Written by: Matt Reeves (screenplay) and John Ajvide Lindquist (original story and screenplay)
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Moretz, and Elias Koteas
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“Do you think there‘s such a thing as evil?”
The popularity of vampires has recently skyrocketed, resulting in an assortment of bloodsuckers filling theater screens everywhere. However, this recent resurgence just hasn’t been the same without a very familiar face to horror fans: Hammer Films, who arguably defined the vampire mythos for two decades. Leading the charge was their incarnation of Dracula, portrayed in seven films by the immortal Christopher Lee, but the British studio was also home to several other undead fiends that showed up in films like Lust for a Vampire and Vampire Circus. It’s been over thirty years since a new Hammer vampire film has graced the silver screen, but the studio has recently risen from their grave. Appropriately enough, their first feature is an English language adaptation of Let the Right One In, the Swedish vampire novel that was previously brought to the screen under the same name. Of course, Hammer’s initial rise to fame was aided by another re-adaptation of a vampire tale over 50 years ago; we can only hope that history will repeat itself.
Owen is a 12 year old boy living in New Mexico in 1983. His parents are going through a nasty divorce, and he’s constantly bullied at school, which leaves him isolated to the world at large. One day, a girl named Abby moves in next door; she tells Owen that they can’t be friends, which leads him to shrug her off. Soon, however, the two begin to form a bond, as Abby seems to be the only person who really cares for Owen. Meanwhile, a string of bizarre, ritualistic murders that leaves victims drained of blood begin to occur in the otherwise sleepy small town. The police suspect the work of a Satanic cult, but the truth is far more staggering: the victims are actually the prey of Abby, whose “father” murders people to harvest blood for her to feed upon.
Those familiar with Alfredson’s original film will find that Reeves’s film largely follows the same structure and hits the same beats. The story itself is strong enough, and Reeves is wise enough to let it carry the film, which allows him to focus on putting his own stylistic stamp onto the film. He succeeds in creating a very polished and meticulously directed film that manages to carry over the low-key, almost detached tone of the original. For the most part, he refrains from forcing bombastic moments of pure schlock and instead focuses on a voyeuristic sense of suspense. The camera work is often phenomenal, whether it’s capturing scenes of stark action and violence or merely hovering into a scene, allowing us to peek into the characters and their world.
Though this film has a bit more Hollywood gloss and accessibility applied to it, Reeves doesn’t sacrifice the story’s depth in favor of pure popcorn thrills. The largest change to be found is in the setting, which is now early 80s America rather than a small suburb in Sweden. It seems to be an incidental, almost innocuous change; however, the layer of nostalgia is laid on so thick that it becomes impossible to ignore. An assortment of 80s sights and sounds fill the screen: Pac Man arcade machines, Now and Later jingles, the music of Boy George and the Culture Club, among others. It’d be easy to focus on simply recreating these pop culture touchstones, but Reeves also has Regan show up a few times, whose incidental speeches remind us of the Cold War paranoia of the age. This layered use of the 80s setting and wistful nostalgia is indicative of the film as a whole, as it’s committed to showing the dark underbelly of humanity (and inhumanity) that often remains hidden beneath a charming facade.
Of course, Abby herself is most indicative of this: she’s seemingly an innocent 12 year old girl, but in reality she’s a monster forced to commit acts of violence. Owen, on the other hand, is the recipient of violence at the hands of bullies, and is ostensibly a neglected child. His fanatical mother is often heard in the film, but rarely seen, as her face is usually off-camera or obscured. His father only briefly appears as a voice on the telephone to offer empty words of solace, but nothing more. When the old “It’s 10:00: Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” message appears on the television late in the film, it isn’t without a sense of irony, and the answer is decidedly “no.” Ultimately, the most horrifying aspect of the film might be just how alone the two protagonists are, particularly Owen; they’re seemingly made for each other, but even their fairly tale relationship isn’t without some sinister undertones when one considers the loss of innocence and destructiveness involved.
The film’s effectiveness hinges on this relationship, which is brought to life believably by the two lead actors, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz. If there’s an empathetic center to be found, its with Smit-McPhee’s Owen, who is able to build up more than enough sympathy throughout the film. He’s a victim on several levels, but a sense of wide-eyed innocence still manages to shine through. Moretz is perfectly cast in the role of Abby, which requires the young actress to exhibit a sense of maturity beyond her years. This seems to be no problem for her, as her ability to be both charming and unsettling at various points is realized well. The chemistry between the two leads is likewise believable, as their relationship takes on various incarnations--platonic friendship, pre-teen infatuation, and there’s even a sense of dutiful protectiveness on the part of both at times. The rest of the cast is equally as solid; brilliant character actor Elias Koteas has a nice turn as a detective attempting to solve the crimes, and the pack of bullies that torment Owen manage to be a bit grounded and not overly cliché.
Thankfully, like the original, the vampiric aspects are rather incidental; instead, this is a story about the destruction of innocence and the deceptiveness of evil. It just so happens that the vampire mythos is an excellent through line for such themes; after all, budding adolescence is a lonely time for anyone--imagine being stuck there forever. Of course, there’s all the requisite bloodletting and vampires bursting into flames that comes with the territory, but even much of the violence is subtly handled (with the exception of a few scenes, which are hindered by some poor and jarring CGI effects) and takes a backseat to the dramatic conflicts. While the film is horrifying and unsettling throughout, it’s actually most effective when Reeves allows tension to hang in the air and be aided by Michael Giacchino’s fantastic score that often resembles the spooky, symphonic themes of 70s horror. As a pure film, Let Me In is something to behold, as it’s full of memorable sights and sounds that accompany a complex, layered story. Hammer probably couldn’t have asked for a better film for their return to form, and hopefully it’s a sign of things to come, as this is uncompromising, stark, and intelligent horror. Horror fans everywhere should welcome back the studio’s long overdue return to theaters, then let this one into your collection when it hits store shelves. Buy it!
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