Let Me In opens in the midst of unrest and disaster. An unrecognizably burned man is rushed to a hospital, where we learn that he attempted a murder that went horribly awry. It’s early-1980s America, so the detective in charge (Elias Koteas) suspects the patient of involvement with a satanic cult given the outrageousness of the crime. The detective tries to threaten and coerce cooperation from the suspect in the usual ways, but the questioning is cut short as the detective is momentarily pulled out of the emergency room to address other concerns. Upon return, the detective (the film never names him) discovers that the man has plunged outside the hospital window to his death, the would-be killer leaving behind only a notepad with a brief scrawl of apology to someone named Abby.
You have a good idea of what’s going on if you’ve seen Let the Right One In, the Swedish film that’s inspired this more or less scene-for-scene remake. The sensibility, however, is startlingly different. I never really warmed to Let the Right One In, as I found it chilly and mannered. It was a film that nearly played as an unintentional parody of the kind of filmmaking austerity that’s stereotypically associated with Swedish cinema. Writer-director Matt Reeves has predictably made a more sentimental film, but the new approach, unpredictably, works; the material is shaken out of its bleak chic stasis. The opening, one of the more pronounced differences from the original, is a flash-forward that gives us a partial glimpse of the tragedy that will befall some of the characters. The story has been relocated from Stockholm to Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the talented cinematographer Greg Fraser has followed suit by maintaining the stark whites of Let the Right One In while adding vibrant reds that give the new film an implication of caged heat. The characters’ collective longings practically radiate from them.
Reeves adds a bit of national-unrest subtext with the altered opening and a few choice Reagan quotations, but the story, more than even before, plays mostly as a parable of the kinds of school murders we read about every few years, and of the alienating bridge between certain adults and children who fail to see their similarities with one another. Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a classically troubled child with a religious alcoholic mother (a stereotype I could’ve lived without) and absent father. Sensitive, lonely, and physically the sort of man-baby that might’ve been termed a “late bloomer” 50 years ago, Owen is inevitably stalked by bullies whose taunts not-so-gradually escalate (far) beyond the point of typical recess nonsense. Owen channels his frustration and rage in fashions that are simultaneously typical and alarming: He spies on the sexy neighbor (typical), and occasionally sports a translucent monster mask while taunting himself in the mirror with a pocketknife (alarming). Owen soon befriends an unlikely ally in Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), a pale young girl roughly his age who moves into the neighboring drab, low-rent apartment. Owen is so relieved by her company that he doesn’t seem especially concerned by Abby’s eccentricities, such as a seeming immunity to coldness or an aversion to sunlight, or to the clear indication that Abby treats her silent caretaker (Richard Jenkins) as more of a peevish ex than father figure.
The characters aren’t meant to be seen from a detached godless distance as they were in the earlier film, as the director clearly wants you to love, or, at the very least, grieve for them. Reeves is obviously quite a fan of a number of 1980s American pop culture totems—particularly the films of Steven Spielberg and the writing of Stephen King—and he’s a slick yet uncalculating copycat artist. The primary strength of Spielberg’s late-1970s/early-1980s films—most obviously E.T.—is their vivid empathy with young people. King is far from a perfect writer, but works like Carrie, Rage, and Apt Pupil captured the ugly side that Spielberg’s reverence for adolescence frequently missed. Blending these sensibilities, Reeves creates an unusually beautiful horror film that understands that adolescence isn’t one fixed state of past tense, but an ever-shifting, wobbly, seesaw of the wonderful, awful, tedious, and potentially permanently damaging.
Let Me In poignantly acknowledges the fear that many people carry around of ultimately letting themselves down, especially under considerable, prolonged strain. It’s no accident that most of the adults in the film are unnamed, as they are merely ghosts to the tortured children around them, and maybe even to themselves. The final scene, which finds Owen in a rare instance of happiness, is understatedly sad and ironic, as it’s this moment where the boy has probably assured his own position as a future nameless man in a hospital, as someone destined to eventually disappoint a perpetual child who used to understand him.
This DVD is an impressive transfer of a gorgeous movie. The haunting oranges and whites of the scope cinematography are vivid and pristine without looking too scrubbed, as is the case with certain Blu-rays. Let Me In, reminiscent of Where the Wild Things Are, is supposed to look a little grainy and chaotic so as to approximate the turmoil and confusion inherent in the story. The sound is equally striking, particularly Michael Giacchino’s soaring, ominous score, which honors numerous classic horror scores (most obviously The Shining and John Carpenter’s The Thing) while effectively establishing an arresting tempo of unrest in its own right. The more subtle effects, such as 1980s music cues and little details such as the unwrapping of a candy bar, are outstandingly layered.
The commentary with Matt Reeves is rich in anecdotes pertaining to virtually all aspects of the film’s making, including his self-consciousness tackling a respected horror property. The writer-director paints an appealing self-portrait of a movie geek trying to forge his own trail while shouting out to past classics. (The one-shot car wreck sequence was inspired by Dial M for Murder, for example.) The special effects features, despite somewhat pointedly avoiding the fact that Let Me In is a remake of another recent movie, are brief but unusually tasteful and informative. The making-of featurette is a well-produced puff piece, with trailer and poster galleries rounding out the tribute. Overall, a decent sampling of extras for the geek-inclined.
An unusually beautiful horror film that understands that adolescence isn’t one fixed state of past tense, but an ever-shifting, wobbly, see-saw of the wonderful, awful, tedious, and potentially permanently damaging.