Let Me In (Overture Films, R)

Although Reeves places more emphasis on the horror potential of the story than did Alfredson, at heart this is still a coming-of-age flick with a strong dose of social commentary.

 Let the Right One In, directed by Tomas Alfredson and starring Lina Leandersson as the girl who’s “been 12 for a very long time,” was one of my favorite movies of 2008. So initially my heart sank at the news that an American remake was in the works, because historically that sort of thing is not promising. Consider The Vanishing (1993) next to Spoorloos (1988), The Ring (2002) next to Ringu (1998), Dinner for Schmucks (2010) next to Le Diner de cons (1998). Or better yet, don’t—just go watch the originals again.
But sometimes things surprise you by turning out better than expected. Let Me In, directed by Matt Reeves, is not so much a remake as a reimagining of the material. It’s a brilliant film that offers a different, but in no way inferior, take on the story of a vampire girl, her familiar and the outcast boy she befriends. Reeves, who also wrote the screenplay (based on the novel Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist), moves the film to Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1983 without changing the essential dynamics that make the story work.
Reeves begins his film in media res with an opening “God’s eye” shot reminiscent of The Shining as we observe an ambulance racing down a twisty snow-covered country road. Inside is a patient, burned beyond recognition, being rushed to the hospital. The first hour of the film is presented in flashbacks that lead up to this point before moving forward with the story. Although Reeves places more emphasis on the horror potential of the story than did Alfredson, at heart this is still a coming-of-age flick with a strong dose of social commentary.
Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee, who played Viggo Mortensen’s son in The Road) leads a generally unhappy life. A small and delicate 12-year-old, he’s bullied by a particularly hateful crew at school. His mother (Cara Buono) is in the middle of a divorce and doesn’t have time to deal with him, while the authority figures at school are remarkably dim when they’re not entirely absent. Things take a turn for the better when Abby (Chloe Moretz, who played Hit-Girl in Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass) moves next door with an older man Owen assumes to be her father (Richard Jenkins). She’s a strange, distant girl who goes barefoot even in the winter snow and solemnly informs him that they can’t be friends. Of course that premise would not have led to much of a movie, and before long Owen develops a crush on his mysterious neighbor while she adopts a more protective attitude toward him.
Reeves is not one to keep a secret for long. Early in the film Jenkins’ character is shown committing murder and draining the corpse of blood, and not long after we see Abby in all her fury as she stalks and kills her own prey. Let Me In is no Twilight with soulful good-citizen vampires; when aroused, Abby becomes a violent beast whose only thought is tearing out the throat of her prey the better to feed on it. I found this aspect of the film overdone—one kill scene in particular is almost comic in its use of speeded-up action, and when moving in for the kill Abby is transformed into something resembling Linda Blair about the time she rotated her head 360 degrees in The Exorcist.
But these are minor quibbles with a film that is not only effective as a suspense/horror flick but also brings unusual depth to its characters and adds in a good dollop of social commentary. In the opening scene we see Ronald Reagan, on television, reflected in the hospital door while declaring that “there is evil in the world” but that “America is good.” Owen’s mother has a huge picture of Jesus on the wall and makes a point of saying grace at dinner, but as with Reagan’s speech it’s all empty gestures and posturing. Like most of the adults in this film, she can’t even recognize the evil that is threatening to destroy the spirit and possibly the life of her son.
That would not be Abby the vampire, by the way, but a feral crew of adolescents who hunt in packs and have selected Owen as their favorite victim. Seldom has such a horrifyingly realistic portrait of vicious bullying been presented on the big screen (well, not since Let the Right One In, anyway). Owen’s school more resembles a prison yard than an educational institution and, predictably, when he moves to protect himself, he’s the one who gets into trouble. I couldn’t help thinking not only of Columbine, but of Dan Savage’s column this week in which he takes on school bullying, particularly the homophobic variety (it’s worth noting that one of the insults regularly hurled at Owen is “little girl” although there’s nothing feminine or effeminate about him): http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/SavageLove?oid=4940874.
A strong technical package is yet another pleasure offered by Let Me In. Cinematography by Greig Fraser, music by Michael Giacchino and costume design by Melissa Bruning are all effective in establishing mood as well as time and place. But most of all, I enjoyed production design by Ford Wheeler, who captures the feel of the early 1980s in small-town American without fetishizing it. | Sarah Boslaugh

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