This image represents my favorite thing about this version.

Unfortunately for people who pay attention to films, Hollywood is in the business of trying to cash in on anything that hits, even if it’s a small movie with a great concept that becomes a cult favorite. Let the Right One In (2008) was a glorious update to the tired, tween co-opted vampire horror subgenre. It made vampires relevant again in an old-school way, before True Blood fully made them relevant again in a decidedly post-millennial way. I often refer to the original, Swedish film as the “anti-Twilight” and with good reason. The plot revolves around a possible romance between a human and a vampire but progresses far more realistically and intelligently than the pandering, silly glittering vampire books. Of course, Let Me In (Matt Reeves’ Hollywood version of Let the Right One In) is a very faithful remake and thus keeps this plot. There are a few departures from the original and most of them are ill-advised.

Now that I’ve introduced the context of this review, let me begin in earnest by telling you that Let Me In is completely inferior to its Swedish predecessor. Period. There are going to be people who say it’s better, potentially because it may be a more effective horror film given a Hollywood fueled, North American sense of such things. Definitely there will be people who say it’s just more straightforward thematically, and it is, but this is not a virtue this film should aspire to. In fact, there is no greater illustration of the difference between contemporary Hollywood sensibilities and those of foreign or indie movies than this shitty remake.

The first place you’ll notice a difference between versions is in Let Me In‘s bombastic, intrusive score. The movie is utterly soaked in it. On its own, it’s probably a decent score (Giacchino is a favorite of mine) but it frames nearly every scene in such a way as to make it absolutely clear when the audience should be horrified, touched, etc. It’s pretty obvious when a filmmaker doesn’t trust their audience when they attach musical cues such as these. Moreover, the original’s score is so restrained and the film itself is much more invested in the smaller “character moments” that the difference becomes palpable. It can only be a weakness for Let Me In that it’s trying to get across exactly the same stuff and overdoes it to such a ridiculous extent.

In case you didn’t get the thin parallel, Owen is reading this book throughout the film.

This is reflected not only in the score but also in the paring down of secondary characters. While I liked that you never fully see Owen’s mother in Let Me In I have to wonder why they bothered casting Elias Koteas as a plot device. While Koteas’s performance gives the character some pathos, there’s no comparison to the time spent with the affable group of chums of Let the Right One In. The character, who I believe is never named in the film, exists only to be “the cop”, to be the someone who is paying attention to the murders going on in the community and trying to find who might be responsible. Having a cop at all is a cliche, which the original sensibly avoided by keeping the action centered around the personalities contained by the housing complex where Owen and Abby/Oskar and Eli meet. More ridiculous still is the removal of any characterization in the couple who are supposed to replace the one in the original. All impact of the woman’s transformation is lost when the two exist only as eventual victims, almost like boxes any fan of the original will check as soon as they are introduced. The male side of the couple is poorer served because the character is lifted, mutilated, and transposed to “the cop”. The fucked up thing is that I really liked the couple in the original, they seemed like somewhat scummy but normal people. Her death meant something. Her husband’s obsession with finding the vampire or whatever is killing off his peeps meant something. In the remake, the scene where the woman bursts into flame serves no purpose other than to have a cool vampire fire, there is no emotional attachment to her whatsoever and never time for one.

She has nice tits, that’s about all.

Of course, they could have used her fiery death to suggest to the cop that something otherwordly is going on but these dots are never connected. The guy in the original isn’t even a cop and he connects the dots after watching Eli drop-fang his wife. In Let Me In, Abby is threatened directly only because there’s a cop doing cop stuff. Yawn.

This brings me to other noted departures from the original’s fleshed out characterization. In the remake, Owen/Oskar’s father is reduced to a voice on the phone. In the original, the relationship between Oskar and his parents is somewhat vague. Is his father gay? How long has the family been split up? Why? None of these questions exist in the remake, the situation is utterly spelled out and it’s reduced to standard divorce, standard separation from father. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, necessarily, but I think any reduction in characterization that doesn’t obviously help the movie is at best unnecessary. Since the reduction here removes a lot of the ambiguity that makes Oskar so interesting in the original (particularly if his father is read as homosexual and the effect this might have on his psychology in relation to Eli), I’d argue that it’s a flaw but perhaps a minor one.

People who see Let the Right One In often find themselves wondering afterward just what Eli’s intentions for Oskar are. Is he just another replacement caretaker/serial killer on what might be a long line of them? Is she just using him, in other words? The ambiguity and subtlety of their relationship is, like so much else, taken out of the equation. At the exact moment Owen discovers old sepia photographs of Abby and Richard Jenkin’s unnamed version of the original’s Hakan, the rest of the film and beyond is a foregone conclusion to anyone who saw the original.  Of course, this is meant to instill some conflict about whether or not Owen will find his way to Abby after all but it’s exactly this kind of on-the-nose manipulation that makes this remake so dull. This deflates the key question of the film even if it does offer a temporary conflict for Owen and it isn’t helped by the fact that both seem to enjoy wearing masks. In summary, this exchange is not worth what is lost.

I do like that the guardian character is more actively opposed to Abby’s lifestyle. He gives us a reason why he’s getting so bad at killing people. In the original, Hakan is obviously kind of inept and one wonders how he has gotten away with it for however long. Sure you can read into it, but there just isn’t much to go on. Giving Richard Jenkins’s version that one small moment does improve the characterization to some extent. It also changes it. Hakan is far more devoted to Eli than Jenkins is to Abby. This is not really a flaw, because different doesn’t have to mean worse and in this case it doesn’t. It helps that Jenkins’s performance is probably the best in the film even though he doesn’t have much screentime.

While I’m talking about good stuff, the inclusion of Owen’s sexual awakening as a pubescent boy is a welcome one. In the original, there is some sense of Oskar as having a similar development especially if one considers that Oskar’s father may be gay and Eli is actually a boy. Having this reading also adds shades of pathos to Oskar’s behavior in certain scenes in the original. Because we are shown that Owen is starting to notice girls, we get just a little more mileage out of this and it somewhat reduces the fact that Let Me In has less balls than the original in that it keeps Abby a female and adds no layers of possible homosexuality. This again is a difference that may not be a real flaw and if there was more adaptive difference that actually replaced instead of reduced, Let Me In would have been a better film. As it stands, there are few things taken away that are replaced with anything (or anything good). Thankfully, inserting Owen’s puberty is a good move.

Another major departure is in the behavior of the bullies. This is a mixed bag. I like that they are more vicious in the remake. However, the psychology of the main bully is again completely spelled out when his older brother is shown to treat him in almost the exact same manner as he treats Owen. The audience goes “ahh, so that’s why” and they realize this because they are told. In the original, it is implied because the older brother is a jerk but there’s a restraint involved which avoids making it so boringly obvious. I also question the choice of making all the bullies so vicious and unremorseful (as opposed to in the original where at least one bursts into tears and seems to really dislike hurting Oskar). This puts us firmly in Owen’s camp and reduces the level of ambiguity involved with Oskar’s version. In the original, Oskar might be a bit crazy and this is hinted at throughout. Owen is a bit of a creep too, but more innocent. He doesn’t like the pain and violence, whereas it is implied that Oskar might. Owen’s reactions are also tentative and understandable whereas Oskar basically wants to kill people and it is this that Eli taps into at first. There’s a difference between buying a pocket knife and wearing a weird mask while watching the neighbors and keeping newsclippings of murders and having a morbid fascination with death. Oskar is far more obviously a potential killer in the making whereas Owen is probably not. We can suppose he is based on the ending of the remake, cuz he is with Abby after all, but the psychological context just isn’t as fleshed out as it is with his Swedish counterpart. This again, detracts from the effectiveness of the remake vs. the original.

Probably the most obvious weakness aside from the horrible scoring is the inclusion of conventional horror techniques like CGing Abby’s attack scenes to make her more inhuman and vicious. This was accomplished in the original without CG so why not here? In fact, this effect is so obviously fake that I was reminded of Lord of the Rings and other dated “digital human” effects. It was just unnecessary and I’ve heard it said that it was “scarier” which makes me question what exactly makes that so. From where comes our definition of scarier? This seems like a subjective thing. Some people will think it’s “cool” that she’s so inhuman when “vamping out”. I would say there’s a time and a place for that and this isn’t it. I groaned aloud at the tunnel attack and Abby’s lack of remorse. One of the things that makes the original Eli interesting is her remorse. She weeps for the man she kills, Abby does not.

Some might say that I’m being unfair to this movie given that I did see the original (and am a huge fan of it). Well, tough. I believe in judging a film on its town terms and not on what I expected or what the hype might be. That said, I have no compunctions about bringing the full weight of context on a film that invites it by being a remake at all. How does one critique a remake which is so faithful, at least in terms of dialogue and plot, without referring back to the original? Probably only by not seeing the original.

And it’s not as if I think an original/foreign film is necessarily better than its Hollywood counterpart. I think The Departed is a better film than Infernal Affairs. I think Vanilla Sky is a better film than Open Your Eyes.

I’m not even saying that Let Me In would have been better if it was exactly the same as the original. That would have worked out as a ballsy experiment, I think, but would have been boring for the people who already saw the Swedish version. It’s unfair to ask Matt Reeves to do a perfectly exact copy. What I would ask for instead is to do an actual adaptation and avoid being so close to the original so as to invite unkind comparisons. Let Me In is an Americanization, not an adaptation.

I have to ask if it’s a better film that is straightforward to the point of banality or one that is interestingly ambiguous and requires some real critical interpretative powers to fully appreciate. It seems clear to me that a rich film has thematic layers, where at least some things are implied rather than stated. Characters should be similarly layered.

If you agree with that kind of esthetic approach, Let Me In is not going to be the definitive version for you. I think that within the best objective estimation I can muster, it is certainly an inferior film. What it has going for it was almost all derived from the original. On its own terms, it has to justify its existence and even though the photography is nice, some performances and changes are winning, and that car crash sequence was fantastic… it simply doesn’t pass muster.