Who’s the Real Monster?

Fans of the Swedish film, Let the Right One In (2008), a fresh take on the vampire genre, expressed frustration, to put it mildly, over plans for an American re-make of the film.   These were not unfounded concerns given that American re-makes often fail to capture the nuance of the source material…or are simply just not as good.  Even more frustrating is that Let the Right One In is nearly a perfect film.  Thankfully, while not quite as good as the original, Let Me In, Matt Reeves‘ remake is still a really good film that works on a few different levels given its American context.

The film closely follows Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a twelve-year-old boy living with his mother in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the early ’80s.  He spends his school days cowering in fear of the resident bullies, Kenny (Dylan Minnette), Mark (Jimmy Pinchak), and Donald (Nicolai Dorian).  In the afternoons and evenings, he hangs out alone in his apartment’s courtyard eating candy and spying on the neighbors a la Jeff Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) in Rear Window (1954).  His alcoholic, fundamentally religious mother isn’t really in the picture (neither the film nor her son’s life), and the filmmakers do a wonderful job of conveying her present absence.  Life trudges on for Owen until new neighbors, a young girl named Abby (Chloe Moretz) and an older man who appears to be her father (Richard Jenkins), move in next door.  From the start, Abby warns Owen that they cannot be friends, but his quiet personality and dire loneliness gradually draw the two together.  He soon learns what we’ve known all along, that Abby is more than she appears.  She is in fact a vampire.  She’s been, as she tells Owen, twelve for a really long time.  The older man that accompanies her is not her father, but something of a guardian and a protector…as if she needs it.  He provides Abby what she needs so that she doesn’t have to do it herself even though, as we occasionally see in the film, she is more than capable of feeding herself.  Abby empowers and saves the nerdy Owen…perhaps as she did for her current guardian decades before…and gains a new companion in the process.

Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) exercises his rage.

Let Me In has some wonderful cinematography that not only captures the bleakness of the setting and Abby and Owen’s situation, but also seems to be a throwback to the horror films of the late ’70s and early ’80s.  From the opening titles of fading in red titles and an ominous score, we know the filmmakers get it.  When Abby becomes painfully hungry, she begins to look like the possessed Regan (Linda Blair) from The Exorcist (1973), betraying her old age.  The acting here is quite good, especially by the two leads who garner equal measures of sympathy and fear from the audience.  The only shortcomings are the script and some of the more technical aspects like the audio and special effects.  Where Let the Right One In seemed to downplay some of its killings, Let Me In relishes in its grisly murders.  For example, the memorable pool scene at the conclusion of the film is ironically more haunting in the original because the filmmakers downplay the carnage.  The re-make sounds as if Grendel has made his way into the film.

Like most vampire films, Let Me In is about desire, craving, and repression.  It is about human beings and the other.  Like Twilight, it is also about sexuality, yet on a more complex level.  It is about good and evil…and this is perhaps where, given the high religiosity of its American setting, Let Me In works better than Let the Right One In.  Reeves seems to understand how to exploit this aspect of the film’s setting for thematic value.  In a hospital waiting room, we hear Ronald Reagan give a speech in which he quotes Alexis de Toqueville talking about the goodness of America.  Reagan says something to the effect of, “When America ceases to be good, the world is in trouble,” but the scene fades out before he can finish.  Owen’s mom prays at mealtimes for God to protect them from evil, but she passes out drunk to televangelists and is oblivious to the evil surrounding her son on a daily basis.  She and Reagan fail to realize that evil is not something wholly other, whether outside a country or a person, and here, the school bullies evidence as much.  Compared to Kenny and his crew, it is difficult to regard Abby as purely evil…how, after all, did she become a vampire?  The bullies are far more senselessly brutal.  Abby regrets her position, but the bullies embrace theirs, finding joy in the torture.  What’s even worse is that they don’t have violent video games to blame for their behavior, unless Pac Man is far more threatening than we thought.  When Owen finally strikes back at his oppressors, he hits hard.  Of course, viewers might quickly blame Abby for telling him to hit back in the first place, but had he not, he could have very well died or suffered permanent damage from his oppressors’ abuse.  The violence he enacts is the very violence that Mark and his cronies enacted upon him…in fact, he repeats their taunts as he stabs a tree with a pocket knife or acts out his fantasies in front of a mirror (above).

Owen might be wary of Abby (Chloe Moretz), but she's nothing like his classmates.

Let Me In comes out at a perfect time when news of bullying, cyber-bullying, and gay teen suicide abounds.  Kenny’s insults to Owen smack of homophobia, even as he repeatedly tells Owen to undress so they can see whether or not he is actually a girl.  The film does a fantastic job of conveying the pain and rage that bullied adolescents and closeted teens feel on a regular basis that could lead to retaliation or suicide.  Let Me In seems to suggest that it is preposterous to even begin speaking about the goodness of a country, especially when we cannot speak of the basic goodness of a single person.  It is all so much more complex.

In his review of the film for The New York Times, A. O. Scott makes an interesting point.  He writes, “The title of ‘Let Me In’ might be understood as a plea to the audience.  Even if you think you’ve had enough of the vampirization of popular culture — ‘Twilight,’ ‘True Blood,’ ‘The Vampire Diaries’ and so on — find room in your heart for this one.  And though it teases out the usual horror movie sensations of dread and anxiety and eyes-averted disgust, this movie also makes a direct and disarming play for affection, eliciting in viewers something akin to the awkward, resilient tenderness that is its subject.”  In the end, Let Me In is just a fine film that happens to feature a vampire, but it is about so much more.  Don’t let the precious few scenes of blood and gore (above) turn you off.

Let Me In (115 mins.) is rated R for strong, bloody horror violence, language, and a brief sexual situation and is in theaters everywhere.