It is impossible to come to Let Me In without preconceptions. Preconceptions based on the original movie on which this is based, and also preconceptions based on Hollywood’s previous track records on remakes. It is bad enough when Hollywood remakes its own movies decades later – but when it gets its hands on foreign films and remakes them just a few years later then your average film fan has to be worried.
This film has an interesting history. It is based on a Swedish film Lat den ratte komma in (Let the Right One In) which was released in 2008 to international acclaim. Based on a novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist, it tells the story of a pre-adolescent boy growing up in a non-descript suburb, and the strange girl that comes into his life.. What surprises about this remake is that it follows the original story extremely faithfully – often even framing shots in precisely the same way.
Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is 12 years old, and growing up in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He is a strange young lad, given to spying on his neighbours – even when they are having sex. He is therefore the first one to notice when a strange couple move in next door. This couple is 12 year old Abby (Chloe Moretz) and her “father” (Richard Jenkins). Owen is being bullied at school and is a loner – cut off from the world and his mother, who is divorced from his father. When playing outside one day he meets Abby properly for the first time – and the two outsiders quickly form a bond, despite her insisting that they can’t be friends. He helps her engage with humanity, and she helps build up his self-confidence to the extent that he feels he can strike back against his tormenters.
I came to the original film a few months before release, when it was featured in Empire. Luckily, living in Norwich we are pretty well served for cinema so we were fortunate to get a screening. Some found the original a little too slow but I found it haunting and emotional. Reading the source novel shortly afterwards, it was interesting how faithful an adaptation the film was – discarding just one key part (which would have looked silly on film) and instead staying true, even retaining the true nature of the girl (beyond her obvious vampirism).
Let One In is a remake of the film, and therefore makes the same key changes to the book that the original does. However, despite how amazingly faithful it is – it does make a key and subtle change. Those who know the book and the original film will know the true nature of the girl and her relationship with her “father”. The original does not shy away from this, but perhaps that would be too far to expect a Hollywood movie to go. In addition, in order to get the point across in the original a shot was necessary which must have been borderline illegal. Because of this it was necessarily brief – and many missed the point completely (I had to explain it to the people I saw it with). The remake, therefore, changes this whole situation completely. It changes the whole character of Abby, and her relationship with her “father”. If I was told this without seeing it, I would probably be up in arms – but the fact is that a truly great piece of art can be reinterpreted and that is what happens here. The interesting thing is that this change in her nature actually changes her whole relationship with Owen and how he relates to her. It is a fascinating change, and it works extremely well. It keeps the core of the original film intact whilst changing it cleverly.
The performances in this film are outstanding all the way through. Kodi Smit-McPhee has already shown us this year what an outstanding young actor he is with his performance in The Road and he lives up to that promise here. He delivers a performance of unparalleled range – from the cold, removed character at the beginning to the emotional wreck that he becomes at the end. He has the unnatural ability to portray an emotion just with the eyes, a simple glance or slight facial change rather than going ridiculously over the top. We have already had Chloe Moretz burst onto our screen as HitGirl in kick-ass this year, and here she is totally different. Reigned in from the start, cold emotionless and burdened with the cares of centuries – it is a performance that belies her tender years. The two of them spark off each other believably – and deliver performances of maturity way beyond their years.
Cleverly, Owen’s father only ever appears as a voice at the end of a telephone and his mother’s face is never seen so there are only really two adult characters of note. The major one is Elias Koteas as The Policeman who begins to suspect the true motivation behind events. He has a minimal role, but still does extremely well – managing to portray a sympathetic nature despite few lines of dialogue. The “Father” is played by Richard Jenkins and is the only character who is markedly different to how he is in the original. In the first film he deserved his fate and was therefore not someone who the audience ever felt sorry for. However, here he is completely different and is much more of a sympathetic character. The performance by Richard Jenkins is beautifully nuanced – and the fact that Owen is essentially auditioning to replace him adds a greater pathos to the story.
The film is directed by Matt Reeves, the director of Cloverfield. That the remake works out so well is obviously down to the talent but also to the brilliance of Reeve’s work here. He seems to truly understand the original, and paces the remake superbly. He refuses to pander to a modern audience and retains the chilly atmosphere and slow pace of the original. He allows characters to develop naturally, frames his shots beautifully, shows an intelligence behind the story (the idea of never showing Owen’s mothers face is a masterstroke), and marks himself as a major talent to watch with this film. It would have been very easy with a vampire movie to focus on the blood and gore, the action and the set pieces. But Reeves has no interest in this side of the film. Instead he provides the audience with a character and mood piece – that maintains the same focus of the original whilst trimming some of the fat (the ridiculous cat scene, for example, has been excised) and never once letting his grip of the audience relax. When the set pieces come, Reeves doesn’t pull back from the shock and the gore (how this got a 15 rating I don’t know), but he doesn’t make these scenes the centrepiece – they are merely tools to tell the story rather than existing for shock value.
One interesting footnote here is that this is the first film from the rejuvenated studio Hammer. When I heard that the brand was being resurrected and that this would be their first project I was extremely sceptical. I felt that the remake was bound to be poor – and the recreation of the Hammer name was likely a cynical attempt from the marketing men in order to promote this film. However, the reality is that what has actually been delivered is a film that is actually the equal of its illustrious forebear. Amazingly, and against all odds what we have here is a surprising classic that is secure enough to deliver intelligent horror to the audience without ever underestimating their intelligence. I would recommend this unreservedly – whether you have seen the original or not. I am aware of what my colleague Chris awarded the original when he reviewed it, and I would totally agree with his mark. The greatest tribute I can pay to the remake is award it the same. I was not expecting it – but it was just as good as the original and is an equally worthy film. I await Reeve’s (and Hammer’s) next move with interest.
One of the strengths of Let Me In is the cinematography and direction – so a viewing on the big screen is highly recommended. The original film had a cold, dark colour palette and although the remake has a little more colour in it, the overall effect is very similar.
The one thing you notice frequently throughout the film is the director’s use of focus to emphasise parts of the frame. I have already mentioned the fact that he never shows us Owen’s mother’s face and this is an audacious technique – at times (such as when the two are talking at a table) he pulls the focus tightly in on Owen, leaving her out of focus. At other times, he uses this technique in other ways. When Abby, for example, arrives to get into bed with Owen and takes her clothes off – Reeves doesn’t demurely pull the camera away. Instead he puts her totally out of focus. This gives a fantastically ethereal feeling to proceedings in places – allowing the director to focus purely on what he wants you to see whilst suggesting other events that he wants to plant in your mind without actually showing them to you. It is a remarkably cleverly restrained approach which is rather unusual in modern cinema, particularly the horror genre.
The film is generally cold and dark, filmed in snowy conditions during winter in New Mexico. When the director wants colour to show through (such as the beginning with the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles) he allows it to, and it shows up particularly well against the drained backgrounds – but these are exceptions to the general scheme.
The cinematography is excellent, truly capturing the beauty in the most mediocre of surroundings. Just look at the way the drab school is lit and shot – turning such archetypical architecture into something beautiful is not easy. But it is achieved here.
Finally, a word about the print. The film does not look like it is shot digitally – as it has a pleasingly organic film like quality which again is not always the case in modern movies. However, the print wasn’t as pristine as I was expecting. I did notice the odd imperfection and blemish flashing up on the screen. It was not a disaster, and didn’t spoil a beautifully shot and framed film, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention it. A particularly bad example of this is the first shot of the final sequence, on the exterior of the school. There is only a brief imperfection here but it is quite a surprise to see it on such a modern print.
I am always conscious, when reviewing a cinema film for sound, which unlike in the home a lot is going to depend on the setup in the cinema. I therefore always try to give an indication of what type of screen I saw it on. In this case, it was screen 11 in my local Odeon. This is one of the smaller, non-digital screens. Unfortunately they won’t give me technical details of the sound system in use in each screen but I am guessing this is not one of the better ones in our city. My disappointment with the sound on this film should therefore be taken in context and I shall be interested to see how it fares on Blu-ray in February next year.
But I must review what I hear - and I am afraid that what I heard here was not particularly good. The original soundtrack was very subtle and full of gentle scary shocks. The remake seems very strangely mixed, with the vast majority of effects coming from the centre. The dialogue is not always clear and there were times, particularly at the beginning, where I struggled to hear what was being said. This did get better as the film went on, though, so I am not sure whether it was my ears adjusting or the mix that improves.
Front separation is also surprisingly narrow. There was very little in the way of effects from the left or right, apart from the very occasional knock at a door or doorbell. Use of the surrounds was completely non-existent. I was sitting (one of only four people) exactly halfway back in the centre and I cannot remember one time where the surrounds gave me any kind of action whatsoever. Very peculiar.
I should quickly mention the music – the soundtrack is by Michael Giacchino, and does a very good job of underpinning events on screen. At times, a deep pounding bass is used – at others piano, flute and delicate harps. It is a varied score and sounded surprisingly good considering the other limitations of the sound.
I was expecting to hate this. The original is a modern classic and Hollywood getting its hands on the property filled me with dread. I originally decided to boycott it, but as I saw the cast list come together and I saw some early reviews I decided to check it out for myself. I was expecting to be writing this, warning you not to see it – but you know what? You should make every effort to get down to the cinema and catch it.
The director Matt Reeves brings a surprising level of intelligence to bear on the story. Some have said it is a shot for shot remake – but they are actually slightly missing the point in my opinion. Yes, there are many similarities, but he also makes a very small but crucial change right at the core of the movie that actually twists the two relationships at the centre of the film and shines a slightly different light on the story. It is a clever move, and it does actually work as a different interpretation without destroying the core of the story.
The performances are universally fantastic, bringing an emotional core to the horror that is very important – and the two children in particular are exceptional. The fact that the film is also beautifully shot is merely the icing on the cake.
If you have seen the original and was planning to avoid this, please take my word for it and change your mind. If you have never seen the film, but are in the market for an intelligent, emotional, well-written horror film then you really should give this a try. This particular Hollywood remake is the equal of the original in every way. Who would have thought it?
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