Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Girl Next Door: LET ME IN

The 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In was one of my absolute favorite films of that year. It’s also one of, if not the, finest horror film of the last ten years. It’s a perfect shiver of mood and tension. I certainly wasn’t approaching Let Me In, the Americanized remake, with anything resembling anticipation. The only thing that got me in the theater was my sense of curiosity. Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t say it’s necessary. After all, the original still exists and is still superior. What surprised me, though, is how, after an early adjusting period in which I was consciously comparing it to its predecessor, the film works on its own terms. If you’re going to remake a masterpiece, you might as well try for a masterpiece yourself. In this case, the remake crew very nearly got there.

Retaining most of the icy dread and hushed tones, writer-director Matt Reeves (of the underrated Cloverfield) pulls off a nifty feat of cultural transposition. Instead of harsh Swedish winter, the story now takes place in a chilly 1980’s winter in a small high-altitude New Mexico town. In Reeves’s telling, the setting becomes a harsh and homey landscape dotted with Regan-era iconography. Kodi Smit-McPhee is Owen, an intensely bullied, quiet, sullen 12-year-old. He’s pale and thin, painfully vulnerable. He’s feeling particularly disjointed because of his parent’s divorce. His mother (Cara Buono), mostly unseen, has become a convert of the right-wing Moral Majority. The cramped, dark apartment she shares with her son is covered with Christian iconography and echoes with the sounds of televangelists.

Owen imagines violent acts, seemingly inspired by his daily abuse at the hands of his peers and filtered through 80’s-era slasher flicks. Early in the film he takes a large knife from the kitchen and uses it in his playing. Brandishing the impromptu weapon while standing before his bedroom mirror with a Halloween mask covering his face, he asks his hypothetical victim “Are you scared?” Soon enough, real violence comes to town. A local teen goes missing and is found dead. The local policeman (Elias Koteas) warns that there is a murderer on the loose.

Owen is spying on the neighbors across the courtyard – echoes of Rear Window – when he sees new tenants moving in. They make a stark pair, a haunted, bespectacled middle-aged man (Richard Jenkins) and a pallid 12-year-old girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). The man disappears some nights seemingly intent on performing unknown tasks under cover of darkness. The girl, though, is quiet and brooding. She has dark eyes and high cheekbones; an eerie ageless sheen sits on her colorless, vampiric skin. She walks barefoot through the snow. Owen finds her intriguing.

Reeves skillfully manipulates tone while drawing excellent, evocative performances out of these very talented young actors. The hesitant friendship that develops between the two of them is palpably sweet yet tinged with danger. It can be moving and disturbing in the same instant. The tricky tone is handled impressively with great maturity and care. This is a vampire movie that never once stoops to easy explanations or belabored back-story. This is a hushed, creepy film that moves hairs on the back of the neck with impeccable sound design and an evocative Michael Giacchino score. It has dark, warm interior spaces of classrooms and apartments juxtaposed with the dry crunch of snow and the damp chill of a public pool. The environment is expertly rendered, the stage beautifully set for the sequences of artfully displayed violence.

In an attempt to avoid merely copying the great moments of horror and gore from the original film, the remake, which contains some small plot variation in addition to its continental shift, sometimes goes for quick, choppy terror of the modern Hollywood variety, complete with dubious CGI. I was much impressed, however, with moments of startling originality that Reeves was able to find. A mid-film murder gone wrong culminates in a car crash that unfolds in one long horrifying take, the camera locked down in the backseat as the car gets smashed and flipped as it skids off the road. Instead of going big and flashy, Reeves keeps things visceral but suggestive, a technique that serves the film well here and in other well-staged scenes.

Let Me In is like a very good cover of a great song. It’s memorable and worthwhile on its own. It doesn’t replace or overshadow the original version. It plays the same melody, but finds different ways to get there with little additions, small subtractions, and effective variations and shifts in emphasis. Audiences who walk in unaware of the film’s inspiration will find a compelling, original narrative. Audiences who walk in loving the original will find a solid new version of a recent favorite.

UPDATE: In the weeks after I saw the film I grew to love it even more. I am now of the opinion that this is the rare remake that is every bit as good as the original.

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