'Let' This One In
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Remakes of classics usually suck.
A mutant thing like Rob Zombie's "Halloween" just leeches off a real artist's singular style and vision. So it seemed well-nigh sacrilegious that Matt Reeves, who perpetrated the con-artistry of "Cloverfield," should be tapped to make an unnecessary American version of "Let the Right One In," 2008's exquisite Swedish vampire movie. Yet, astonishingly, "Let Me In" shows Reeves had the smarts to identify and appropriate everything that made the original film so moving and visually memorable. Even better, he invigorates this faithful reproduction with remarkably effective contributions of his own. And Reeves' cast, especially Kodi Smit-McPhee ("The Road"), Chloë Grace Moretz ("Kick-Ass") and Richard Jenkins ("Eat Pray Love"), don't put a foot wrong.
Though transplanted from present-day Stockholm to Los Alamos, N.M., in 1983, "Let Me In" is just as actually and existentially cold and snowy as the original film. From the first, grabby shot -- hot, flashing lights of cop car and ambulance curving through dim, snow-covered hills -- we feel as if the chill, alien dark might at any moment swallow up every sign of human succor and safety. Like its progenitor, the film immerses us in a climate of pervasive dread, not through CGI and gross-out horror, but through imaginative camerawork, composition and color palette. What we see in any given frame and how we see it keeps edging us, with subtle insistence, into a world of terrible beauty.
When 12-year-old Owen (Smit-McPhee) plays "Rear Window" with his bedroom telescope, peering into the apartment courtyard below, the lonely kid eats up "framed" human life, interiors roseate with warmth, light and sometimes sex. The nocturnal landscape outside those windows is otherworldly, muffled in snowfall and dread. And that's where Owen, cruelly bullied by vicious classmates, straps on a frightening melted-face mask and lets his rage loose, repeatedly knifing a tree. And out there by the jungle gym, Owen encounters and begins to fall for an odd-smelling girl in bare feet (Moretz) who is also 12, "more or less."
Together with Owen and his vampire crush, "Let Me In" forces us Outside -- outcast from warm interiors, safety, community, mundane definitions of good and evil. This is a film that knows how much we all want to be let in; the desire is hardly reserved for vampires hungry for a nosh. But isolation's more often than not humanity's fate, and Reeves deliberately shoots his variously lost souls behind or through glass, doors or windows -- the kind of partitioning ice that suits the film's existential snow.
In one of the most horrific, pulse-pounding sequences -- a directorial addition -- two men battle brutally in a darkened car, while we gaze through plate glass at convenience store shoppers, oblivious to anything outside the light. Then, Reeves pulls an authentic tour de force, trapping us inside that out-of-control car, blinded by bright white lights outside the window, slammed around by collision, skid and downhill tumble. It is not a fun ride.
So, make no mistake, "Let Me In" delivers on visceral pity and terror. Certain horrific images are indelibly etched in memory: In freezing night air, steam rising from fresh blood; a boogeyman with a Hefty bag over his head, mad eyes staring out of scissored holes; a spider-crab "thing" scrabbling, in fast motion, all over a hapless victim; the door inexorably closing on a bloody hand outstretched for help.
But what really deepens Reeves' Romeo and Juliet vampire movie is the Dantean melancholy that lies at its heart. Does that sound pretentious? Hope not, 'cause it's apt. We experience Owen's seduction as he does, fresh and new, the most exciting thing that's ever happened to this friendless child. His exotic BFF pays attention to him, unlike the mother whose face is never seen in frame; connects with him, as the father on the other end of the phone line does not.
But it's the wonderfully subtle Richard Jenkins who adjusts our emotional focus: Abby's "keeper" wears the weary expression of a Sisyphus, doomed to provide food and shelter for his beloved until he dies. During a tender moment in their largely burned-out liaison, Jenkins pleads: "Please don't see that boy again." At that terrible moment, we grasp that once this aging husk was "that boy," and that there have been many lonely little boys -- and will be many more to come -- seduced by the genderless creature who will remain 12 as they grow old and all the love drains out of their symbiotic bond. Does Abby feel joy each time a new boy toy lets her in? Or has her innocence long since died -- cue "Oops, I Did It Again," Richard Thompson's version -- so that, like Dante's dead sinners, this vampire Lolita is condemned to repeat her dreary ritual forever?
Riddle me that, 'Twilight'ers!
Kat Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and websites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.