Haunted I am. And torn. Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered even.
The Movies did this to me … nothing new there. But what is new is the very surreal experience of being charmed by two unique films – both telling exactly the same story – and further seeing them less than two weeks apart. I’ve needed a little time to process the whole thing. I have, of course, seen many a remake before, but usually the remake in question is based on a film made decades earlier. That is not the case with Let Me In.
But let’s back up a bit.
After being a bit obsessed with all things Swedish of late (blame The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels for that – more to come soon regarding those utterly remarkable books and films), I recently bought, sight unseen, the DVD of the Swedish film Let the Right One In. I had heard much about it of course, especially since America still seemingly has its teeth firmly sunk in the jugular of vampire-mania. Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, etc … “Experts” have told us this trend is on the wane, but I haven’t seen any evidence of this. Unless the disappointing theatrical opening of Let Me In is any indication. But I’m getting ahead of myself. And I digress.
Watching Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel Let The Right One In (Lindqvist also wrote the screenplay), I was happily horrified by some of its daring (to put it mildly) imagery, and profoundly moved by its central love story. Yes, I have enjoyed the Twilight films and books (though I obviously do NOT fit the demographic), but the boy-meets-girl tale at the center of Let The Right One In is about as far from sparkly as it can get.
Since I abhor spoilers, I will simply let the succinct jacket copy of the DVD tell the uninitiated among you what this story is about:
Lonely, 12-year-old Oskar is regularly bullied by his stronger classmates. A new friendship develops when Eli, a pale, serious young girl who only comes out at night, moves in next door. Coinciding with her arrival is a series of inexplicable disappearances and murders. As Oskar becomes more aware of Eli’s tragic plight, he cannot forsake her. However, Eli knows that to continue living, she must keep relocating. But when Oskar faces his darkest hour, Eli returns to defend him the only way she can …
Hmmmm. Aw, screw it – there’s no way to discuss this further without some spoilers. I’ll go as easy on them as I can.
BEGIN MINOR SPOILERS
When we first meet slight, fair, and towheaded Oskar, he is brandishing a knife and seething threats to … nobody. He seems like a little psychopath. It is only later that we learn he is being relentlessly tormented at school, and is simply acting out his fear and frustration. When Oskar first meets Eli in the snowy courtyard of his apartment building, she tells him, “I can’t be your friend.” It seems a harsh and curt manner of introduction, but we soon learn that Eli’s rudeness is actually quite the opposite. An older man lives with Eli (is he her father? grandfather? or something far more upsetting?), and he frequently goes out on nightly jaunts. Yes, like Oskar, Eli is also terribly lonely, and like him she is also twelve years old … but she has been twelve for a verrrrry long time.
Newcomers Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson play Oskar and Eli, and are so marvelous in these terribly difficult roles, one forgets that neither had acted in a film before. Their relationship is not only at the heart of this movie, it IS the heart of this movie. I was so wooed (and wowed) by their performances, I had to watch Let The Right One In twice in a row (… I can count on one hand the films that made me feel like doing that).
KARE HEDEBRANT AND LINA LEANDERSSON AS OSKAR AND ELI
Yes, this movie is at times utterly horrifying (vampires and horror, hmmmm … who’d a thunk it?), but it is also an incredibly moving love story. Even more so than the shamelessly-romantic Twilight series. That is thanks to its earnest performers, the choice of making Oskar and Eli PRE-pubescent (barely), the fact that the story is rooted in both our reality and traditional vampire lore (even the title invokes the necessity of invitation), and that it takes quite seriously the question, What would life truly be like for a centuries-old vampire – especially one who looks like a 12-year-old girl?
At times this story reminded me of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, just told on a smaller, more intimate scale (young Hedebrant even resembles an adolescent David Soul, who starred in the 1979 miniseries). I was also reminded of the Stephen King short story One For the Road, from 1978’s Night Shift, which also featured a snowy backdrop and a bloodthirsty little girl. At other times Tom Holland’s wonderfully campy 1985 film Fright Night came to mind – where a boy finds out that a vampire has moved in next door, but no one will believe him. However, even if this tale was influenced by those others, it does not rest on their laurels … it may even surpass them. I will never forget what happens when Eli’s “guardian” goes out on those nocturnal excursions (Oh my God, that’s what that rope, bucket, and funnel are for?!), nor what happens when Eli crouches in the shadows of a short tunnel, calling out to a stranger for “help.” Neither will I forget the touching little sacrifices that she makes for Oskar.
END MINOR SPOILERS
Let The Right One In both scared me, and broke my heart – you know, in a good way. I can’t recall the last time I was so moved and touched by a film … especially a horror film. It haunts me still.
NOTE TO THOSE WHO PURCHASE THIS FILM ON DVD: The original U.S. DVD release of Let The Right One In apparently botched the English subtitles. After much ballyhoo from cineasts, the DVD was reissued with the proper subtitles. If you purchase this, please ensure that the back of the package says, SUBTITLES: ENGLISH (Theatrical). Also, when you pop this in your DVD player, the default version that starts when you hit play is an “English Language Dub” with NO subtitles. To which I say NO, NO, NO, NO – switch these over to “Swedish Language” and English Subtitles – the ONLY way to watch this film. (Who is the marketing moron who decides that “dumbing down” their product to appeal to the Lowest Common Denominator is a good way to make a little more money? I know many, if not most, Americans don’t like foreign films because of the subtitles, but … sadly, they are all missing out on some truly magnificent movies.)
Anyway … I knew while watching Let The Right One In that the American remake was already in the can and about to be released. Obviously, I, like most other fans, was very dubious. Almost offended, since I loved this film so much. Why do we need a remake of a damn near perfect movie? Just because of a little language barrier and a nation’s distaste for having to use their gray matter and read a bit while being washed with cinematic imagery.
And yet …
Damned if director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) hasn’t done the impossible. Made a remake that is almost as good as the original. It is quite obvious that Reeves has incredible affection for the source material – both the original book and the movie – and has practically filmed a love letter to both. Let Me In is at times SO much like the Swedish version – line for line, shot for shot – that I kept asking myself WHY this version was necessary (… then I remembered – see the rant above).
And yet yet …
While much has remained the same (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), what changes have been made are either necessary for the cultural differences and locales (this new version takes place in snowy Los Alamos, New Mexico in the early 1980s), or actually expand on the original themes. I’m not sure why the names were changed – Oskar is now Owen, and Eli is Abby, but once the film started, I wasn’t that bothered by the switch. One shot in particular regarding Abby’s guardian (played by the always reliable Richard Jenkins), explains infinitely more about their relationship, and just how long perhaps he has actually been “watching over” her. What is implied with this one shot, gives a whole new undercurrent to the “love story” between Abby and Owen. One which lends a disturbing ambiguity to the film’s denouement – is the ending happy or tragic?
While I was completely won over by Hedebrant and Leandersson in the original, the actors in this new version are also extremely well cast. Abby is played by Chloë Grace Moretz (Hit Girl in 2010’s Kick-Ass), who will likely be a major star in years to come after this incredible performance; and Owen by Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road), a waif-like boy whose wide-eyed innocence and repressed anger are pitch perfect for the character.
KODI SMIT-McPHEE AND CHLOE GRACE MORETZ AS OWEN AND ABBY
Simply because I was so enamored of the original, it has taken me awhile to figure out my feelings about this remake. There is simply no way for me to review this without bias. Most of the reviews have been positive – not to mention relieved. Even Stephen King has said of this movie: “Let Me In is a genre-busting triumph. Not just a horror film, but the best American horror film in the last 20 years. Whether you’re a teenager or a film-lover in your 50s, you’ll be knocked out. Rush to it now. You can thank me later.”
That’s high praise. Yet so is the blurb by the Washington Examiner on the DVD cover of Let the Right One In: “Best. Vampire. Movie. Ever.” I don’t know about that, and yet it’s not exactly like other contenders for that title leap to mind. Like an exceptional meal, or a brilliant concerto, or a delicious book, these films have lingered in my mind and heart long after I finished them.
To sum up: I loved both of these movies – though the original edges out the remake a bit. Is that because I saw it first? I couldn’t say. Maybe.
One more thing: according to box office figures, Let Me In is kind of laying there like a cinematic turd. It only opened to $5 million, and that cannot be a good sign. If vampire fatigue truly is setting in, it will be too bad if this is one of the films which gets a stake through its heart. It deserves better. A lot better.
Oh well. Seek these films out. Both of them. And let me know which one you think is better in the comment section below.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN – movie grade: A
LET ME IN – movie grade: B+