‘Let Me In’: That rare remake that works

September 30, 2010

Remakes? I’m against ’em.

 

But they’ve become endemic, and the turnaround time seems to grow shorter. It’s not just films from the 40s and 50s – Hollywood rightly guesses that the national case of ADD means it has carte blanche to remake films from the 70s, 80s and 90s. (“Short Circuit”? Really?)  It’s just another symptom of the terminal loss of imagination that runs rampant.

 

And American remakes of foreign films? Again, that would be a ‘no’ vote. First of all, they devalue foreign cinema. Secondly, the Hollywood versions invariably lack the mysterious tang of cultural uniqueness that flavors the originals.

 

Having said all that, I can heartily recommend “Let Me In,” the moody, touching American remake of the Swedish vampire film, “Let the Right One In,” from 2008.

 

Director Matt Reeves has not so much copied the film as reimagined it in an American milieu – though it is often very close to the original. He’s found a snowy equivalent to Sweden without resorting to the American Midwest, which is the U.S. equivalent of Scandinavia.

 

Instead, he’s set it in Los Alamos, N.M., in 1983, in a mountain town with a snowy clime. The snow and the weather are characters in this film and, for those versed in history, Los Alamos’ past – as the home of the birth of the atomic bomb – lends it a weird little vibe as well.

 

Kodi Smit-McPhee (“The Road”) plays Owen, a pre-teen living with his divorced mother in a crackerbox apartment complex. Mom’s a depressive whose face we never see (but who is played by Cara Buono from “Mad Men”) – and Owen is the target of bullies at school, though he can’t really tell about it. Forget the horror tropes – what’s scarier than a gang of unchecked bullies threatening super-wedgies?

 

Owen spends his evenings alone outdoors in the show, on the apartment complex’s monkey bars, waving a small pocket knife while envisioning “Taxi Driver”-style confrontations with his tormentors. But his world changes when new tenants move into the apartment next door.

 

One is a middle-aged man (Richard Jenkins) and his ward is a preteen girl named Abby (Chloe Moretz). Owen starts to run into her after dark on the jungle gym, though she is standoffish at first (“I can’t be your friend – that’s just the way it is”). But his obvious neediness and refusal to be rejected eventually break through to her, though she only comes out at night (and walks around barefoot, despite the snow on the ground).

 

She’s a vampire, of course. But while Abby is a monster, she’s a sympathetic one, because of her age and her obvious inability to control urges she never sought. Her very monstrousness is barely an impediment to her friendship with Owen; as he sees it, she may not be perfect but she’s nicer to him than the kids at school.

 

The man with her isn’t her father but her guardian. He stalks victims, trussing them up, hanging them upside down, then slitting their throats so the blood drains into a plastic jug, like take-out service he brings to her. Their relationship is never really explained, nor is there much spoken about the whole vampire world.

 

That may be one of the reasons I like “Let Me In” (and “Let the Right One In”) so much. “Let Me In” never fetishizes vampirism in the dreamy way that “Twilight,” “True Blood” and “Vampire Diaries” do. Abby isn’t some doomy, mystical figure; she’s an outcast, a loner who finds a kindred soul in Owen. Sure, she’s a skilled predator with supernatural powers – but hey, it’s lonely at the top of the food chain.

 

“Let Me In” is mercifully free, in fact, of vampire lore or rules. It goes without saying that sunlight is deadly. And Abby demonstrates what happens if she enters Owen’s apartment uninvited. Otherwise, there’s none of the blather about the romantic nature of eternal life or any of that other pseudo-poetic hokum in which the neckbite is discreet and pleasurable. When Abby bites a victim, pleasure is the last thing they’re thinking about.

 

Writer-director Reeves (“Cloverfield”) has streamlined Tomas Alfredson’s original film, eliminating extraneous characters or shrinking their role in the story. Instead, this film focuses almost completely on Owen and Abby. While the attacks by Abby and her keeper on various victims are gruesome, they aren’t nearly as frightening as Owen’s encounters with the bullies, led by Dylan Minnette (“Saving Grace”), who regularly abuse Owen.

 

Moretz, so deliciously foul-mouthed in “Kick-Ass,” has a nicely depressive air as Abby. She conveys the sense of awakening that comes from having a friend her own age. Smit-McPhee, as her put-upon swain, is equally good: angry, afraid and lovestruck all at once.

 

“Let Me In” is both exciting and measured, composed and quiet, yet thrilling. It’s that rare remake that surpasses its source.

 

 

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