April 16, 2013

Vampire Weekend! LET THE RIGHT ONE IN vs LET ME IN

"I'm twelve.  But I've been twelve for a long time."
Mike Lerman is one of my best friends from high school.  Ler is a walking repository of all cinema that is insane, awesome and insanely awesome.  As the artistic director of the Philadelphia Film Society and a curator for Fantastic Fest, he's always got the inside track on the whatever badass movie is just over the horizon.  Thing is, he's been like that as long as I've known him.  He used to show up at my apartment in college at one o'clock in the morning with a region-free DVD player and a backpack overflowing with discs,  saying to me, "Yo, you gotta check out this thing I just found.  This shit is AMAZING."  And you haven't lived until you've seen him sing "It's Raining Men" or Michael Jackson's "Man In The Mirror" at a karaoke bar.

Everyone should have a friend like Mike Lerman.*

About six years ago he was staying in my L.A. apartment for a few weeks during a festival (this was a frequent occurrence) and he tried to get me to go a screening of a Swedish child vampire movie called Let The Right One In.  He'd already seen it at a previous festival, totally loved it and wanted to watch it again.  For reasons I no longer remember, I passed on the opportunity.  I should have known better.  When I saw the trailer a few months later, I instantly regretted my decision not to join Ler on that Saturday afternoon at the Arclight.  The film got a very limited release stateside, but I never made it to the theater before it disappeared.  I got close one night when my then-girlfriend Jamie and I had some plans fall through, but she wanted to go see another, sparklier vampire movie instead.  Two roads diverged in a bload-soaked wood and that night I took the road more traveled by angsty tweens.

When the Let The Right One In eventually made it to DVD, a controversy quickly arose over the film's subtitles.  Apparently Magnet/Magnolia used an alternate translation from what had appeared in theaters, a translation which seemed to lack the subtlety and nuance which won over audiences in the first place.  Suddenly I got gun-shy, not wanting to inadvertently ruin my viewing experience with a sub-par version of the film.  Before I got the chance to figure out a solution, Overture Films and Hammer Films snapped up the rights and churned out an American remake called Let Me In, directed by Matt Reeves of Cloverfield fame.  The film was relatively well received, and when I stumbled upon a DVD copy for $5 a few years ago, I tossed it in my cart with a few other titles (I think this was before Amazon Prime eliminated the need to pad your purchases just go get free shipping) and it's been sitting on my shelf unwatched ever since.

I thought it'd be fun to screen both movies in one weekend to get a sense of where and how they differed, so I started with Let The Right One In, currently available on Netflix Instant with the original theatrical subtitles (Magnolia has since released a new version on disc with both English translations available).  It's fucking great.  Set in 1982, the story centers on 12 year old Oskar, a smart and quiet boy who's constantly bullied by a trio of cruel older boys at school.  When Eli moves in next door with her father, the two quickly become friends and Oskar falls for her hard.  She brings out an inner strength in Oskar and she seems to give him more love and attention than either of his emotionally distant parents.  However, Eli isn't like other girls: She doesn't go to school, she only comes out at night and she's constantly barefoot, unaffected by the cold Swedish winter.  What Oskar doesn't know is that Eli is actually a vampire.  The old man with her isn't her father but her caretaker, quietly killing innocents in the dead of night to collect blood for Eli to drink.  When one such collection goes awry, Eli is left to fend for herself and Oskar is soon confronted with the truth about his not-so-young love.

The two leads, played by Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, are simply incredible.  They compliment each other perfectly; Oskar is the quiet and withdrawn child of 80s divorce, yet he has a sort of earnest optimism at heart, while Eli is equal parts killer and romantic, conveying a world weariness in her eyes that belies her childlike appearance.  The vampire stuff is all handled very minimally yet effectively, and the concept of the caretaker, spending his life killing people both to keep Eli's secret hidden and to keep her violent urges in check is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale genre.  There's also a group of neighbors who provide some great low-key comic relief, helping to balance out the movie's tone.  When Eli kills one of them after her caretaker's failure, they begin to investigate, and each one of these adults has a sort of visually iconic moment in the film, from the fat guy surrounded by cats to the woman who suffers a memorable fate in a hospital room.  The ending is simply incredible, with a simply staged, visually arresting confrontation that makes everything up till that feel like violent foreplay.  And the very last scene brings the entire story full circle in a beautiful, wordless moment.  Director Tomas Alfredsson simply nails it, and you can see a lot of what works here translated into his follow up, the slow burn British spy flick Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Now, when a studio decides they're going to adapt a book into a movie, I'll generally avoid reading the book beforehand if it sounds like the kind of film that interests me.  As a rule, I accept that the book is almost always better than its adaptation, but I don't want to go into the film knowing what's going to happen in advance.  I want to experience the movie with fresh eyes and judge it on its own merits without constantly comparing it to a source material it almost certainly will not live up to.  Let Me In makes a strong case that I should take the same approach to American remakes of foreign films.

As I mentioned earlier, Let The Right One In hit American theaters the same year as the first Twilight movie.  Considering the instant fever it created at the box office, it's easy to see why a studio would be excited to jump on that bandwagon and produce their own adolescent vampire flick.  And to be fair, Let Me In is worlds better than pretty much all of the Twilight movies**.  It's got a pair of strong leads in Kodi Smit-McPhee (currently filming Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes) as Owen and Chloe Grace Moretz (appearing this year in the Carrie remake as well as reprising her role as Hit Girl in Kick Ass 2) as the vampire Abby.  Both are extremely talented young performers and their interpretations of the characters are reminiscent of their Swedish predecessors, but feel different enough keep you engaged throughout.  That's actually a minor miracle, considering that all of their dialogue is almost a word for word transcription of the original.  There are a few tweaks here are there, but on paper the two children are virtually unchanged.  One the one hand it's a smart choice because that's the heart of the film and there's a feeling of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."  On the other hand, it means that director Matt Reeves spends every other scene trying so hard to justify the movie's existence that he actually achieves the contrary.

There's a prevailing sense that movies like Let The Right One In have to be remade because American audiences not only hate reading subtitles, but they don't fall in for slow, moody character films that don't feature Hollywood stars.  Essentially, if there isn't an explosion or a car chase every 15 minutes, the viewers mentally check out.  So here we get a movie where Abby isn't just a little girl who kills people and drinks their blood, she physically transforms into a demonic creature with dark veiny skin and a deep growling voice.  When she attacks, it's usually with the help of some spotty CG so that she moves unnaturally fast.  Whereas the original caretaker killed people in secluded locations wearing a simple plastic coat to protect from blood spatter, the American caretaker (played by the great Richard Jenkins) hides in the backseats of cars wearing a black trash bag with cutout eye holes over his head like some kind of hokey serial killer.  If the script had actually explored that idea a little bit then it could have been kind of interesting.  But no, the real reason he wears a bag is because he has a large birthmark on his face, for no other reason except to make him easily identifiable when Owen comes across some old photographs.  This allows Reeves to explicitly explain what was quietly implied in the original.  Rather than simply getting caught in the act, Jenkins' caretaker has to get in a huge car accident. Granted it's a well shot sequence, but I could practically hear the studio notes begging Reeves to throw in more action.  Even more perplexing, there are a few simple moments, like a disfigurement and a fire effect, as well as the final confrontation in the pool that are jaw dropping in the original but kind of uninspired here.

I felt really bad for Elias Koteas though, as he's saddled with a boring police investigator who is an entirely new creation.  He's the spiritual replacement for the entertaining neighbors from The Right One, who are essentially relegated to background extras here.  I love Koteas (Casey Jones!) but he's stranded here, given nothing interesting to do and no background to keep the audience rooting for him in any way.  It's not only an unfortunate waste of talent, but it's an entirely unnecessary change that reeks of a studio trying to "appeal to American audiences."  Similarly, there's a baffling structural change, starting the movie in middle of the story and then quickly jumping back to the beginning.  Aside from revealing one of the better moments of the film, there's no particularly compelling reason for the temporal shift other than to start the movie on a more exciting note.  But it also presents something of a false narrative, implying a sort of mystery where none really exists.

I know it sounds like I'm putting Let Me In through the ringer here, but I actually think it's a pretty sharp little flick on its own.  I like Cloverfield a lot (although it's been a while since I last saw it) and I think Matt Reeves has got some serious chops.  I can't wait to see what he does with Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, as I've got a sneaking suspicion that he might be the perfect guy to wrangle the particular iteration of the story I think they're going to tell.  If Let Me In had been an original creation, I suspect that I would have been pretty impressed.  It's propulsive, well shot and it's got a top notch cast.  But in direct comparison to the original, there's really no contest.  The Right One manages to do so much more with so much less, and I kind of believe that if I had watched them in reverse order then the original would have felt like even more of an achievement.  But each have their own particular charms and I'm sure I'll find myself revisiting both from time to time, depending on what sort of mood I'm in.

This is hardly the first time a successful foreign film was quickly and less successfully adapted for American audiences and it certainly won't be the last.  And thus I'm left wondering, is this kind of thing really necessary?  Are Americans so averse to reading words on the screen and seeing unfamiliar faces that we have to take great films and churn them through the Hollywood machine just to make them more palatable to the lowest common denominator?  Aren't we essentially taking cinematic filet mignon and turning it into hot dogs?  Yes, original will always exist independently and the discerning viewer can always ignore adaptations in favor of the real thing, but there comes a point when the act itself become insulting to the original art.

Who else out there has seen both films?  Is there anyone who prefers Let Me In to Let The Right One In?  What order did you watch them?  I'm genuinely curious about how other people feel about these flicks, so sound off in the comments below!

*Lerman has agreed to guest curate some screenings for me in the coming weeks.  Needless to say, I'm fucking psyched.

**I actually enjoy certain sequences in both parts of Breaking Dawn.  Bill Condon had an appropriate grasp of just how ridiculous that franchise truly is and he handles stuff like the vampire cesarean and the final head-ripping battle sequence with gusto.

Title: Let The Right One In
Director: Tomas Alfredsson
Starring: Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar, Henrik Dahl
Year Of Release: 2008
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant

Title: Let Me In 
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas
Year Of Release: 2010
Viewing Method: DVD


  1. I've seen both films and, like you, I much prefer the original. Not surprising in my case, I suppose, as I'm Swedish and don't have the subtitle problem and am also tuned into the pensive Swedish style of film-making.

    I also think Let Me In is a good movie (which has two of my all-time favourite actors in it, Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas) but find it a bit redundant. I tend to agree with Mark Kermode that what works in LMI does so because it's basically copying LTROI. The changes Reeves made are, to my mind, mostly for the worse. He decided to do away with the local barflies which not only meant a loss of some of the humor in LTROI but also a loss of some of the subversive emotional wringer that LTROI puts you through. When Eli kills Jocke in the underpass, it's not just some random vampire-fodder getting served up - it's a person we've met and can empathize with.

    Eli lures him in by appealing to his concern for a child in distress and then murders him horribly before our eyes - and we still come out rooting for and sympathizing with the monster. That's quite a feat - and Alfredson pulls this off time and again. In LMI, all the CG, make-up and scary contact lenses are seemingly there to separate The Girl from The Monster which to me looks like a rather cheap way to make it easier for us to like The Girl. In LTROI it's obvious that The Girl IS The Monster but we're OK with that as long as Eli is there for Oskar.

    Another major change is substituting The Cop for Lacke. I agree that Elias Koteas has been given a hopeless part. The Cop isn't even dignified with a name which sort of underlines that he's not actually a character but merely a plot device to provide some kind of threat to Abby. I had no connection to this cop and felt nothing when he was killed by Abby. Now contrast this with Lacke's death, which brings all kinds of conflicting emotions. Seeing his dead stare you know that by rights he should be the tragic hero of the story - the man who loses his best friend, his lover and ultimately his life at the hands of a bloodthirsty vampire. Still, we perceive him as a threat to our little vampire girl and feel relieved that she comes out on top. Alfredson plays us like a violin.

    I also don't like how Reeves cheapens or even removes a couple of crucial choices that the characters of the story are faced with. In the case of Oskar/Owen I feel that Oskar's situation is really bad but not hopeless - he actually has a choice between staying with his mom or going with Eli. His parents are basically clueless about what's going on in his life but they do seem to care about him. Owen's parents are not just distant - they barely seem to exist. We never see his mom's face and his dad is just a disembodied voice on the phone.

    Add to this that Owen's bullies are not just nasty and brutal but completely over-the-top evil and you get the feeling that Owen is more pushed towards Abby than actually making a choice. When he looks up at Abby at the pool, it's not the look of joy and love we see on Oskar's face but more a look of shock and awe, maybe even fear. The other choice I'm thinking about is Virginia's choice in LTROI to hold onto her humanity by taking her own life rather than living as a vampire. In LMI, her death plays out as just a freak (in more ways than one) accident. Sorry for the long post, LTROI just happens to be one of my favourite films (can ya tell?).

    1. Thanks for this! Great response. I'll assume since you're Swedish you saw LTROI before LMI?

  2. Yes, I saw them in the correct order. ;)