Let Me In review

With horror remake Let Me In out in cinemas today, here’s Michael’s take on Matt Reeves’ film and how it compares to the Swedish original, Let The Right One In...

Before we start, let’s get acquainted. Let Me In is the British-American remake of 2008’s Swedish horror-drama film Let The Right One In. I reviewed it on this site, and it topped my Best of 2009 list. Ron Hogan, Den Of Geek’s US correspondent, checked the film out on its Stateside release, coming to it completely cold, without seeing the original. (There are links to all of these at the bottom of this article.)

So here’s an alternative take. Let’s take a look at Let Me In in context, and relate it to the film it is remaking for a new audience.

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In the last decade, Hollywood backed remakes have been consistently eyed with much suspicion. They’re often used as a yardstick for the declining imagination of mainstream American product, and of the callousness of producers sucking up the best ideas from abroad. So, it was no surprise that Let The Right One In, the Swedish vampire horror-drama, was greenlit for the English language makeover.

Cue the consternation. Den Of Geek’s resident World Cinema expert, Nick Horton, recently had the following to say about Let The Right One In: “…it is the isolation of the Swedish backwaters which sets the oppressive tone from which the film takes its cues. The audience feel as abandoned on the edge of the world as the characters, and it is exactly the sort of place where the fantastical and creepy could coexist with the ordinary. To set it elsewhere is to rob the film of its hidden power.”

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For me, though, the change in setting is the least of this remake’s problems. Exoticist assumptions about the undertones of Swedish society aside, Let Me In‘s murky small town New Mexico, coated with snow and populated by dreary architecture, is just as effective a backwater as suburban Stockholm. It is suitably mundane, quiet and eerie, and a fine context for the set-up, as lonely kid Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who spends his time hanging out in his apartment building’s empty playground, develops a friendship with a mysterious girl, Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz), who only comes out at night and seems undaunted by the cold weather.

Moreso than most language barrier revamps, Let Me In is a facsimile of the original, with moments of heavy deja vu called up by the set design, the costumes, the jaundiced hue of its cinematography, and vast swathes of the screenplay. Director Matt Reeves, in adapting Let The Right One In, shows immense reverence for the Swedish film (itself a pared down adaptation of the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist), with situations, beats and sequences lifted wholesale. While this is a move of positive inspiration, it constantly calls reference to itself and its cinematic forerunner. It begs the savvy audience members to play spot the difference, in the process calling attention to many of this version’s flaws.

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As the first production from a re-energised Hammer Films (in conjunction with, amongst others, indie studio Overture Films), Let Me In seems to be laden with teething problems inherent in the slow awakening of a horror juggernaut. Let The Right One In, despite its horror genre trappings, was always more of a quiet mood piece, drawing dramatic weight out of its inferred horror, and finding its true power in the tentative relationship between its two leads. Let Me In retains almost all of these qualities, but it is wrapped up in a much more, for want of a better term, Hollywood horror sheen.

The first point is one of restructuring. Whereas Let The Right One In opened with silence, focusing on Oskar’s solitude, Let Me In dives in headfirst, with a pseudo-mystery opening sequence, with a strange man admitted to hospital, his face scarred by horrific burns. Who is he? Is this connected with the recent spate of ritualistic murders? A young girl, introducing herself as his daughter, turns up at the reception desk, before disappearing out into the winter night. Who is she? Not long after, the man falls from the window of his room, avoiding questions from a police detective. Just what is going on? Fade to a intertitle: “two weeks earlier…”

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Now, this reshuffling de-emphasises the drama of the story, and instead sets up anticipation as a horror. The images of an old man and a young girl, and the lingering threat of murder, hang over Let Me In‘s opening act. However, there’s a tiny snag. In adapting so faithfully, Reeves has provided himself with an inadequate horror film, as the drive of his screenplay is still concerned with the gently developing relationship between Owen and Abby.

He compensates for this by pushing his version towards the extremes, removing its peer’s sparse, poetic nature. This resonates right through the picture, up to post-production flourishes, such as filling most scenes with heavy, deafening bass hits, piercing your eardrum with unsubtle trauma.

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Likewise, the score, from Academy Award-winning composer Michael Giacchino, is alternately oppressive and mood shattering, as he shows little of the nuance of his work for Up and The Incredibles, and saturates every second of the film with either twee, celeste-driven melodies (to accompany the young chums) or hackneyed, manipulative, microtonal string workouts (to highlight that something tense is happening on screen). There’s barely space to breathe, let alone develop an atmosphere.

And while the change in context proves promising, Reeves over seasons his American setting, constantly reminding the viewer of its period landscape through pop culture touchstones, from the unending snippets of Bowie’s Let’s Dance, to the duo’s date at an arcade, where they play Ms. Pac-Man, and are served by a dude in full Boy George-style New Romantic regalia, while Culture Club plays over the PA system. It’s the 80s, you know?

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This feeling continues in the smattering of superficial horror and thriller references, both general and specific, which serve little purpose and detract from the drama. Owen surveys the apartment’s courtyard through a telescope, spying on his neighbours (who, in this version, do not provide light relief, but are no more than distant, undefined figures, and eventual victims), which Reeves frames as a slow pan, reminiscent of the voyeuristic gaze of Rear Window. Also, when Owen enacts fantasies of stabbing schoolyard bullies, he wears a plastic slasher-killer mask, as does Abby’s keeper (Richard Jenkins, credited as The Father), who covers his face with what seems to be a black bin liner when venturing out on the hunt.

These hunting sequences are easily Let Me In‘s best, and also stray the most from Let The Right One In‘s example. In the second, misfortune-strewn, venture out for blood, Reeves is bold yet restrained in his direction, using fixed camera positions as The Father stumbles further into a morbid, chaotic farce. Richard Jenkins, as the fatigued, battered old accomplice, is pitch-perfect.

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In fact, the cast are generally impressive. Kodi Smit-McPhee nails the loneliness and frailty at the heart of Owen. He is innocent, confused, compliant, and unable to look away. His infatuation with Abby is not one of physical, romantic involvement (although the film plays up their tentative forays into ‘going steady’), but is reflected in his subtle shift in emotional gravity, becoming more buoyant as their friendship progresses.

The chemistry with Chloe Grace Moretz is wonderful, even if she is the weaker part of the pair. This is not a slight against her ability to appear genuine. It is more a case of her lacking the ethereal, spooky undertones of a vampire-girl. Perhaps the production team realised this, as she is shot at every turn with horrific flair, with her more monstrous moments signalled by incredible, Gollum-like CGI, or make-up befitting of a 28 Days Later infected.

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There are plenty of these odd choices and counter-intuitive additions that scupper Let Me In‘s dash for glory. For every flash of inspiration, or gleam of polish, there’s a dumb plot development (the detective, replacing the cabal of neighbours, acts like a stereotypical idiot horror film victim), a creative misstep (the bullies, led with ferocious zeal by Dylan Minnette, are drowned out by the score’s spoon feeding) or a flat-out, unintentionally funny production flaw (The Father, after being burned by acid, looks dreadfully like the Toxic Avenger).

Sure, it is admirable that Reeves, Hammer and all concerned were able to retain much of the look, feel and broad strokes of the Swedish original, proving that, when committed, Anglophonic cinema needn’t butcher properties when dragging them across the language barrier. But, in the process, they reveal their own irrelevance, because, as a remake, Let Me In is superfluous, too similar to be unique. And even judging it as a standalone, it is heavily flawed and self-destructive.

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There is still a kernel of something special at its heart, but you’d be hard pressed to find it among the stylistic dissonance.  It’s a curiously barren project, imaginatively, for both director and studio. Let’s hope they have something better up their sleeves in the future.

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Rating:

2 out of 5