I know fans of the original were extremely skeptical of the American adaptation of Let the Right One In. American versions are almost always inferior, dumbed-down versions for dumbed-down Amurricans too lazy or stupid to be want to “read” their movies. I was one of the people who saw the Swedish film in its original release in theatres, and discovered a real horror gem. Unfortunately, to this day, if you’ve seen the foreign version anywhere but in its original theatrical release, what you’ve witnessed is an awful, bastardized version with subtitles that make absolutely no sense. For some reason, for the DVD release, the subtitles were redone by a different company than the one who provided the subtitles for the theatrical print, and there still hasn’t been a copy issued to correct this. So if you’ve watched Let the Right One In on DVD or streaming on-line, because of these horridly botched subtitles alone, Let Me In is a far superior experience. Google around a bit to see the comparison between the different subtitle versions and just how badly the DVD/streaming version was mismanaged, and how the meaning behind much of the dialogue, not to mention most of the subtext, was changed or even eliminated due to poor translation and often even an absence of subtitles for sentences at a time.
Subtitle issues aside, I’m here to report that other than for about 2 minutes of Let Me In, this is that rare American remake that stands shoulder-to-shoulder alongside the European original. Those few seconds where it falters? That would be the substandard special effects employed when Abby attacks several victims, climbing up their bodies and hopping around on their shoulders like a bad rendering out of I Am Legend. Sometimes less is more, people. If you can’t realistically capture the animal-like movement you’re going for, just put it in shadows and let the audience’s imagination fill in the parts that would otherwise look choppy and unnatural.
I’m just going to put it out there and say I believe that Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield was nothing short of brilliant. Some people cast the film aside as a movie wrapped around a cheap gimmick, but in typical Bad Robot fashion, everything about the movie was so well thought-out and produced, that there was really no doubt in my mind Reeves had the goods. Watching Cloverfield was watching the arrival of a major American filmmaking talent, a guy who has matured a hell of a long way since the days of Felicity. Which made his next project something I was eagerly anticipating. When he was first announced as the director behind the American remake of Let the Right One In, I knew we were in for something special. Production notes and interviews throughout the filmmaking process made it very clear that this wasn’t simply Reeves taking a shot at confirming himself as big blockbuster talent, but that his interest in the story was intensely personal. In fact, he’s set the story in the same time and location as his early teenage years, and there are many details, such as the Now and Laters, that are taken directly from his own childhood. There’s a parallel between the way the young protagonists in both versions of the film have been abandoned by adult society and are left to find their own way, and what became very widespread in the United States beginning in the 1980’s when families stopped fearing divorce in quite the same way that they had previously, and detonated nuclear families began to be almost more commonplace than not. Lost between two ineffective part-time parents who were often too busy trying to sort through their own personal heartbreaks and mid-life crises, so many children of the 80’s became latchkey kids left to raise themselves. The world of Let Me In feels so authentic and in-keeping with the tone of the Swedish film that it’s easy to assume much of it is a shot-for-shot remake, but it’s not. It’s just that the isolation, loneliness, and confusion has been so ably transplanted to its new time and setting that none of the power of those emotions has been lost in that translation.
In fact, there are a couple of details the American version vastly improves upon. First off is the relationship between Abby and her guardian. In the original Swedish version, we begin the film thinking that he is her father, and it’s not until late in the film that it begins to become vaguely apparent that he’s only caring for her, likely in love with her, probably a now-grown version of a boy who used to be in Oskar’s shoes, and weary at having lived the prospect-less life of a murderer in the service of a friend who is now no longer much of a friend, but only duty. All of this is kept very close to the vest, only vaguely hinted at, and even requires some degrees of assumption and leaps of logic. The American remake changes this from foggy subtext to a more immediate emotional reality. Yet, it’s not the case of a simple American dumbing-down or spelling something out that people might not pick up on their own. In my opinion, all of this was genuinely too vague in the original. There’s just so much emotional resource there, and there’s also a rich parallel between this older character and the man that Oskar (or Owen, in Let Me In) will become. Having a clearer definition and deeper portrayal of the relationship with her current guardian also illustrates more vividly where that Oskar-Eli relationship (or Owen-Abby in the remake) is headed. In the Swedish film, it’s possible to believe that Oskar has somehow scored a victory in escaping his loveless home for a life on the road with his new undead friend. The relationship between the two is so strong, and the affection of it so focused on, with much of the adult world and its working held at arm’s length, that we’re seeing things almost exclusively through the childrens’ eyes in a way that is ultimately restrictive. It’s possible to get a bit lost in their point of view and to even believe what Oskar believes. The victory over the bullies at the end of the film becomes something almost heroic, and despite the foreboding of his situation, it feels like an improvement for Oskar in some ways. He’s learned to defend himself, stick up for himself, to not be a victim. But in the remake, having some of these relationships and details more visible allows us a much clearer picture of the tragedy that Owen’s life will become. And even though Abby may choose to play self-denial and not acknowledge this as a result of her own need for friendship and love, the fact that she is temporarily using Owen and is aware of this becomes more obvious. In the Swedish version, we’re left with two children, even though one is part-monster, on the run together. In the American version, the darker implications and Owen’s existence as a now-permanent victim are much more clear, opening a whole other world of associated grey areas that doesn’t exist so much in the Swedish version. Owen is not stronger in any way at all; he remains a victim, Abby’s victim. And he hasn’t really learned to stick up for himself, he’s simply learned to commit violence, and to kill– skills that Abby has seduced out of him that will aid Owen in his employ to Abby. Both films portray a child mistaking a monster for a friend, and the titles of both films are all about that moment where a vampire needs permission to enter one’s home. The journey of these films are about taking that one step further, and allowing the monster into your heart. But Let Me In is more front-and-center about the full significance of this decision and the dozens of tributaries of darkness that bleed out from it.
The other major difference is the way the Oskar/Owen home life is depicted. In the Swedish version, Oskar’s mother is miserable after her divorce, but she’s struggling to hold it together a little better. And Oskar’s father is actually in the film; Oskar goes and visits him for a weekend and has a pretty good time sledding and hanging out with his dad. So even though the home life is fractured, it’s still somewhat human and relatable, and has pockets of positivity within the tragedy. We get the sense that these people are having a tough time, but that ultimately Oskar is still loved. In the American remake, Owen’s mother has retreated into a haze of alcoholism and is never without a wine glass. She moves through the apartment like a zombie, not able to cook Owen anything other than mac and cheese. Not exactly proper nutrition for a growing kid. She can’t relate to him in any way, doesn’t even try to keep it together, and I don’t believe we ever even see her face. Other than a hand with a wine glass setting down plates of mac and cheese, she’s essentially a faceless, formless adult taken from one of the Peanuts’ animated specials. As for Owen’s father, there’s no trip to the country to have a few good-natured laughs in Let Me In. The most we get is a phone call that lasts a few seconds where his father is more concerned about how drunk and incompetent Owen’s mother is, and doesn’t even seem to notice how emotionally distraught and divorced from reality Owen has become. Again, all of this contributes to a darker tone portraying Owen as a hopeless victim with no chance at a functional future and no escape from a barren emotional wasteland slowly eroding his soul. There’s even a scene early on in the American version with Owen wielding a knife while wearing a disturbing Halloween mask and posing shirtless in front of a mirror. This image is much darker and more portentous than anything in the Swedish film, and it happens before Owen has even met Abby. It’s proof that with or without Abby in his life, Owen is already walking down a dark road and may, in fact, already be beyond return; a result of his having been completely emotionally abandoned by both parents, and beginning to live a life with no moral compass or guidance when he most needs direction.
For my money, both of these aspects enrich the American version and add more layers and texture to the story. They cultivate a darker, heavier tone both to the film and to Owen’s future, or lack of it. And ultimately they add much more food for thought for the audience. Both films feature a pair of fantastic child actors, and it’s a real testament to Matt Reeves and both his understanding of the material and his vision as a filmmaker that he kept his casting choices left-of-center. I think the primary concern when the American remake was announced was that a pair of chipper little Hollywood chipmunks would be cast and it would just destroy any emotional reality of the remake. Chloe Moretz may be a Hollywood sensation now after Kick-Ass, but this movie was filmed before Kick-Ass premiered. And whether she’s becoming well-known now or not, she’s genuinely talented and able to deliver performances that are wise beyond her years, yet not Hollywood-snarky, but grounded in a mature and honest emotional reality. And Kodi Smit-McPhee, who was a revelation in The Road alongside Viggo Mortensen, is anything other than your typical Hollywood kid. He’s awkward and odd-looking, almost like an alien child with big eyes and spindly arms and legs. This isn’t the sort of kid actor Christopher Columbus would cast in Mrs. Doubtfire XIX after watching reels from grape juice commercials. And really, with Elias Koteas and Richard Jenkins rounding out the primary cast as the two central adult roles, you can’t ask for a better group of actors.
But Reeves not only cast Let Me In to perfection, it’s obvious his communication with actors is top-notch from the performances he’s elicited. And he’s the rare director who’s able to pair communication and a skill with working with actors with a genuinely inspired visual flair. Let Me In looks spectacular, but always in a way that serves the emotional needs of the story. I don’t think that anyone could have asked for anything more from this movie, or from an American adaptation in general (well, except for those few underwhelming effects shots). Let Me In appears to have been overlooked in theatres for a variety of reasons, ranging from its dark tone and hard R rating, to Cloverfield backlash, to Let the Right One In purists scaring away some of the potential audience. And it’s a shame, because I think this is bound to become a classic and deeply appreciated over time. It’s one of the best major studio releases of the last year, easily in the top 10 of 2010, and deserves to be included in the same lists as Shutter Island, Inception, and The Social Network. And in a year where Nolan’s Inception has become the bar to which all else is measured, it’s worth noting that Let Me In is a far better American adaptation than was Nolan’s above average Insomnia.
Footnote: with his ability to deftly handle everything from actors, mood, and theme, to visuals, it’s a shame Reeves lost out on directing the Nolan-produced Superman reboot to ADD, jumpcut-crazed, fanboy-wankmaster Zach Snyder. Do we really need to see a 4th version of 300/Watchmen/Sucker Punch just because it includes a Superman logo on one of the character’s chests?