Twice-Told Tales #2: Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In

Twice-Told Tales is a feature in which I compare horror remakes to their originals. My goal is to find the remakes that justify themselves beyond the cash-in. Wish me luck.

Let the Right One In

Horror movies aren’t supposed to be bittersweet. They should be scary, obviously. Disturbing, all the better. Shocking or disgusting, maybe. But not tender or sensitive. The 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In is all those heartfelt things horror movies aren’t supposed to be, and yet it must rank among the best of its decade. How could this be?

I have a few opinions on the matter, and rest assured, I’ll share them during the course of this post. In the meantime, here’s the setup: in the winter of 1982, twelve-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) lives with his mother in Blackeberg, a suburb of Stockholm. Oskar is a smart but odd and scrawny kid, easy prey for the school bullies. He’s also a loner who spends much of his time fantasizing about revenge.

Out in the courtyard of his apartment complex one night, Oskar meets his new neighbor, Eli (Lina Leandersson). She’s twelve years old, too, but strangely underdressed for the cold. Nor is she very outgoing, telling Oskar outright that she can’t be his friend. He shrugs her off in turn, but they soon meet again and bond over a Rubik’s Cube.

There’s just one slight problem: Eli is a vampire. Before Oskar and Eli’s first encounter, we’ve seen Håkan, the middle-aged man who appears to be Eli’s father, murder another man and try to drain his blood for her. Håkan botches the job, which leads a starving Eli to fatally attack a neighbor after her second encounter with Oskar.

Oskar and Eli meet a third time. By this point, Oskar is smitten with Eli, who admits that she doesn’t know her birthdate and receives no presents. Oskar offers the Rubik’s Cube as a gift. Despite Eli’s initial warning, the two children are indeed becoming friends.

Their separate struggles continue. Oskar’s bullies escalate their torments, and Håkan again fails to procure fresh blood for Eli. Meanwhile, Oskar develops a full-blown crush on Eli, who tries to tell him that she’s not really a girl. This doesn’t bother Oskar, and so their fates begin to intertwine.

John Ajvide Lindqvist adapted his own 2004 novel of the same name to write the screenplay. I haven’t read Lindqvist’s novel, but Tasha Robinson at the Onion A.V. Club has posted a thorough book-to-film comparison. Judging by her rundown, Lindqvist did an admirable job in paring down his narrative and making his characters more appealing – or less repellent – without flattening them. For example, in the novel Håkan is not Eli’s father but a pedophile drawn to her perpetually childish body. Håkan isn’t Eli’s father in the film, either, but their relationship is never sexualized. One could read pedophilia into it, but one could also interpret it, as I did, that Håkan had known and loved Eli since he was her age and had devoted his life to preserving hers. In other words, that he was in Oskar’s position long before Oskar.

Director Tomas Alfredson strikes a delicate balance between the genre’s demands and his own artistry. Let the Right One In isn’t a soft movie. Its violence happens in spurts bloody enough to discomfort the casual viewer and pacify the gorehounds. At the same time, Alfredson avoids the horror clichés. There are no fangs here, no glowing red eyes, no magical crosses, no reliance on music, jump-scares, and gross-out effects. That’s not to say Alfredson can’t deliver a powerful horror sequence; the climax – a final confrontation between Oskar, Eli, and Oskar’s bullies in a swimming pool – is satisfying and imaginatively staged. But Alfredson cares about his characters above all else, and he never lets the carnage overwhelm what’s essentially a love story.

He also couldn’t have cast or directed his two young leads any better. Hedebrant and Leandersson, both making their debuts, are simply excellent. They’re charming and vulnerable, and their chemistry is undeniable. (The actress Elif Ceylan also deserves mention here. It’s her voice you hear when Eli speaks, as Leandersson’s dialogue was overdubbed with Ceylan’s voice to make Eli sound less girlish). They carry the movie while giving it an emotional depth rarely felt in horror, if ever.

So what we have here is a very well-written, well-directed, and well-acted movie. A special blend of talents and fine work that can’t be duplicated. We could be thankful and appreciative, happy it exists, and glad to recommend it to our friends. Or we could accept a substitute rushed to market.

Let Me In

For all the praise I’ve heaped upon Let the Right One In, it commits the unforgivable sin of not speaking English. Subtitles? Are you kidding me? As Americans, there are two things that we do not do: 1) starve and 2) read subtitles. Enter Hammer Films, the storied British studio famous for its horror films of the 1950s-70s, reconstituted after decades of dormancy. In partnership with the American company Overture Films (which has since folded into Relativity Media, which has since declared bankruptcy), Hammer sought to heroically redeem a Swedish movie from its Swedish origins and bring it to the American multiplex with the American makeover it desperately needed.

The result is 2010’s Let Me In, which isn’t a bad movie. It’s also not as good as the original by any measure. In fact, I could summarize it with a “Not Bad, But Not As Good As...” template befitting a cookie-cutter remake.

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz aren’t bad in the lead roles, but they both had several credits by the time they were cast in Let Me In. Their performances are polished and studied but don’t have the wounded soulfulness of their Swedish counterparts. Smit-McPhee and Moretz seem like professional actors acting, not kids naturally interacting. Which is fine, but it also makes for a less affecting experience.

Matt Reeves’ direction isn’t bad, but he can’t resist the clichés Alfredson sidestepped. The score lets out a thunderous boom to signal us when something ominous is afoot. The vampire’s eyes glow like those of the Incredible Hulk when she feeds. There’s a bit more gore and CGI, neither of which improves on the original.

Reeves’ screenplay isn’t bad, which isn’t a surprise since it mostly consists of Lindqvist’s work. Even so, it predictably omits the original’s allusion to Eli being a castrated male. This happens in one brief shot, when Oskar peeks in on Eli as she’s changing her clothes and sees that she has only a scar where her genitals should be. (The novel goes into more detail about Eli’s castration.) The question of Eli’s gender is never elaborated upon otherwise, but it gives Let the Right One In an entirely new dimension, especially with Eli’s warning Oskar that she’s not a girl, and Oskar’s not caring as he falls in love with her anyway. Reeves’ version skips all that pesky sexual ambiguity. It does name-drop Romeo and Juliet a few times, though, just to keep things fresh and unpretentious.

Finally, there’s the all-important box-office metric. The original had a $4 million budget and grossed $11 million globally. Let Me In had a $20 million budget and grossed $24 million globally. Going by the conventional wisdom that a Hollywood movie needs to gross more than twice its budget to turn a profit, those numbers don’t appear to justify the remake even from a business standpoint. Apparently it never occurred to Let Me In’s producers that any curious viewers can easily catch the original without venturing to an art house these days, or that many of those viewers might find the idea of a remake pointless and annoying.

Let the Right One In is so unlike most horror movies that some viewers don’t consider it to be one. I think its uniqueness makes it a great credit to the genre. It broadens the possibilities of what horror movies are and what they can do. It proves that horror movies can be heartbreakingly beautiful and disproves the lie that horror movies can’t be art.

By contrast, Let Me In is competent but unnecessary product. If I had seen it before the original, I might be less critical. Having seen it after, however, I still can’t shake the feeling that Let Me In is a knockoff, even if it cost five times as much as the genuine article.

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