found the film reprehensible, in large part because a murderous eleven-year-old girl was depicted as something to be laughed at. A commenter on my review named Jason Bean posed an interesting question: How is it that Let the Right One In can be considered a work of art and Kick-Ass can be considered deplorable, especially when both feature children murdering people? The answer is simple: Let the Right One In, and likewise this American remake, doesn’t treat violence as dismissible, emotionless camp; instead, it’s treated as shocking, horrific acts of brutality. Let Me In is not the kind of film that gives you permission to laugh. Laughter would be a sign that you were never meant to see it.
There have been countless American remakes of foreign horror films. Let Me In is one of the few that deserves recognition. It stays true to its source without merely spitting it back at us with English-speaking actors; Reeves adds his own unique touches to the story, allowing it to stand apart from the original Swedish film. The greatest achievement of both versions of the film was the willingness to sidestep many of the overused vampire clichés most have grown weary of; it’s not a supernatural thriller so much as an unsettling examination of two lonely souls. This glimpse into the dark side of friendship makes it even more frightening, I believe, than most of what passes as a horror movie these days. Why waste your time on an empty teen slasher film when you have movies like this at your disposal?