Like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, it elegantly blends horror movie tropes with a coming-of-age tale. Like Steven Spielberg’s E.T., it captures suburban life from a child’s-eye view and drops an otherworldly visitor into the life of a boy in a broken home. Like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, it juxtaposes supernatural horror with the horrors of the everyday world.
I thought of each of those films after I finished Let Me In. I also thought about the Twilight series, a far more popular and less compelling tale of a vampire finding love and acceptance with a human being. And I thought about True Grit, another of my favorite 2010 films, that — like Let Me In — is both a remake of a beloved movie and an adaptation of a beloved novel.
The point is, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this film… it hasn’t really left my mind since I soaked in its final image. A great movie finds it’s way into your consciousness and takes root there. You don’t decide to fall in love, you just sit back and it happens.
Let Me In is a remake of Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In (itself an adaptation of a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist) and, based on what I’ve read, it’s a very faithful recreation of an already stellar movie. Normally I’m hostile to the idea of remakes of foreign films, and it could well be that had I seen Alfredson’s film, I’d find this one superfluous. But I haven’t, so I’m able to judge Reeves’ work on its own merits.
I’ve heard the argument that film remakes, and adaptations of novels that have already been adapted, should be viewed in the same light as theatrical stagings of a play. If Shakespeare’s work can be brought to life in a hundred different incarnations, why not Lindqvist’s?
My feeling is that the end product either justifies the effort or doesn’t. A Hollywood cash grab aimed at audiences afraid of subtitles is worthy of scorn. But a resonant work of art is worthy of praise, no matter the source material. Of my top four 2010 films, one is the third film in a series and two are remakes. I can’t call any of them “original,” but they are all powerful and moving.
By all reasonable measures, Let Me In is a horror film. It’s about a vampire in the form of a 12-year-old girl named Abby who must feast on human blood to survive. Played by the striking Chloe Grace Moretz (who recently stole the show in Kick-Ass), Abby transforms from fragile innocent to savage beast in the blink of an eye.
But those details are meted out sparingly, and only occasionally does the movie really feel like a thriller. Mostly it is a sad and poignant tale of alienation and need. The protagonist, 12-year-old Owen (played by the remarkable Kodi Smit-McPhee), is frail and pale, ignored at home and bullied at school. He’s an open wound in need of healing, and he finds it in the form of his new next-door neighbor. She just happens to be a vicious bloodsucker.
Abby is accompanied by a somber father figure, played by Richard Jenkins, who provides her with shelter and food. Food, in this case, means the blood of the young men he stalks and kills in order to protect her from exposure. One of the film’s (and Jenkins’) astounding accomplishments is that we find ourselves sympathizing with a serial killer. In one bravura sequence, an attempted ambush goes horribly wrong and somehow the perpetrator comes across as a victim.
Abby and Owen forge a connection over Now & Laters and a Rubick’s Cube (the film is set in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the Reagan era). Owen is being terrorized at school by a group of bullies who are the true villains of the film. For all of the horror that takes place outside his school, the real nightmares happen within.
Owen has no friends at school and his home life provides little solace. His parents have recently divorced and his mother has given herself over to alcohol and religion. Reeves never shows the mother’s face, always shooting her in the blurred background or from the neck down while focusing on Owen, emphasizing his disconnection from both her and the adult world in general. On the DVD commentary, Reeves says he was inspired by the way Spielberg shot so much of E.T. from a kid’s (and later alien’s) eye view.
It’s little surprise that once Owen finds a kindred spirit in Abby, nothing — not even a little matter like her feasting on the blood of innocents — will tear him from her side. Their friendship, and courtship, is beautiful to watch, even when it’s horrible to watch. The film thrives on the moral ambiguity of its heroes being so monstrous.
Matt Reeves’ only previous directorial credit is 2008’s Cloverfield, an enjoyable found-footage monster flick that didn’t hint at the artistry he displays here. After all the talk about David Fincher, Tom Hooper, Christopher Nolan and the rest, I’d hand the Best Director trophy to this guy if given my way.
Reeves’ use of composition, color and camera movement is stellar. He frames several scenes with some compelling action taking place in the soft focus background, heightening tension by never giving too much away. Assisted by Michael Giacchino’s typically elegant score (is there a better composer working in movies today?), Reeves turns every scene into an emotional journey.
2010 has been a year of pleasant surprises. That one of the very best films of the year is a remake of a Swedish horror movie might just be the biggest one yet.