Thursday, 18 November 2010

Notes on why "Let Me In" is not "Let The Right One In"

Notes on why "Let Me In" is not "Let The Right One in"

When I was a boy, I would buy comics, read them and then, with my collection of felt tips, I would colour them in. It didn’t matter if they were black or white: if they were colour pictures, I would simply go over their red with my red, etc. What a hideous act of destruction, I think to myself in retrospect (those comics could have been worth loads now!). But it also appears to me that my act of vandalism was a side effect of coveting the artwork and stories I so enjoyed. With ruinous tools, I attempted to claim them for my own and, yes, perhaps even improve them. It also occurs to me now that this is much like the art of the remake.

There is no getting around comparisons with the original, and that’s why these words are going to be about why “Let Me In” is not “Let The Right One In”. This is only marginally different from damning one with contrast with the other, but I do want to distinguish that this is my agenda from the start. What we have is Thomas Alredson’s “Let The Right One In” being a masterpiece, the superior adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, and Matt Reeves’ decent version called “Let Me In” being an American remake of the Swedish film. In fact, the original’s instant classic reputation was/is still warm and spreading when “Let Me In” was made. I shall agree to a large extent with Victoria Large that “'Let Me In’ may be a song that you’ve heard before, but it still sounds great.” If “Let Me In” is a lesser version cashing in, it has only itself to blame, for that is predominantly the domain of the remake and the nature of the beast. Let this be less a straightforward takedown of a remake for not being the original, and more a exploration of why it isn’t. Reeves' film may be a different take on the novel, but it seems likely that it would never have been made if the Swedish film had not become such a cult success. Reeve’s film should not be condemned for any perceived lack of thorough fidelity to the source; making alterations and taking liberties does not automatically flaw an adaptation ~ Alfredson and Lindqvist left out entire chunks in their translation onto screen, after all. In fact, variations and liberties should be encouraged in the hope that they illuminate the original text. It is all about which choices and variations are made: will they illuminate, strengthen or sabotage and weaken?

The title: somehow, the abbreviation, or truncation, of the title is a big clue as to how “Let Me In” compares with its predecessor. “Let The Right One in” - thank you, Morrissey - as a phrase is full of ambiguity, suggestion and scope that “Let Me In”, as a title and film, does not possess. Once the remake was annouced, its pending inferiority was predicted, for the majority of sequels are anticipated to be so, and it does not disappoint on that score. “Let Me in” is certainly not a bad film, being engaging enough and a decent variation on the original tale, carrying a lot of atmosphere and seriousness; but anyone suspecting that a translation to American cinema would neuter much of its resonant detail will have their conjectures confirmed. “Let Me In” does little to dispel a widespread view that any Americanisation (i.e., Hollywoodisation) of a foreign film will simplify if not “dumb down” a more layered and intelligent original. Indeed, there is the infamous case of the terrible subtitling of "Let The Right One In" with the first Ameican DVD release, prime evidence that American translations tend towards "dumbing down" (and you should definitely look here at Fright to see how appallingly a non-English language film can be treated in translation).

And arguably, “Let Me In” does suffer from a neutering, a simplification of all the fascinating and discomforting elements of the Swedish originals, book and film. It is poorer because it is more average, in its adherence to a more traditional genre template, to the very tropes that the originals managed to a large extent to refresh. “Let Me In” is inferior in its persistent obviousness, in making much of the primary mystery explicit, in its more mediocre dialogue and black humour. It is lesser in the obviousness of its vampire make-up, in its recourse to CGI to assist in creating a more inhuman monster (and no, I am not letting “Let The Right One In" cat scene off the hook). Anyone immersed in both the horror and the coming-of-age genre will find things simply more conventional in a way that Alfredson’s film avoided. Reeves’ film is enjoyable, but often uncertain, often copying the Swedish predecessor, ditching the tricky stuff, lacking the challenges and true poignancy of the earlier film. “Let Me In” is more than passable as a remake, but it simply misses so much. Remakes have the difficult goals of both being faithful ~ which usually mean duplicating original material ~ and staking their own identity. One could look to the American remake of “The Ring” to see a remake that actually amplifies and successfully varies the scary tension of the original. Rob Zombie’s “Halloween”, for all its flaws, definitely justifies its alternative take on the original story and commands its own individuality. “Let Me In” simply does not diverge enough, or in an original fashion, and even on its own terms it comes over as too obvious. Everything is sign-posted and tagged. Michael Giacchino cues every response he thinks we ought to be experiencing as if scoring a more needy drama in need of emotional overstatement.

“Let Me In” includes nods to all the major points and characters of the original story ~ many crucial secondary characters are name-checked and pass by (listen for a mention of Tommy, a key character in the novel otherwise absent in both films) ~ but they are all swept away to focus on the young romance. Groan as Owen (previously Oskar) is reading “Romeo and Juliette” for school. But this narrowing down does not cause sharp focus: again simplification occurs. This means that Owen’s dyfunctional family is reduced to brief banal ‘they’re separated’ dialogue and squabbles. When Owen’s mother is propped next to a finished bottle of something ~ alcoholism playing a major part in “Let The Right One In” ~ here it looks like crass shorthand. Whereas “Let The Right One In” comes with a fine catalogue of side characters, the adult support in “Let Me In” mostly evaporate. So a woman goes up in flames (and in keeping with the film’s add more ethos, takes a nurse with her), but it’s simply a set-piece shocker, for we do not know her at all and we don’t care, we’re just suitably horrified. More shorthand: curious and investigative locals are replaced by a single generic Detective - gone is the sense that Oskar’s community has been left to rot, to fend for itself, that there is no protection from or effective law, that any horror can hide there.

In the original, the whole of Oskar’s frozen community seemed sodden with the scourge of alcoholism, an epidemic numbing all human affections, leaving them reeking of despair and dead ends ~ and that being the promise of Oskar’s future. I do not agree with David Jenkins that, in “Let The Right One In”, “eccentric characters are thrown in as story padding” (1): the stir crazy locals are crucial to Oskar’s alienation, his circumstances. In “Let Me In”, this is absent and loneliness and alienation is created by the sense that Owen barely even meets anyone. The backdrop somehow possesses none of the winter-chill eeriness of the original either: rather, the courtyard is bathed in light that is something between bright warm oranges and piss-yellows. This, although apparently caused by the courtyard lighting, seems an odd choice as it robs the story and film of its natural temperature. The one time the film really makes use of Winter is the remarkable image of a corpse in an ice block being pulled out of the lake. Otherwise it’s just footprints in snow.

All this, one can argue, is simply a shift in emphasis for a different market; others may see these details as evidence of “dumbing down”, the occasional uncertainty of tone I earlier accused “Let Me In” of.


When we first meet Oskar in “Let The Right One In”, he is toying with a penknife and, unforgettably, mimicking his tormentors at school ordering him to squeal, little piggy. When we find Owen indulging in this, he is emulating how his persecutors call him a girl. The shift is striking: it evokes homophobia and the denigration of the feminine: they try to verbally castrate him. How very American a translation. Less abstract, primal, and less evocative. This Are you a girl? insult and provocation ends up carrying all the gender confusion that the original novel finds so crucial. (2) In the novel, it is as if Lyndquist wants to push his young loners beyond gender, so that their friendship transcends the problems of gender and social relations. The novel also has a more difficult and distressing portrayal of sexual monsters that could never be fully moved onto the screen. Consequently, for example, Hakan ~ Eli’s adult protector and the most problematic character who, in prose, carries a horror that outdoes Eli’s vampirism ~ is almost entirely devoid of complexity or character in “Let Me In”. All the ickiness has been carefully, surgically removed. Eli is now simply a vampire girl. Hell, Owen even keeps his pyjama top on when Eli comes to seek chaste comfort from him in bed.

If it was not for Chloe Moretz ~ still fully hyped from "Kick Ass" ~ it is easy to imagine that Abby (previously Eli) would also become very vapid by comparison. (3) There is good stuff between her and Kodi Smitt-McPhee as Owen (still hyped from his turn in "The Road") ~ a nice retro-moment in an '80s arcade ~ but as competent as these young actors are, they are left a little stranded with mostly unchallenging dialogue and an unevenness of tone. They don’t feel as iconic and a right as Hadebrant and Leandersson. Their playfulness is lost. They have the loneliness, but not the tangible fury and despair of the original, because “Let Me In” is missing that breadth of context; it is afraid to allow Abby and Owen the full range of what and who they truly are, and the film simply lets them drift through, actors struggling for bearing, plot dragging them towards the conclusion when so much of it should be guided by their characters. When Owen discovers the truth about Abby, it comes as a total shock to him, for beforehand he has not really been shown to have suspicions about his new friend; the element of an impending Faustian pact of sorts that must be made just to gain friendship, that too is vague. Trampled apparently by the romanticism of “Romeo and Juliette”, their relationship has the gore but lacks the chilling revelation that the need for friendship can be a horrifying force.

We are never afraid of Owen, but this is less due to Smitt-McPhee’s abilities than this reduction of the key relationship being put down to simple adolescent loneliness. With Oskar, as played by Kare Hedebrant and his terrible hair in the Swedish adaptation, we felt that his consummate alienation and torment at the hands of others make him a potential psychopath in the making. It is that piggy stuff: he mimics his tormenters so furiously and bitterly. When he hits his bully across the head with a branch, we might feel he has crossed a dangerous line, but one that was always a part of him. He got a kick from it and we feel he wants more. Oskar relishes. He is, we feel, reaching his full potential. When Owen does it, it is simply self-defence: no real moral complexities are evident; his soul is barely at stake. Even providing Owen with a little “Rear Window” voyeurism early on doesn’t ultimately trouble his character. It is worth quoting Matt Reeves himself (still respected from Cloverfield) to demostrate that he gets so much of what Oskar is about, and yet cannot carry this over so very clearly and starkly in Owen, who is a far more pacif, rudderless character:

"...there's something very interesting about a 12 year old boy growing up in a world where he's bullied so mercilessly that he deserves revenge but he does not know what to do about it. He's so helpless, and how could he not be? He's only human. He has those feelings. And yet the world around him is telling him those are evil thoughts and that they mean he is evil.Because there's none of that within us, we are fundamentally good. And wouldn't he not understand any of that and feel lost?" (4)

This sounds interesting, a summary of a fully formed character and context. But this is not particularly the character of Owen that we meet. We do not really see him being told that his thoughts of revenge are evil. Keeping this quote in mind, when Owen calls his father and asks if he believes in evil (neatly, the father is so self-obsesses he thinks this is just Owen's mother poisoning the boy against him), perhaps we are meant to sense Owen's confusion about his own desire for violent revenge, although it is all so vague that we might feel he is simply referring to Abby, who he has discovered to be inhuman. This reference to "evil" also seems paricularly American, as if American horror can only see monsters and violence in terms of an abstract, religious context, which the original sources are very particular about side-stepping. But Owen's reference to "evil" is a non-starter and barely contributes to what comes after.

What Reeves does offer that is new is something not found in either the novel or the Swedish adaptation: in place of an eerie, distressing locker room scene, a botched murder attempt, we get an action set-piece: it is a fairly breath-taking and scary car crash as viewed from within the vehicle, and it is probably the only truly original and virtuoso set-piece “Let Me In” has. The other set-pieces mostly copy, paste and add more gore. In his “Little White Lies” review, Adam Woodward waxes that “Let Me In” is “bloody and unabashed”; that the “eerie quietude so deftly composed by its predecessor is here ousted by bloodcurdling screams and eye-watering violence” (5). Perhaps I am jaded from too many modern European and Asian ‘extreme’ horrors, but I cannot say I saw much of the bloodcurdling, the screaming and eye-watering violence, or no more than the average modern horror. Nevertheless, “Let Me In” is probably bloodier than "Let The Right One In". By the time we get to the pool scene, wondering if perhaps this version will be able to pull out a different angle, what we get instead are a thick wodge of horror orchestra and simply more limbs and blood in the pool, and therefore none of the sheer originality of Alfredson’s careful use of sound, angle and hints. So of course it would be possibly impossible to out-do the original pool scene ~ a total, horror classic ~ but to simply trace over the original and add more bloodiness… was that even trying? Sometimes more blood simply seems desperate. And here, again, Reeves misses the tiny details that mean everything: the apparent and increasing confusion of cruelty and conscience of the main bully’s henchmen; the way Eli leaves just one alive, traumatised. And then, in closing somehow, someway, the brilliant openness and ambiguity of the original ending feels narrowed, somehow explained and less troubling (and Hakan’s birthmark is another groan-worthy cue that undoes much of the mystery once it appears in some old photos Owen sees). It has less resonance because the rest is a more confirming, more straightforward telling of a modern classic. And then the strings swell.

It has to be said that Giacchino’s score is a terrible offender. It cues in every emotion, every horror as if worried we just aren’t getting the undercurrents. And in that score, as well as the abbreviated title, we find everything that “Let The Right One In” was not.


It must be noted that "Let Me In" is the first film from the revived Hammer Studio Brand. Not a bad start, even if it seems a safe bet to cash in on a previous established title. Hammer was, after all, a certain kind of exploitation. Welcome back then. Better than Amicus' return with "It's Alive".

(1) David Jenkins review for “Let The Right One In”, Time Out Film Guide 2011, (ed. John Pym, Time Out Guides Ltd, London, 2010) pg. 609

(2) One friend called this version of the knifing-the-tree scene embarrassing, badly acted and executed.

(3) Another friend feels that Moretz is badly cast and that this scuppers the whole film.

(4) Matt Reeves interview by Jonathan Crocker, Little White Lies Magazine, issue 32 nov/dec. pg. 76

(5) Adam Woodward, "Let Me In" review, Little White Lies Magazine, issue 32 nov/dec 2010, pg.77

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