Let Me In

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January 3, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

It’s probably only proper from the outset to make it clear that I was never too enamoured with the original Swedish film, Låt den rätte komma in (aka Let the Right One In), whose success convinced Hollywood that this remake might prove a lucrative venture. It was a good film, a pleasant diversion, but the elements it chose to focus on never really gelled into something larger than themselves. Indeed the number of elements utilised in telling the story at times bordered on the distracting. As might be expected, Let Me In, the English/American remake suffers from the same problems as its forebear whilst also, perhaps predictably, unearthing a few more. It’s hard to hold things together when making any film and it must be immeasurably more difficult to try doing the same thing when an original, already well-regarded film, lies complete and available at your local film retailer.

In terms of story the shape of things is very similar. Moving the setting from snow-covered Sweden to snow-covered New Mexico this new edition tries to get things off to a flying start by throwing us right into the middle of the story. After a few sequences clearly designed to pique our interest we’re eventually taken back two weeks earlier and allowed to witness things unfold in a more straightforward fashion. Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young boy, no more than twelve, who is bullied in school. He is quiet, reserved and harbours certain violent thoughts; no doubt the result of his torrid school-life. His parents are in the middle of a messy divorce and as he stays with his mother it’s suggested that she struggles daily with a dual addiction to alcohol and Jesus.

Things begin to change when a young girl named Abby (Chloe Moretz) moves into the apartment next door. She lives there with an older man, ostensibly her father, but something seems strange about their relationship. Abby chats briefly to young Owen, assuring him that she can’t be his friend, but the two eventually spend more and more time together. Meanwhile, as bodies start showing up, drained of all their blood, an unnamed police detective (Elias Koteas) starts investigating under the suspicions of possible satanic cult activity, a search that can’t help but lead him back to Abby’s apartment.

It’s probably unavoidable that any meaningful discussion of Let Me In will involve comparisons with its Swedish original. In fact it would be disingenuous to avoid them since, without making assertions as to _Let Me In_’s quality, it has to be said that the producers who claimed it was a new adaptation of the original novel and not a remake of the film were hardly telling the truth. If anything, the American version omits more details from the original text than the already stripped down Swedish version whilst adding little of anything that might be termed new.

It has its moments, for example they completely change the capture of Abby’s guardian and come up with a fairly pleasant original vignette, but the overall flow here can’t help but overlap almost completely with the 2008 version. The problem with that is, while this version doesn’t necessarily stray too far off path, it certainly doesn’t nail the small things quite as suitably as Swedish director Tomas Alfredson did originally. It’s a tough starting point; at its very best Let Me In is simply slightly different while everywhere else it is either less than the original film or just adequately retreading what has already been done. It’s probably a hard pill for all those involved to swallow, although perhaps they won’t mind as long as they make their money back, but the highest praise one could afford to this film is that it ranks as simply ‘redundant’.

One of the biggest differences is the aforementioned change in starting point as Let Me In tries to immediately bring the audience into the action by starting at a later event within the narrative before cutting back to fill in the blanks. The problem is that John Ajvide Lindqvist’s original text is most assuredly not action-packed even if it was designed as a page-turner. Having snatched up the audience in a whirlwind of sirens, speeding police cars, ambulances and a suicidal leap it finds it difficult to settle back down into proceedings again as we return to the quietly strained life of the bullied Owen. With a somewhat troubling dependence on sinister music, awkward tension-building exercises and exceedingly poorly realised special effects, the film tries to pull the audience in rather than letting them naturally sink into proceedings. It’s really only when we get past the event that opened the film that everything settles down and really reflects the more successful tone the Swedish film managed from its very first frame.

Speaking of the Swedish film, one of its main strengths was undoubtedly the beautiful cinematography. It was more than simply an aesthetically savvy job by that film’s cinematographer, Hoyt Van Hoytema. Rather, the visuals were key in establishing the story’s retro setting by cleverly harking back to the palettes of established European horror films of that same era. Aside from the clothes and set design it was the soft palette marked by streaks of primary colours yellow and blue that created an older feel to the film. It really goes without saying that this new edition forgoes that palette and really, it would probably have made no sense to try and emulate it since the production is no longer steeped in any European tradition.

Unfortunately nothing really replaces it, no American equivalent or otherwise unusual technique. Instead we have a film steeped in shadow and harsh lighting. It’s far less colourful than the original but also looks entirely generic as it buys into the more desaturated look that seems to mark modern Hollywood; an aesthetic seemingly (mis)guided by the belief that less colour equals more ‘atmosphere’. To establish the story’s temporal setting what we instead get is a title card, placed right after the opening production logos and effectively opening the entire film, stating the exact location, date and year of the events we’re about the see. It’s not exactly a misstep to do that but it certainly feels terribly clumsy in comparison to the original film’s structure. As if to hammer home that we’re in the 1980s the film waits only a few more minutes before allowing Ronald Reagan to deliver a speech on the television placed atop the hospital’s reception.

The time setting of the original text seems of less import in the U.S. version than ever before. Only two elements really stand out as providing potential pointers towards the original novel’s themes of the relativity of evil: the appearance of Ronald Reagan and the detective’s belief that the blood-drained bodies he’s finding are connected to a satanic cult—a scare story that really did rock the U.S. of the time. Speaking of the novel’s original themes, questioning what really constitutes evil and how should we discern it, this version really brings nothing more to the table than the previous adaptation. It instead follows that film’s version which seems more adept as an analogy for puberty, burgeoning adulthood and the, often unquantifiable, dangers of young life. Trimming a little more from the already cut down original, the U.S. remake does somewhat alter the tone through a refocusing of details. Gone is the paedophilic relationship between Abby and her guardian, a detail overtly stated in the original text and strongly hinted at in the first film. Also removed is any detail of Abby’s gender although she still, at one point, asserts that she’s not a girl.

Within this version the audience must simply presume that she’s not a girl but a vampire where as the prior versions both made explicit that Abby/Eli was actually a boy who suffered severe genital mutilation prior to both puberty and their conversion to vampirism and simply took on the role of a girl for social convenience. It’s arguable, as the U.S. version removes the original relationship between Abby and her guardian and replaces it with a found photo depicting the two together when her guardian wasn’t shy of Owen’s age, that it offers up a less ambiguous and endlessly bleaker conclusion than prior versions. This time around it can’t help but seem certain that Owen is being groomed for a part.

Discussing the core themes there’s really no variation between this and Låt den rätte komma in and I suppose, for my part, this is probably the film’s greatest weakness. The original film also featured an abundance of unusual details but never really tied them together and this outing, although slightly more trim, never thinks to remove the elements from the original that actually weighed it down; instead opting to excise narrative detail while leaving in rather unimportant setpieces such as the fiery death of one of Abby’s victims. The character of Owen (Oskar in the original) is still heavily cut down from the original novel in which he was a much more duplicitous character; bullied and traumatised but also readily sneaky himself when opportunities made themselves available. Of course his misbehaviour could be accurately attributed to many causal factors, but, nonetheless, stealing $20 from his mother’s wallet in preparation for a ‘date’ with Abby hardly matches up to the persistent theft depicted in the novel.

As stated before, both filmed versions feel more in tune as allegories of puberty or growing pains. The politics of the original novel, referenced only in passing in the first film as a newspaper revealed the story of a Soviet submarine found in Swedish waters, are basically totally irrelevant here as there is no grander comment to be found on just what constitutes an ally or an enemy. In the first film that submarine incident, an event that would be entirely familiar to a Swedish audience, served to establish the film’s time setting rather than play into a larger dialogue of social paranoia and political threat.

It’s most likely that personal preference and whichever film you see first will strongly influence your preferred incarnation of the Let the Right One In story. Nonetheless it’s safe to say that, all things being balanced, the original Swedish film is the superior model and the one to opt for if you’re at all curious about the story. This is, of course, presuming you want to avoid the original novel for the time being. With its superior visuals, surprisingly better realised special effects (the American model tries too hard for spectacle) and more assured pacing, Alfredson’s vision effectively trumps Reeves’ at every corner. Unfortunately it’s hard, for those of us who have seen both, to really get fired up about a film that is inherently redundant; for anyone really interested in cinema no title exists in isolation and so these remakes of films that are only a couple of years old to begin with seem a pointless endeavour. This becomes especially true when the Hollywood versions seem unwilling to even try and stake out their own territory. Without being overly cynical the only real selling point this film has is that its cast speaks English throughout.

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