Reviewed at Fantastic Fest 2010.
Maybe vampire movies are so popular because going to the movies is a slightly vampiric activity. We, the audience, feed off the creativity of the filmmakers and the vicarious pleasure of watching other people’s lives, but whatever satisfaction we get doesn’t last. Pretty soon we need to feed again.
Hollywood’s the same way: they’re just as thirsty for our dollars as we are for their product. But they’re like some kind of vampire-cannibal hybrid, since they also eat their own to survive. Which is how you get a film like “Let Me In,” a remake of a Swedish vampire picture called “Let the Right One In.” The original film, from director Tomas Alfredson, is only three years old and is widely available on DVD (you can even stream the film right now if you’re a Netflix subscriber). The only reason for this admittedly very watchable American version is cinematic vampirism.
At least it’s well-made. Its director is Matt Reeves, who is emerging as a significant craftsman of modern horror movies. His skill lies not in inventing but refining, in taking familiar ideas and presenting them with uncommon care and ingenuity. There were fake found footage horror movies before Reeves’ “Cloverfield,” but few with its scale and sheer visual audacity. I guess in our ongoing metaphor he’d be Dr. Frankenstein, collecting bits and pieces of the dead, reassembling them in a new way, and shocking them into vibrant, terrifying life.
The characters are essentially unchanged from the Swedish iteration. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Owen, the picked-upon teen who strikes up a friendship with Abby, the twelve-year-old girl who’s just moved next door to him in a Los Alamos, New Mexico apartment complex. Or at least Abby looks twelve years old and looks like a girl; we understand long before Owen does that Abby is a vampire, one far older than her physical age suggests. She needs blood to live, and she’s assisted in her nightly searches for it by a nameless middle-aged man (Richard Jenkins) who dutifully murders strangers and then hides the evidence in order to keep Abby fed and safe.
Jenkins’ part is the most changed from the Swedish film, where his character’s connection to the girl vampire was left much more ambiguous. Reeves, in contrast, makes very clear just who Jenkins is and why he takes care of Abby. Though Jenkins plays his scenes beautifully, the choice to explain Abby and Jenkins’ character history makes “Let Me In” a bit less spooky, a bit less sad, and a bit more conventional.
Come to think of it, “conventional but effective” may be the best way to describe Reeves’ overall approach to the project. He turns American Abby into a much more traditional movie monster than Swedish Eli. He inserts a flashback structure into the narrative to keep the audience from waiting for the first scares. And he uses a lot more music than Alfredson, particularly an ominous thump thump motif by composer Michael Giacchino that evokes the sound of a demonic heartbeat. None of these changes necessarily improve the material, but they don’t ruin it either. Unnecessary or not, the thing still works.
Reeves’ smartest and most important decisions came during casting. The precociousness Moretz displayed in “Kick-Ass” makes her perfect for a character far older than her appearance. And Smit-McPhee, giving a much more complete performance than in “The Road,” looks so sickly and anemic it’s hard to tell which kid needs blood more badly. I also liked Dylan Minnette as Owen’s tormentor Kenny. With his douchy attitude and Justin Bieber haircut, he’s an easy guy to despise.
I can imagine someone who doesn’t know “Let the Right One In” getting a big kick out of “Let Me In.” It’s stylish and well-acted, and its core story about an unlikely friendship, and larger themes about the nature of evil survive the translation intact. On the other hand, there’s a chance “Let the Right One In” partisans might have a more visceral reaction to the new version, since knowing what is coming only enhances the movie’s air of dread.
It can’t be easy to make something this faithful to a previous movie feel this fresh. For that, I give Reeves a lot of credit. I was satisfied. But only for so long.