Let Me In: Warm Leftovers

The secret to the fun of Neverland’s promise of “never growing up” is that you don’t get older in your mind either. Imagine being twelve years old forever but still enduring the pain of living in the world for decades and centuries. That’s the prison of childhood experienced by Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz) in Let Me In, one tale of this ageless vampire who was turned to darkness at some point, when she was twelve long ago. The director-superstar Matt Reeves, most famous for War for the Planet of the Apes and now the massive brood piece, The Batman, remade Tomas Alfredson’s low-key Swedish pain fable, Let the Right One In, without altering its basic appeal, which is the pain of a lonely childhood expanded into mythology. Reeves avoids the changes that would have caused the most obvious deductions, such as a backstory in flashback or a brittle narration. But he changes too little to justify the retread while making visual distinctions that mute the meaning of the story. A Western audience’s estimation of the new kids’ more accessible performances, spurned by blockbuster conventions, may make it morally digestible compared to its original. But in the case of a tragedy, being more digestible is only debatably a compliment. It’s a rotten meal you can keep down.

Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lives in a part of town best forgotten (“everyone moves away from here”). It’s a waystation for people trapped in dingy solitude when they don’t fit anywhere else. He lives there during his parents’ divorce, with his mom in an endless rhythm of being chastised for his mistakes at school, eating Kraft macaroni for dinner, and nipping money from her purse to pay for candy and arcade games ($20 at a time, which in the 80s would hardly have gone unnoticed). Bullies at school emasculate him; his mind wanders in the endless hope of going home, at which point he wishes to be anywhere else. He lurks in a playground covered in snow, stabbing trees and pretending that they’re the abs of upper-classmen bullies (“You scared, little girl?”). Smit-McPhee is physically at ease in these uncomfortable parts (it's not hard to imagine that Owen grew up, doubling in height and repressed anger, into his Peter character in The Power of the Dog). The camera roams around his perspective from just behind his head, close to his eye-level. The film has unsettling close-ups of body parts to drive its point-of-view, eyes and ears and dirty toenails. At some point, he meets Abby.

Let Me In expected few of its American viewers to have seen the Swedish original so the film delicately leads into its cruel truths with a Fincherian mystery scenario. A serial killer dies horribly, connected somehow to this young girl (“two weeks earlier” pops up after the prologue, pricking your attention or rolling your eyes, depending on how many movies you’ve seen). This criminal asks for Abby’s forgiveness on the policeman’s notepad, in sloppy grade-school scrawl. The viewer doesn’t know why (and honestly, when the circumstance is fleshed out in the present, I still don’t know why he would leave a note; it played on the mystery of the moment but doesn’t match the reveal). The audience has no choice but to admit that the inherently likable Grace Moretz (she’s like every quiet girl that young boys hope will read comic books with them) has something to do with the carnage, though they aren’t sure how or why.

Grace Moretz and Smit-McPhee work together in that coming-of-age way. They have the tempo of a nervous couple, or two people who haven’t quite admitted to being together, barely even knowing what that would feel like. Between the two of them, Owen is the one that seems off his hinge (he wears a plastic mask to pretend to be a murderer in his mirror). The change is not unwarranted since it makes the vampire seem more unnoticed, more of a hidden casualty, like she could go to school and be a normal kid again if she wasn’t so experienced in torment (or weak to sunshine). But in the original film, Lina Leandersson’s Iranian heritage and austere performance gave her a different sort of allure. She seemed ancient and out-of-place compared to that version of Owen (named Oskar), which helped groom the audience’s revulsion (and acceptance) of her true nature by displaying it as awkward yet instinctual; their connection was purely based on the circumstances of their shared feelings towards the world. They never quite seemed “good” together, or even from the same geographical universe. Using Grace Moretz, Reeves makes the characters seem more compatible, like mutually respecting monster kids. The difference is that since the romance is more desirable this time, the audience feels less tormented than expectant. Abby’s the vamp next door.

Reeves may have been justified in changing appearances to create an altered mood, but the scenes that reveal Abby’s power don’t benefit from clanging CGI, as her creature form comically eviscerates people (a passerby in a tunnel provides the clumsy, overdramatic reveal). The Alfredson version surpassed Reeves’ direction in every way, but this is the most notable – in the original, the girl having killed the man in a scene shot from far away (you squint for the lurid details), cries into her hands, blood dripping from her mouth. It’s exactly what the audience needs to feel her anguish, which is far more significant than her power. The equivalent scene in the Reeves version features screaming slurping sounds, banging, monster karate (her vampire form is gnashing and spindly, like Gollum), and a closeup of her drinking blood as she raises her head, snarling, with molten Anakin Skywalker eyes. There’s not a hint of remorse in the scene.

The difference telegraphs the main distinction between the two versions, which is that the American impression of this story is more of a romantic power fantasy than the original, which was more burdensome, less cathartic. In this one, Abby’s meals are like small successes for a modern disenfranchised teen. Her appeal trumps the movie’s ethics, which is doubly apparent in the pool scene directly copied from the original film, in which bullies exact revenge on Owen for standing up to them without knowing he has a vampiress in his pocket. Like the rest of the film, this scene in the Swedish version is clean, cold, and subtle. Oskar's eyes were closed underwater as the bullies receive their violent reward. A head drops into the pool in the background like a grisly stone, but he doesn't notice. He remains innocent. In Reeves’ version, the head floats directly into the camera, eyes watering, arteries oozing in shiny CGI. Owen, eyes open in the remake, struggles underwater to get away from the cartoon carnage. It’s practically an action scene. To make up for the brutality, the audience feels more personally vicious towards the bullies in the remake, which makes Abby’s treatment of them less chilling than gravely satisfying, like Boba Fett killing stormtroopers after getting his armor back. Her monster form, being more openly horrific compared to the original, also leaves less to be surprised by during this final scene of carnage.

Since Abby is more monstrous, by horror film standards she becomes more condonable than the uncomfortable original, which never let the audience forget that the murders were the work of a little girl. As a result, Let Me In has more sticky glamor than it did before. When she saves Owen, she seems more selfish this time, more in pursuit of his love, and Owen’s spiritual betrothal to her seems more warranted, like the marriage in Moonrise Kingdom (their scenes have the energy of a boy trying to impress a girl in the grade above him). Most crucially, Reeves omitted the scenes from Let the Right One In that showed Owen being happy, such as a weekend spent motor-skiing with his father. He may have done so for pacing reasons, to cut the tension closer to the bone. But Oskar’s capacity to be happy gave the film’s ending its question mark. It was “happily ever after?” because the audience had to wonder if Oskar might have been happier in his real life without Abby, if he had only worked through the trouble and focused on the good stuff, as all kids must, to different extents.

In the remake, there’s no good stuff, no reason for Owen to hold on to this normal life. He doesn’t share a single tender moment with either parent and seems to live in a vampiric haze already, instinctively revving up to start murdering the people who heckle him. He has no reason to stay away from Abby when his life is so gross, so the audience has no reason to think of their relationship as tragic. They tap messages between walls and seal their pact of supposedly complicated feelings with warm (half-warm) hugs and there’s no hesitation about any of it in the viewer’s heart. Like the floor of a crime scene, the story's more troubling feelings have been scrubbed out, rehearsed into a more cathartic form.

Every shot is twice as glamorous, grandly lit by Greig Fraser’s love of stunning oranges and blues and hard sources of direct light. He keeps the focus extremely low, making perspectives more personal while Reeves’ affection for more obvious visual brutality makes the film more tantalizing. This may be why many new audience members have learned to prefer its unsubtle thrills in comparison to the original. Michael Giacchino’s score is overprotective of the film’s horror status, banging out intended reaction noises for a more satisfied audience. As a result, the film is afraid of reflection in an audience it seems to believe shares the trait. The stark Swedish landscapes, clean and cold, created tension in the open air that Fraser changed by shooting Reeves’ film in enclosures and tones that switched to bronze, sometimes dark blue, favoring black to give the frames deep (and definite) blocking. The Alfredson version is bathed in white sunshine, giving it the one thing that Let Me In lacks so definitively that it could be the whole difference between them in miniature: irony.

The irony of a clean landscape, a stark, wide frame, and a happy sky in which violent things happen (you get the sense they always have – cleanliness makes it feel immortal), gives the original film its jaunting, Medieval tension near to a kind of monstrous parody. The violent deeds had a sick humor to them that gave the film an air of laughing at the wind. The Reeves’ version is so outrightly serious, so meticulously framed with deep, important black borders and heavy color to impress a feeling of violent certainty, that it completely lacks irony. It’s the same violent events but reduced to their basic, literal elements, the same ingredients reheated into less satisfying leftovers. Let Me In is so portentous that there’s always a thin lightlessness over the frame, progressing to nighttime; there’s rarely that hard, bright contrast with the daylight, which represented Oskar’s daytime innocence. Rather than contrasting the joy of being normal with nighttime visitations, Reeves and Fraser concoct scenery that feels more like Abby always fits in. The world’s heart is dark already.

Let Me In is such a theoretically faithful follower to its original that the two would blur together if not for their dramatic difference in worldview, one being a stark tapestry, almost grin-inducingly sad, the other a brutal murder mystery romance, Se7en for pre-teens. There’s more than a little Twilight flitting its wings around the ears of Let Me In since the audience more painlessly accepts the lovers without genuine feelings of tragedy (the tragedy is only the prospect that they might withhold their affection, not the tragedy of the dark fantasy coming true). What Reeves may or may not have realized is that by drawing such a dramatic visual distinction between Abby’s monster and human forms and darkening the visual landscape to give her a more appropriate home, he didn't make the story more intense or dark. He sanitized a tale whose cleanly good nature was the creepier thing by contrast.

His version is like a gruesome power fantasy, hungry play-pretend. By making Abby “turn” into a more distinct vampire form, he quietly absolves the “real” Abby of her actions (she’s the Insatiable Hulk). Grace Moretz covers this decision by doubling down on her effective quivering in the quiet scenes; the able little actors alone make Let Me In recommendable beyond its dubious alterations. But they can’t change how Reeves took ironic cruelty and defrosted it into a calmer form of terror, like Scorsese’s Hugo for the Goth kids. Moretz starred in that the following year and it feels like it could be an adjunct to the Let Me In romantic cinematic universe. Abby’s plight is the quest to be left alone, which inevitably devolves into cursing boys with her affection. The original film succeeded in keeping the viewer at a coldly ironic distance, but the allure of the concept seems to have drawn someone in too close. Reeves couldn’t help loving it, enough to see its shy smile and cold toes and try, like any good boy would, to warm it up.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Relativity Media/Hammer Films

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