Those who read the synopsis for LET ME IN and aren't familiar with the Swedish film on which it is based, will be forgiven to think "Well, isn't it just TWILIGHT in reverse, with the girl as the vampire instead?" That's what goes to show you that two films can be what you'd call "vampire movies," yet totally different in their approach. While the TWILIGHT saga is more aimed at the majority of teenagers who don't like to think too hard and whose favorite channels are the CW and MTV, the more sullen, atmospheric LET ME IN is aimed at those of us looking for a deeper form of entertainment. The film may be a near-copy of the Swedish movie it's based on, but it adds enough spice of its own to certain moments that make this a worthy curiosity. Add two terrific performances from child actors and you've got a worthwhile cinematic experience.
Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a 12-year-old boy who lives with his mother in a boring New Mexico town. It seems that there was a recent fight between his parents, because Owen's dad is missing in action, and any time he calls the house, we hear the parents arguing over the phone. Owen is very lonely, and to make matters worse, he gets bullied viciously at school, all because of his somewhat feminine looks (he clearly hasn't reached puberty yet). But Owen may have just found a new friend. Some new neighbors have moved into Owen's apartment building: an old man (Richard Jenkins) lives next door with Abby (Chloe Moretz) who looks to be about Owen's age. Owen and Abby soon start getting to know each other. Their conversations are particularly sullen, and they also have a twinge of mystery to them, because as both Owen and the audience can tell, something's off with Abby. The film wastes no time in informing us that she is actually a vampire and that the old man is in charge of venturing out to kill people (often young, attractive guys, for some reason) in order to drain the blood from them and bring it to Abby. But Abby's not the stereotype of the evil, demonic being we've seen in other vampire films - we can tell that she genuinely cares about Owen. But will Owen still feel as deeply as he does for Abby if and when he discovers what she really is?
In adapting the Swedish film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, the makers of LET ME IN have decided to add more spice to the gory/violent scenes. None of the additions are significant in a way that they depart heavily from what happens in the original, though, which is a great decision on the filmmakers' part. They've accomplished something I didn't think possible: they've made an Americanized version of a foreign film, but they haven't Americanized it to the point of dumbing it down for us, which is exactly what happens with nearly all remakes. Despite the slight changes, LET ME IN is aimed at the exact same crowd who would enjoy the original. That crowd is the type that enjoys more a more sensitive, less in-your-face approach than the one the "Twihards" prefer.
Perhaps because of how unflinchingly faithful this American version is to the original, it's got the same predominant flaw. The scenes of dialogue between Owen and Abby are terrific, all emotionally-immersive scenes, and the performances make them even better, and the more violent moments in which Abby has no choice but to find herself a prey are also wonderfully intense. The problem is that, in between all of those scenes, we've got the moments in which Owen gets bullied, and those moments are handled way too conventionally in both films. The bullies who have made Owen their target are portrayed as one-dimensional villains, and the contrivances involved every time that they "catch" Owen doing something that leads them to target him certainly aren't helpful. Take, for instance, the predictable moment in which Owen is smiling because one of his bullies got what he deserved from someone else, and the bully happens to spot Owen among the crowd, and responds with a cliched furious glare. The "bullying scenes" make LET ME IN feel like a movie with some great unconventional, atmospheric moments that is mired with a few scenes that were taken from a typical high school movie. Oh, and for those of you who think there aren't any movies out there that have refused to make their 12-year-old bullies one-dimensional, I suggest watching BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and MEAN CREEK.
Of the few moments in which LET ME IN departs from what occurs in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, there's only one that is handled poorly. This involves the series of events that lead up to the old man getting caught while trying to kill a human prey for Abby. In LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, this moment takes place almost entirely in a bathroom, and it's handled in a nicely atypical manner, with the suspense being constantly palpable. In LET ME IN, we get an extended sequence that starts at a gas station and then leads to a car chase. There's nothing really wrong with it, but it's simply not as interesting. For some reason, in the original film, it feels easier for the audience to secretly root for the old man to successfully kill the guy and get the blood and get away with it, whereas here I don't think that feeling is quite as concrete.
Of course, as many complaints as I have about the bullying aspect of the movie, we need the "hook" of the bullying theme in order to arrive at the fantastically horrifying climactic scene, which takes place in a pool. It's the best kind of violently heroic moment, because you can gasp in terror at it while also cheering at the top of your lungs for it. When I watched the original in 2008, it was easily the most shocking scene in a film that I saw that year. Because LET ME IN is almost identical to LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, the moment isn't as surprising here, but that doesn't take away from how impressively visceral it is.
Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz are very likely the current cream of the crop of American actors their age. The amazing thing is that, as young as they both are, they've actually already displayed their talent elsewhere. Smit-McPhee gave a courageous performance in last year's unabashedly gloomy THE ROAD, while Moretz was great at being two different forms of precocious, first in (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, and then in this year's KICK-ASS, which will easily be one of 2010's most memorable performances. In LET ME IN, Smit-McPhee is perfect in his depiction of lonely vulnerability, and he's particularly good during his moments of apprehension as he comes closer to discovering more and more about Abby. As for Moretz, despite the fact that we've got it in the back of our minds that Abby's a vampire, there's never a moment in which the young actress doesn't make us see her character as a thoroughly human, conflicted being. We better see more of these two kids in the next few years. If Hollywood cared more about good filmmaking than about money, they'd take the funds away from the people working on the Justin Bieber film, and use it so that actors like Smit-McPhee and Moretz can star in more films.
LET ME IN may have its missteps and it may be too obviously faithful to the film that inspired it, but it's still worth seeking out, regardless of whether or not you've seen LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. If anything, this film is a good model of how NOT to ruin things when you decide to go about doing a remake.