Last year, the Brooklyn band TV On The Radio released a truly terrific cover version of the song “Heroes” by David Bowie. This year, Peter Gabriel recorded one that’s even more stirring still. However, it’s probably true that neither version will ultimately prove to be as enduring as David Bowie’s original.
So it is with Let Me In, a truly terrific remake of the 2008 Swedish vampire movie Let The Right One In, which itself was a horror movie so strong that it was instantly regarded as a classic by fans and critics alike. Here’s a little heresy for you: The remake even arguably improves on the original in some ways – at least as far as for the tastes of American audiences. (Depends on how you look at it.)
Both stories center around the unconventional love story between a troubled boy and an ancient vampire who is forever a little girl. The American version casts Chloe Moretz (500 Days Of Summer) as a more emotionally open, more charismatic, and less androgynous rendition of the original character (here called Abby rather than Eli), and casts Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) as a more talkative, less androgynous, but more immediately creepy rendition of the original character (now called Owen rather than Oskar). Owen has the same ominous fascination with knives that Oskar had, but he also likes to wear spooky masks and talk into the mirror. And no offense, but McPhee is an unusual-looking kid – in this movie, he looks not unlike the monster baby from Splice. He’s sympathetic and sweet, but obviously open to a friendship with a vampire girl.
Which is what happens when he meets his new neighbors, Abby and her intimidating guardian, played by the great character actor Richard Jenkins (Step Brothers, The Visitor). Owen assumes that the imposing man is her father, who he can hear shouting at her through the walls to not befriend Owen. Owen’s own parents are a non-entity – his father has left, and shows little interest, and his mother has a double-dependence on booze and Jesus. Owen’s mom is played by the very cute Cara Buono (from The Sopranos, Mad Men and Beer League), who is unfortunately kept just off camera in her every appearance, like the grown-ups in a Charlie Brown special – it’s meant to emphasize Owen’s distance from all of the should-be protective adults in his life. Smart directorial choice, but unfair to Cara Buono appreciators.
Anyway, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that Abby is actually a vampire with a need to feed, and while I won’t reveal the relationship of Richard Jenkins’ character to her, it’s safe to say that he isn’t her father. Abby and Owen, for better or worse, begin to develop an unconventional friendship with faint and innocent but definitely romantic overtones. They meet in the apartment complex courtyard at night, and during the day Owen navigates a tormented existence at school, facing cruel bullies who seem determined to punish him for his oddness. In the meantime, Abby’s nocturnal feeding process is revealed in increasing detail, and if you think that these two story threads eventually intersect, you may have seen the original movie (or you’re just smart – good for you!)
I insinuated that Let Me In has some improvements in store: One of them is the scenes with Richard Jenkins – no disrespect to the very effective Swedish actor from the original film, but there are a couple moments in the movie where Richard Jenkins goes off on his own to carry the narrative, and there’s no parallel to an experienced character actor with a list of IMDB credits like a Torah scroll. The equally distinguished Elias Koteas also makes a key appearance, as the police detective who picks up on the increasingly-warm trail of blood. He’s wearing drab period costuming (the movie is set in the early 1980s), but he still makes a profound impression as a lawman who, again depending how you look at it, is technically the good guy. Koteas embodies that ambiguity perfectly – charismatic and friendly enough that you root for him to solve the crime, but not so much that you don’t want Abby to be discovered.
Neither of these two guys are huge stars and you’d probably know their faces long before their names, but they’re two of the most superlative character actors in modern movies, and they effectively elevate Let Me In, which is already pretty darn good thanks to the efforts of director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), cinematographer Greig Fraser, and their crew. Let Me In has an impressive sense of atmosphere and beautiful photography. The orchestral score by Michael Giacchino is particularly evocative – it’s one of the best horror-movie scores I’ve heard in quite some time. (There’s also some pretty awesome and disturbing burn-victim make-up on display, but I won’t talk at length about that because it would reveal a plot point.) I can honestly say that Let Me In would have worked on me exactly as intended – scary, upsetting, touching, unforgettable – if I didn’t already know what was going to happen from seeing Let The Right One In two years ago.
That’s the entire problem right there: As good as Let Me In is, in the end it isn’t necessary. I have one or two quibbles with the movie itself (it seems to be a 1980s period piece for no reason other than to make a pivotal Rubik’s Cube reference, and, as with the original film, I have personal qualms with filmmakers exposing child actors to upsetting material like this just to get a good story on film), but those pale in comparison to the probable redundancy of the entire enterprise. It won’t serve as an effective gateway to the original film: If Let Me In introduces American audiences to this story, they won’t need to seek out Let The Right One In. And honestly, its target audience, horror connoisseurs and other people amenable to fringe material like this, have probably already seen Let The Right One In – as excellent and as distinct as this recreation is, it’s still a very faithful adaptation of a fairly recent film.
So what am I saying? This, essentially: If you haven’t seen Let The Right One In and you hate subtitles, I strongly encourage you to seek out Let Me In. It’s an excellent, sophisticated, and unusual horror film. But if you have seen Let The Right One In? Well, how do you feel about great bands covering songs by other great bands?