Nobody really looks forward to remakes. They’re tolerated, because every once in a while one of them is good, and if you avoided all remakes you would never get to go to the movies, but I doubt that people get very excited about them. This is doubly true when the film being remade is Let the Right One In, an astounding little gem of a vampire film from Sweden. I imagine that most people who saw it when it came out here two years ago feel as protective of the film as I do, but the new remake, Let Me In, is a solid and affecting version of the story, one that isn’t as good as the original but feels more personal and valid than most Hollywood remakes.
The writer and director of this version is Matt Reeves, best known for directing Cloverfield and co-creating the TV series Felicity. That resume may not immediately suggest someone suited for this film, but outside of a few attempts to make the film more palatable—adding a policeman character, starting the film with some action— Reeves really seems to understand the haunting, somber tone of the original film and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel.
The action has been relocated to 1983 in the snowy isolation of Los Alamos, N.M. Owen (The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a lonely, awkward boy living in a sad little complex with his alcoholic, religious mother. He is constantly bullied at school, and has been so affected by it that he has bought a knife and fantasized about retaliation.
One night, a mysterious girl named Abby (ChloŽ Grace Moretz, from Kick-Ass) moves with her father (Richard Jenkins) into the apartment next to Owen’s. She doesn’t wear shoes and puts cardboard over her windows, and when she meets Owen she tells him, “Just so you know, I can never be your friend.” But she takes a liking to Owen, equal parts pity and admiration, and breaks her own rule.
The only two substantial adult characters in the film are a policeman played by the always wonderful Elias Koteas, and Jenkins’ character, who appears to be Abby’s father, but is actually more of a caretaker who does her hunting for her. Jenkins’ makes a lot out of a little screen time, his sad eyes projecting decades of weariness and devotion. Koteas also doesn’t have a ton to do here, as the cop trying to figure out why so many dead bodies are piling up in this sleepy little town, but he is one of those character actors who are virtually always terrific, and here he brings a great solemn authority to his part.
Nothing would sink this movie faster than bad child actors in the main roles. Their interplay is everything. The original had a couple of unprofessional actors giving amazing, unaffected performances. Here, though, Moretz and Smit-McPhee are both excellent. He makes Owen both deeply damaged and still engaging, fragile but filled with rage. With this and Kick-Ass, Moretz has become the go-to girl for preternatural maturity, and she invests Abby both with centuries’ worth of weariness and an undeniable innocence.
Reeves’ job was mostly done when he hired the right actors, but he shows a sure hand behind the camera as well, as he and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Bright Star) do wonders with the contrasting blacks and whites of the night sky and the snow-covered town. There aren’t a lot of changes to the original film, with some sections feeling like virtual shot-for-shot copies, but Reeves’ changes, such as the setting and time period, feel very personal and specific.
The movie has quite a few reminders of its '80s environment—Now and Laters, Ms. Pac-Man, Boy George—but it often feels even sparer and lonelier than the original film, with less mention of the community surrounding Owen and Abby‘s apartment complex. The world has forsaken Owen even more than in the Swedish version.
The Reagan Era setting, spooky suburbia and absent parents remind me more than a little of E.T., as does the fact that the film constantly obscures the face of Owen’s mother (Cara Buono), while E.T. did the same to most of its adult characters. It never really occurred to me while watching the original film, but Reeves’ version of the story indeed shares quite a few similarities with E.T., except Abby’s brand of self-actualization contains a lot more neck-biting than flying bicycles.
Echoes of E.T. aside, there’s nothing cute here. This isn’t Twilight, where everything sparkles with hair gel and overheated angst. Abby murders people to live, and when the need for blood takes over she is a feral, frightening thing. And Owen isn’t protected from this. He’s fully aware of what being with Abby entails, and even though he’s horrified, he finds himself being drawn in. It’s fascinating and heartbreaking in equal measure.
Despite being as good as it is, Let Me In illustrates one of the main potential problems with remakes. I would never recommend this version of the story over Let the Right One In. It’s a good version of the story in its own right, but never better than its predecessor, and it’s a close enough translation that people who have seen both films will constantly be comparing the two. Still, Let Me In has some wonderfully haunting images and some excellent performances, and will be immensely rewarding for those able to put the original out of their minds. This film may not be the right one, but you should still let it in.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.