Contains some spoilers, both for “Let Me In” and for the original Swedish film “Let The Right One In”.
Let Me In is one of those films that it would be easy to despise on principle sight unseen, seeming as it is to be one of the growing number of films that is less of an artistic endeavour as it is a business/financial exercise to exploit the mass audience who are too bigoted to waste their time watching a film in a non-English language and too lazy to spend two hours reading subtitles. On the face of it, Let Me In exists only to put English words into the mouths of its characters, and is otherwise tasked to do as little harm as possible to the property the producers have bought up. There’s a caption at the start that says “Los Alamos, New Mexico” but once that text fades from the screen it could be literally any snowy locale in the world for all that a sense of place is invoked. It could even be right back in Stockholm.
I did happen to see the original film, Let The Right One In, at the cinema when it came out. Even though it’s a critically lauded and award-winning film, I have to say that I more admired its chilly, brittle excellence than I did truly warm to it – comments that I also applied to director Tomas Alfredson’s follow-up movie, the remake of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The first half of Let The Right One In is glacially slow and I confess that I actually nodded off on a couple of occasions when I saw it (it could just have been at the end a particularly long and tiring week, however!) That was three years ago however and I haven’t re-watched the film since, so I’m not able to make a particularly close or accurate comparison between the original and the title-adjusted English-language remake Let Me In by American writer/director Matt Reeves (best known for Cloverfield.)
Certainly the iconic scenes that I do remember from the original are all present and correct, and rendered with all due reverence: the botched bloodletting in the forest, the feral attack in the underpass, the discovery of the body in the ice, the events at the hospital and the climax at the school swimming pool. The main location – an apartment complex with a snow-covered central common area dominated by the child’s climbing frame – is virtually interchangeable with the look-and-feel of the Swedish version.
The first hour of Let The Right One In was an exercise in subjecting us to the horror of everyday life (the 12-year-old hero’s friendless existence, alienated from his divorcing parents and subjected to merciless bullying at school) which is cranked up when the arrival of a new neighbour gives rise to the implication of child abuse and mental illness before slipping into the realisation that there is an actual serial killer at work. Only in the second hour does the film get its teeth into the more supernatural aspects and go for some full-throated vampire horror, which attains heightened levels of believability largely because of the suffocating realism of the first hour.
Let Me In follows a similar structure, but seems more aware from the start that it’s a horror film (appropriately, given that it was the first film under the relaunched Hammer brand now behind The Woman in Black.) It plays more overtly with the familiar genre tropes from early on, rather than suckering us in with the red herring of this being just another coming-of-age urban drama. While this makes the film rather more conventional and lessens the growing shock of the second half of the film’s events, it does make the first hour more tense and gripping. I didn’t nod off at all this time, although that first half is still slow enough to make me fidget more than I’d like.
In its attempts to become a more polished Hollywood-style production, the film does lose some of the quirkiness of the original, however. In particular there’s no sense of the dark humour that I remember running through Let The Right One In: the botched killings by the henchman were blackly hilarious, and the scene where a corpse is cut out of the ice and winched into the air in the background of a dialogue scene is disturbingly but definitely laugh-out-loud funny. That is lost in the remake: the ice block scene just plays like a flat CSI moment; any moments that might cause any black humour are flattened out. It’s a shame, and leaves the film rather more one-note than is altogether good for it.
But Let Me In does have some some definite strengths of its own. The two leads – Kodi Smit-McPhee as Owen and Chloë Grace Moretz as Abby, the girl next door – are exemplary, as indeed were the original performances of Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson as Oskar and Eli. The new film removes the scenes where Owen/Oskar spends the weekend in the countryside with his father (which badly broke up the claustrophobic feel of the boy’s life at the apartment complex and school) and instead the father is only present as a disembodied voice on the telephone. When the boy tries to reach out to his dad about what’s going on, the voice quickly turns it into a reason to rail against his ex-wife’s marital failings and he instantly stops listening to what his son is trying to say: it’s a horribly authentic moment for anyone who has seen a divorce close-up and which really sells the isolation the boy is experiencing. Similarly the mother’s face is never clearly seen: she’s shot from behind, or in shadow, or from below with her head cut off by the top of the frame. She is a body in the film but not a person, and there is no maternal comfort to be found here any more than paternal comfort is to be found at the end of the phone line.
The downsides are to be found in the CGI effects: the original had some practical wire work stunts that were low key but far more creepy than seeing CGI creatures suddenly jumping around. There’s also an odd faltering at the very end of the film: after the excellent nerve-shredding search of the apartment complex by the police, the film then switches to the swimming pool for the climax, but it’s almost as though the producers got nervous about what they were about to depict (basically, a massacre of 12-year-olds in a school setting – you can see why it might have given a mainstream US studio pause for thought!) and end up doing it as quickly and off-handedly as they can get away with, rather than the startling and shocking denouement of the original. It’s a shame that Let Me In loses its nerve at the last and leaves such a limp final impression.
Is it worth seeing? Yes, sure, why not: it’s a decent film with some undoubted merits of its own. It doesn’t screw up the source material by any means, and is one of the better remakes of a foreign language hit that Hollywood has managed. As for the Blu-ray, it’s frankly average: high definition does very little for it as the film is intentionally soft and lacking detail for much of its running time, although there’s nothing wrong with the transfer itself and all the dark nighttime scenes are solidly rendered. (I only got the Blu-ray as it was making up the numbers in one of those “buy X films for fifteen quid” offers, but the now cut-price DVD would be more than adequate for the purpose.)
Of course, it’s still hard to forgive that change of title. The original name of the novel and Swedish film, Let The Right One In, was a reference to an 80s song title by Morrissey that was also a riff on childhood alienation, making it immensely appropriate for the subject. The American version robs the title of those extra shadings and instead goes for the vampire-specific Let Me In and as such is emblematic for what foreign films lose when being translated into Hollywood-ese. For all the remake’s surprising good points, its still a diluted and diminished shadow of the work that inspired it. See the original Let The Right One In first, and only then – if you want – try Let Me In for context.