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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Remake That Proved Everyone Wrong: Revisiting ‘Let Me In’ 10 Years Later

Lavished with praise upon release, and developing a fierce cult following in the intervening years, Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 masterpiece Låt Den Rätte Komma In is rightfully hailed as a modern classic by horror aficionados. The coming-of-age vampire tale even managed to strike a chord with genre sceptics – owing to its beautiful imagery, nuanced characterisation and unusual restraint – in the process earning itself a distinction as one of European cinema’s greatest offerings. Indeed, the hype was near universal, with the Scandinavian export topping numerous ‘’films of the year’’ lists (supplanting other critical darlings like WALL-E, The Dark Knight and The Wrestler) and nabbing prestigious awards at just about every festival it was eligible for. 

Thanks to this mainstream success, an English language version was practically greenlit overnight. And as you can imagine, the very thought of a ‘’dumbed down’’ Hollywood remake (for context, this was back when transparent cash-ins like The Uninvited, One Missed Call and The Eye were stinking up multiplexes) was met with outright hostility from fans. The general consensus seemed to be that there was no justification for such a redundant exercise, other than to cater to domestic viewers who were presumably unwilling to read subtitles. Even Alfredson himself joined the protests, denouncing the project at every turn. ‘‘I really don’t know why it would be made’’, the director said in an interview with ‘Ain’t it Cool News: ‘’I usually say that bad films, you can remake […] To me, this becomes almost some sort of criticism of my movie.’’

It’s safe to say then that the notion wasn’t very popular amongst cinephiles, who took it for granted that an Americanized take would be incapable of mustering the same layered depth that made the original stand out. Yet in retrospect, all of that outcry may have been a tad premature. After all, not only did Matt Reeves’ unexpectedly brilliant Let Me In manage to live up to its predecessor’s formidable legacy but, in some respects, it even surpassed it. 

Before we go any further, let’s wind the clock back to early 2008 when, fresh off his breakout hit Cloverfield, Reeves was on the lookout for his next directorial gig. Rather than hopping aboard a lucrative franchise train, the up-and-coming auteur hoped to leverage some of his newfound industry cred to generate buzz for an original screenplay born of his own imagination. Entitled ‘’The Invisible Woman’’, Reeves’ heart was dead set on making the old-school Hitchcockian thriller, but securing the funding proved to be too much of an uphill battle and it never really got off the ground. The pitch just wasn’t deemed high concept enough for modern tastes and the fact that it wasn’t based on a recognisable brand made it an even tougher sell.  

Regardless, the writer-director’s voice did pique the interest of at least one studio: the now-defunct Overture Films. Despite turning down his passion project, the indie company was impressed by Reeves’ screenwriting and were itching to collaborate with him in some capacity. So, they proposed that he work on their adaptation of Låt Den Rätte Komma In, describing how it would be a fantastic opportunity to bring the story to a crowd who might have otherwise slept on it. As extra incentive, they stressed that it wouldn’t be a mere facsimile or pale imitation of the Swedish version and that he would still get to flex his creative muscles by doing something a little different. 

For his part, the filmmaker actually had a several reservations about the job. First of all, he’s a self-confessed scaredy cat who can’t tolerate horror, struggling to make it through The Exorcist without covering his eyes. Secondly, he didn’t much care for the idea of riding on someone else’s coattails and doing a remake so early in his career, no matter how good the source may be. Nevertheless, he still agreed to take home a screener of Låt Den Rätte Komma In (which was concurrently touring the festival circuit) and dutifully gave it a whirl to see if inspiration would strike. 

As predicted, Reeves was totally ‘’blown away’’ by Alfredson’s melancholic romance and advised Overture to simply leave well enough alone and stop pursuing the rights. Like seemingly everyone else on the planet, he was convinced that the movie was untouchable and that there was no way to improve upon its perfection. 

Although he was reluctant to go any further with it, Reeves was helplessly enthralled by the story and decided to give the original novel a quick thumb through. As anyone who has read John Ajvide Lindqvist’s book will know, it’s a gripping page-turner structured around interweaving subplots, dense backstories, and competing perspectives that would be a challenge to fit into any big screen adaptation. Rounding off at nearly 500 pages, it was therefore only inevitable that the Swedish attempt (which was itself penned by the author) would have to make sizable cuts to the text, excising full plotlines and relegating others to just the vaguest of nods. 

Upon discovering how much juicy content had been left on the table, Reeves concluded that there might be potential for another cinematic production after all. Not only was there an opportunity to interpret many of the novel’s highlights for the very first time, but the autobiographical spin deeply resonated with the filmmaker, who noticed that there were plenty of commonalities between the book and his unproduced screenplay for The Invisible Woman. In Lindqvist’s prose, Reeves found a kindred spirit who had endured a painful transition into adolescence and knew exactly what it felt like to grow up as an outcast. It was an all too familiar ache for the director and he was eager to convey that experience on film. Most of all, however, he was fascinated by how the author had cunningly smuggled a relatable coming-of-age story into what was ostensibly ‘’popular’’ fiction. 

Ready and raring to go, he wrote to Lindqvist about his intention to adapt the text and essentially asked for the creator’s blessing. The correspondence went incredibly well, with Reeves demonstrating a keen understanding of the material and Lindqvist declaring that he was a huge fan of Cloverfield. Specifically, he liked how the Kaiju movie put a fresh spin on an old story and felt that a similar approach would suit his unconventional vampire yarn. He was also excited by the possibility of certain details that were omitted from the Swedish version having a second chance at making it onto film. In particular, he stipulated that the ‘’remake’’ (which was fast becoming an alternative stab at the book) ought to include the gross-out moment in which a newly-infected woman bites into her own wrist, in order to satiate her blood craving. 

Invigorated by the go-ahead from Lindqvist, Reeves threw himself into his first draft of Let Me In, completing it in late 2008, just as Låt Den Rätte Komma In was opening stateside. The serendipitous timing of this release meant that it was the perfect moment for Reeves to get the ball rolling with Overture Films. However, it turns out that the rights were instead optioned by the recently-revived Hammer Productions, who had been interested in the IP for a while. Naturally, the British studio had their own plans for where they wanted to take it, but the negotiations worked out for all parties involved (Overture even partnered up as distributors) and Reeves was allocated a $20 million budget to realise his vision. 

The first step in the subsequent development journey was to polish the script treatment. In the end, Reeves’ take wound up surprisingly close to Alfredson’s, with Let Me In trimming out many of the exact same subplots, as well the book’s Rashomon structure. The citywide scope of the novel is also condensed, as it was before, and most of the supporting players are once again viewed from a purely detached perspective, so that the tween drama can be brought to the fore. 

In that sense, the bones of the narrative remain largely the same. Our focus is still on a pubescent boy (here given the Americanised name Owen, rather than Oskar), who is navigating the struggles of an isolated upbringing. Lacking any friends his own age, and suffering merciless bullying at the hands of those who do acknowledge his existence, the only companionship he can rely on comes from his religiously devout mother. And even she is far too preoccupied with messy divorce proceedings to grasp how troubled her son actually is.

Speaking of which, Owen does exhibit his fair share of behavioural red flags. Because he is so deprived of healthy social interactions, he lives vicariously through his neighbours, peeping on their everyday lives through a bedroom telescope and listening to their most intimate conversations through the wall. Worse still, when he isn’t practicing seedy voyeurism, he’s either stealing from his mother to buy candy, obsessing over murder reports in the news, or rehearsing fantasy vengeance upon his schoolyard tormentors. 

All in all, things are looking pretty bleak for the young kid. That is until an enigmatic, somewhat waifish girl (Abby, as opposed to the Swedish Eli) moves in next door. Initially reclusive and weird, she lets her guard down, allowing for a tender romance to blossom between the pair. Of course, this is no ordinary ‘’boy meets girl’’ scenario and Owen soon grows suspicious that Abby might be concealing a terrible secret. 

Not only does she roam barefoot in the snow, remain indoors during daylight hours, and vomit up regular food as though it were poison, but her arrival into the neighbourhood also happens to coincide with a string of ritualistic killings. To cut to the chase, Owen eventually learns the awful truth, that his would-be girlfriend is in fact a centuries’ old vampire, trapped within the body of a pre-teen. Meanwhile, her adult custodian is not really her dad but a ghoulish familiar, charged with harvesting fresh blood to keep her alive. 

As aforementioned, the script doesn’t stray far from the other cinematic adaptation and it even lifts some of its dialogue verbatim, featuring lines that didn’t originate from the book. Having said that, there are a few key differences that prevent Let Me In from feeling utterly pointless. For one thing, it replaces the gloomy drunkard characters with a gloomy policeman. It also throws in a welcome dash of nerve-racking suspense, firmly situates events in the context of 1980s America, and ever so slightly tweaks the dynamic that our protagonist has with his parents and teachers. 

Yet the biggest change is undoubtedly how it casts the Abby relationship in an overtly predatory light, suggesting that she is grooming Owen to be her next guardian. It’s an interesting twist, one that’s mainly left up to the audience’s interpretation (an earlier draft of the script – which you can track down online – is more explicit with some unused dialogue), and it completely alters the tone of what are otherwise identical scenes. In fact, the dark implications on the narrative were so profound that Lindqvist felt obligated to write a whole new epilogue for the book, named Let the Old Dreams Die, just to address the ambiguity. 

After finalising the screenplay, Reeves then set his mind to casting. For the role of the policeman investigating a chain of macabre homicides, he roped in the ever-dependable Elias Koteas. As for the culprit behind those grisly murders, Abby’s so-called ‘’Father’’, the director turned to the inimitable Richard Jenkins. Supposedly the Cabin in the Woods actor was recruited on account of his soulful eyes, which Reeves felt would be able to convey intense remorse, even when obscured beneath a frightening mask or heavy prosthetics.

Having enlisted two industry veterans, there still remained the difficult task of finding child leads. This turned out to be easier said than done, as the ideal candidates needed to possess uncommon maturity for their age, in order to handle the adult themes and carry the emotional weight of the piece squarely on their shoulders. The screen tests rolled on indefinitely, with audition after audition failing to meet the high requirements of the job. It reached the point where the studio began getting cold feet. After all, if they couldn’t find the right kids, then they had no movie.  

Enter Kodi Smit-Mcphee and Chloë Grace Moretz. With much-anticipated blockbusters (The Road and Kick-Ass) under their belts, these two young performers were making waves in Hollywood at the time, even though neither of their calling-card hits had been officially released yet. Intrigued by the hype surrounding the elusive wunderkinds, Reeves approached their respective directors, John Hillcoat and Matthew Vaughn, to ask for a sneak peek of any early footage. The request was denied on both occasions, but Vaughn was highly complimentary of Moretz’s screen presence, whilst Hillcoat recommended Smit-Mcphee for the part of Owen, specifically vouching for the quality of his American accent. 

What followed was a rigorous audition process, wherein the actors were given a number of pivotal scenes to workshop together. Over the course of this test run, their chemistry proved to be instantaneous and they crucially resisted the impulse to overplay the drama. Suffice it to say, they were swiftly hired and delivered a pair of terrific performances. As Owen, Smit-Mcphee is believably tortured, especially when tearing up during an over-the-phone conversation with his absentee father. Moretz, on the other hand, injects Abby with so much pathos and humanity that her transformation into a feral creature of the night is quite shocking when it finally occurs. 

The turbulence of adolescence, the unspoken heartbreaks, the anguished looks, the awkward attempts at flirting: they sell it all with such conviction and authenticity. Honestly, it’s hard to tell if Let Me In would function half as well without these exceptional youngsters, because they’re woven into the fabric of basically every scene. That’s not to say that the rest of the ensemble didn’t bring their A-game though, as both Jenkins and Koteas make strong impressions despite their minimal dialogue. 

As far as technical craftsmanship goes, the adaptation is immaculately constructed too. Greig Fraser’s artful cinematography captures some truly breathtaking images, every frame is gorgeously lit, and the estimated 250 VFX shots (most of which contribute to the wintery feel by inserting snow, breath condensation or building extensions that weren’t there on location) are virtually undetectable. 

It doesn’t sound bad either, as Michael Giacchino provides one of the best scores from his illustrious discography. The Oscar-winner generally relies on soft piano keys, lyrical harps and angelic choirs here to evoke a suitably touching vibe. When the situation demands it, however, he deftly switches gears into more traditionally intense orchestration, with all the shrieking violins, unnerving drones, and domineering brass that you’d expect from a typical Hammer production. Complementing the score is a library of era-appropriate pop songs that help to ground the film in its period setting. These carefully selected tracks – which range from Boy George to David Bowie and Blue Öyster Cult records – were curated by George Drakoulias (the music consultant behind the aural landscapes of Zodiac and Super 8) who totally nails the sense of time and place.

This period detail is exemplary across the board, with Reeves hearkening back to the various sights and sounds that defined his childhood. Alongside the throwback tunes, there are forgotten advertising jingles, regrettable fashion choices, old arcade cabinets, and those eerie television PSAs that begged the question: ‘’Do you know where your children are?’’ The nostalgic mood is further accentuated by the way that every exterior location is drenched in the warm, amber glow of sodium vapour street lamps. According to the DVD commentary, these were an omnipresent fixture in Reeves’ neighbourhood and they do add to the cozy atmosphere. 

In short, it’s a world that’s an absolute joy to escape into, that is until the brutal vampire attacks intrude upon all the wistful reminiscing. On that note, Let Me In is much more of an out-and-out horror movie than its European counterpart. It doesn’t venture to the same extremes as the novel, which can be rather stomach-churning in its later chapters, but the gore is explicit and rarely holds back. Knives pierce jugular veins in scrutinising close ups, lashings of crimson blood stain the virgin snow, severed heads float past the camera, and that moment of self-cannibalism Lindqvist so enthusiastically petitioned for is depicted in all its obscene glory. 

To convincingly translate the viscera to the screen, the team made use of cutting edge makeup techniques that are far more sophisticated (and costly) than their Swedish equivalents. One area which thoroughly benefits from this upgrade is the vastly improved creature effects. Whereas Låt Den Rätte Komma In visualised Eli’s undead form in relatively down-to-earth terms, Abby’s corresponding transformation in Let Me In is far more monstrous. Implementing a mixture of paints, contact lenses, fake dentures, prosthetics appliances, and CGI tracking markers, it’s a terrifying appearance that marks a significant departure from what was done previously. 

Perhaps a holdover from Reeves’ Invisible Woman screenplay, the U.S version also places a renewed emphasis on Hitchcockian suspense. This manifests primarily in the scenes wherein Abby’s ‘’Father’’ abducts hapless teenagers to drain them of blood. His M.O has been dramatically overhauled so that it resembles that of a real life serial killer as – rather than loitering in the woods with a bottle of chloroform – he now breaks into the prospective victim’s car with a slim jim, hides in the back seat, and waits for them to drive off to a remote location. Recalling a creepy urban legend, he even sports a haunting bin liner mask with makeshift eyeholes. 

In a stroke of pure genius, Reeves later compels us into identifying with this chilling villain, once his malevolent plan has spiralled out of control. Taking cues from vintage thriller Dial M for Murder, the director comprehensively lays out the ‘’Father’s’’ sinister routine so that, when it all goes wrong, we find ourselves rooting for him against our better judgement. A masterclass in building tension and playing with audience sympathies: the nail-biting sequence then crescendos with an astonishing vehicular crash, one that thrusts you right into the middle of the action by showing everything from the windshield’s POV. Anyone who dismisses Let Me In as a carbon-copy retread obviously wasn’t paying attention during this virtuoso set piece, because it’s arguably the best bit of either version. 

If you’re worried that the bigger focus on in-your-face scares would somehow detract from the heart of the piece, then rest assured that Reeves keeps his finger on the emotional pulse throughout. A profoundly sensitive helmsman (as illustrated by his superb Planet of the Apes outings), he doesn’t shortchange any of the incisive characterisation, nor does he lose sight of the human drama that made the original book so powerful. 

On the contrary, he finds elegant ways of translating these aspects to the screen and patiently allows for quieter moments to breathe. Never talking down to his audience, he lets the visuals speak for themselves: whether that’s by dressing Owen in a thickly insulated coat whilst indoors (as if it were a suit of armor, protecting him from the rest of the world), strategically excluding his mother from the frame to reinforce their distant relationship, or just letting scenes play out wordlessly at a controlled pace. In terms of overall subtlety, the remake might not be quite as restrained as its forbear, but by the standards of American horror it is positively sedate. 

We could play the comparison game all day long if we wanted to and Let Me In would confidently hold its own against Låt Den Rätte Komma In. That being said, the film ultimately deserves to be judged on its own merits and by that standard it is jaw-droppingly good, propped up by a stellar cast and crew who refused to phone it in. Whilst the de facto assumption was that Hammer would churn out another hollow remake for the sake of making a quick buck, the end result here proved everybody wrong with its passion and sincerity. Genre novels very rarely get worthy cinematic adaptations of this caliber, yet Lindqvist’s has now been blessed with two of them. 


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