Friday, 12 November 2010

'Let Me In' review:

There is no getting away from the simple fact that the critical consensus on remakes is that they are at best pointless and at their worst artless facsimiles. It is brave then of 'Cloverfield' director Matt Reeves to have remade a recent film of seemingly unanimous critical acclaim. Few critics took Tomas Alfredson's 2008 vampire film, 'Let the Right One In' (itself an adaptation of a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist), for anything less than a classic upon its release. In the two short years since, it has already become an established sight on horror movie "best of" lists amongst critics and the public (or at least a cinephile sub-section of the public). It is brave of Reeves to attempt to remake such a film, still so fresh in the memory, in spite of the fact that "Hollywood" remakes of foreign language films are routinely dismissed before anyone has had a chance to see so much as a poster. "They'll dumb it down." "They won't keep that bit in." And so on and so forth.

It is even braver (or perhaps more foolish) then that Reeves has sought to do little more than transpose what is a fairly slow and contemplative film, lacking much genuine action or any real "scares", into English without really "sexing it up" at all - give or take some CGI work. The film's box office results, here and in North America, reflect the fact that Reeves (who also wrote the screenplay) has tried very hard to keep to the spirit of the original film and in doing so has limited its mainstream appeal. Perhaps you could argue his film is too respectful to the original - that it does nothing new and hasn't even found the story an especially big new audience - and therefore it is even more pointless an exercise than something altogether different (however crass).

For those who aren't familiar with the original film or its source novel, 'Let Me In' is a bleak and low-key horror film set in a snowy, backwater town where a meek and isolated 12 year-old boy - bullied at school and paid little attention by his warring parents - befriends his new neighbour, an unusual 12 year-old girl who happens to be a vampire. It is a sort of dark love story, though the love is Platonic and born from mutual acceptance, and need for kinship, rather than lust. The girl is accompanied to the neighbourhood by her guardian, a father figure who is forced to murder people in order to bring her the human blood that sustains her life.

The film retains the 1980s setting of the original, but does so with far less subtlety. As well as the Rubix Cube which begins the young duos friendship (with the girl working it out with impressive ease and speed), we are shown President Reagan on TV (twice), and hear David Bowie's 'Let's Dance' on the soundtrack more than once. Unlike in the previous version the local adults/victims are not down-and-out social outcasts, but just normal, everyday people.

One thing is for sure: 'Let Me In' is no turkey. It is atmospheric and tightly directed (with the mood, and many individual shots, stolen wholesale from the original), the young stars - Kodi Smit-McPhee ('The Road') and Chloe Moretz ('Kick-Ass') - are well cast, and no overwhelming liberties are taken with the story (although, somewhat predictably, the vampire's anatomical reveal is omitted). The themes of the original are left intact and the dynamics between the characters are just as interesting, though motivations and events are often over-explained. Perhaps the relationship between the vampire and her guardian is more touching and sympathetic in this American version, thanks to the casting of the excellent Richard Jenkins.

As mentioned, both the film's young stars are effective (though Smit-McPhee is a little more wet behind the ears than his Swedish counterpart), but it is Moretz who stands out and proves again that she has a strong screen presence which belies her years. The film is carried by these actors and the tenderness of the scenes between them is often quite sweet. However the more emotional scenes are undermined by Michael Giacchino's melodramatic and string-heavy score (a shame as his Academy Award winning music for Pixar's 'Up' was deeply affecting), which often also overemphasises moments of suspense. It certainly isn't a patch on Johan Söderqvist's chilling score for the 2008 film.

The film's increased budget is best put to use in the film's few "action" sequences in which the vampire attacks her prey. Some very effective CGI work has been done to make her attacks more visceral and jarring: with jerky body movements and a deadly athleticism, combined with some really bone-crunching violence (otherwise impossible from a stunt actor or practical effects). I would agree that often, particularly in horror, practical effects are more weighty and frightening, but there are some things that computers are just better for and 'Let Me In' gets the balance about right. As a result a few of those more grim scenes are improved on the original. This is not true in every case, however. The memorable penultimate scene, in the school swimming pool, is not filmed with anything like the same startling economy demonstrated in the Swedish version (in which all the violence took place in one brief underwater shot), and instead we are shown too much for too long.

All in all, 'Let Me In' is a polished and effective remake which does nothing to embarrass the original, even if it does equally little to challenge it. Some things (the violence) are taken further due to the film's increased budget, whilst some things (arguably more significant things - like the gender issue) are reduced or go unexplored. Ultimately, there is nothing here to really contradict those who will say the whole exercise is inherently pointless. But I would say that, if you haven't seen the original and can't stand to read subtitles, then you aren't shaming yourself by watching this American remake. Its flaws mostly lie in its (unavoidably) derivative nature and if you have nothing to compare it against then you might find yourself just as moved and surprised as the rest of us were two years ago.

'Let Me In' is out in the UK now and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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