Monday, March 7, 2011

Let Me In


Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Grace Moretz, Elias Koteas, Richard Jenkins, Cara Buono, Sasha Barrese, Dylan Minnette
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

Let Me In, director Matt Reeves' American remake of the acclaimed 2008 Swedish horror film Let The Right One In is not a movie about vampires. That detail is wisely a backdrop to what's a coming-of-age period film and mood piece featuring a character who happens to be a vampire. It's a means to an end, important in identifying why the film succeeds and how it escapes the pitfalls always accompanying this genre. Having still not seen the original I can't compare, but can still somewhat appreciate the uphill battle Reeves faced in justifying such a project's existence. One group will hate it because they reject the idea of their favorite horror film being remade or just assume any foreign property will have to be dumbed down to appeal to mainstream audiences. Everyone else won't care at all because they've never heard of it. Reeves manages to overcome both those obstacles with an unusually smart, suspenseful film that's beautifully photographed, lushly scored and fully absorbing from start to finish. And that statement comes from someone who usually can't stand anything having to do with vampires and considers it a lazy, overused film topic. If only the final product could turn out like this more often. The few scenes depicting that are handled surprisingly well, but the real horror is found in the emotional pain of growing up.

It's 1983 in Los Alamos, New Mexico and an apparent suicide of a disfigured patient at the local hospital panics the local police detective (Elias Koteas), who finds only a note by his bedside reading: "I'm sory Abby." We flashback two weeks earlier to meet 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit McPhee), lonely, depressed boy going through some serious issues with his parents' impending divorce and brutal harassment from bullies at school. With no one to turn to and too afraid to retaliate, he internalizes everything and creates imaginary scenarios of revenge with his pocket knife and a tree. If ever a child were destined for a future filled with trips to the school psychologist's office, it's him. Relief comes in the arrival of Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz), a girl who claims to be his age who moves in next door with a solemn looking middle-aged man (Richard Jenkins) who appears to be her father. After some reluctance on her part to befriend him they start to grow closer and it becomes clear she isn't a twelve year-old girl and that isn't her father. But let's not call her a "vampire," because doing that would be a betrayal of how intelligently the narrative unfolds and the restraint with which her situation is presented. She simply needs to blood to survive. This becomes a problem as she forges a closer relationship with Owen, who inches closer to the truth about her as she teaches him to stand up to his tormentors.

Vampirism always seems to fare best in films when it's treated as an affliction or almost a disease of sorts, as it is here. Abby's condition isn't glamorized in any way, she doesn't think it would be cool to live thousands of years, dress in gothic clothes, sleep all day or hang out with werewolves. Instead, this is a curse ruining her life and preventing her from ever forging a meaningful bond with anyone. That you could probably replace being a vampire with any other physical or psychological affliction and still emerge with a story just as strong proves how much more is going on beneath the surface. It's really about two lonely, troubled kids brought together with their friendship tested by this huge obstacle put in front of them. The question becomes whether Owen can still accept her and whether Abby can withstand the temptation to use him as she does everyone else, including her "father." There are times that this budding childhood romance is handled with such special care that if not for the dark, somber undercurrent, the storyline would recall My Girl before it would a horror film.  What scares there are come not from the few, well-placed and suspenseful vampire attacks from Abby but instead the bullying Owen endures at school by Kenny (an effectively menacing Dylan Minette) and his gang, which is more terrifying than any of the the graphic blood-drenched events that unfold during the picture.

As smart as Reeves' script (based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist in addition to the Swedish film) is in putting the emphasis in the right place and cloaking the vampire elements in a coming-of-age tale, casting was crucial. Thankfully, the young performers are amazing. Kodi Smit-McPhee is subtly devastating as the fearful, lonely Owen so disconnected from everyone else that even his mother (played by Cara Buono) is barely shown on screen at all, her face covered or out of view throughout.  After going two for two in 2010 with this and Kick-Ass, Chloe Moretz is emerging as an actress whose career bares watching in much the same way Natalie Portman's did in its early stages. This is a complex role requiring her to be doomed killing machine in addition to conveying the emotional pain of a lovestruck young girl sentenced to spend her entire life in childhood. This dark, heavy material but these kids get it and rise to the challenge. Just as strong in a small but pivotal role is Richard Jenkins as Abby's guardian, with his sad eyes and morose expression revealing more than any line of dialogue possibly could. And during one memorable stretch of the film, he still somehow does it with a bag over his head. As a character added for this adaptation, Elias Koteas is the eyes and ears for the audience as a nameless local cop, but he gets us to care what happens to him, even if against better judgment we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of rooting for a vampire to escape.

The early 80's setting present in both the novel and original film was retained and is maximized to great effect through the perfect placement of certain classic rock songs of the era and period details that leave no doubt this takes place in the 80's without ever hammering us over the head with it. The time and setting feel like an natural extension of the plot, like a dream or memory that if updated to modern day could somehow ring false regardless of one's familiarity with the source material.  Only the best period pieces understand it's not so much about the clothes, hairstyles or music (though it's a factor), but capturing a certain mood or spirit of the time that takes you back. The somber tone of the film is spot-on and never waivers, reinforced by Michael Giacchino's creepy, melancholy score and cinematography from Greig Fraser that's soaked in washed-out browns and a yellowish amber tint that creates a visually unsettling atmosphere. That such a methodical, introspective film came from the director of 2008's shaky-cam monster movie Cloverfield is kind of a shock. This is about as far from that as can be while still vaguely straddling a similar genre.

When Stephen King named Let Me In his favorite movie of 2010, calling it the "best American horror film in the last 20 years" I was skeptical knowing his history of overpraising mainstream fluff.  If the statement is a bit of an exaggeration (and as much a testament to all the inferior horror films we've suffered through), it isn't much of one. Nothing about this movie feels mainstream and it's too intelligent to ever be mistaken for the latest Hollywood cash-in slasher remake. If nothing else, it teaches the lesson that the best movies are rarely about what they're actually about and horror can't truly unsettle unless you care about the characters and their situation. Let Me In gets this right, proving all remakes don't have to be pointless and aren't necessarily destined to fail.

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