Horror Is As Horror Does
Let Me In
Dir. Matt Reeves
Looks can kill and curiosity is never your best friend—at least not in a horror film. Let Me In starts with the intensity of a horror film. An ambulance winds its way through the dark in a snow storm; a series of bizarre murders in town evoke police suspicion of some satanic cult. We are in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Reagan era. The fight between good and evil is stressed in Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech on TV and a single mother’s mealtime prayer. When her son, meek and sensitive 12-year-old Owen, spies on his neighbors with a telescope, we expect him to discover something thrilling and formidable, and for his voyeurism to complement the police’s investigating eye. By the time our expectation is finally met, however, the story has become far more complex.
Much of the complexity originates from the film’s source material. Let Me In is a worthy and intriguing cover of the dark and sweet Swedish coming-of-age vampire romance Let the Right One In—based on the bestselling novel of the same title by John Ajvide Lindqvist—directed by Tomas Alfredson in 2008. Rather than recreating the original’s art house aesthetics, the remake draws more from classic horror conventions. The result keeps the unique gloom and poignancy of the original, but gives the story a more sinister undertone.
The police procedural and Owen’s voyeurism are among Reeves’s inventions. In the original, the boy’s loud and bored neighbors gather to drink beer and lament about the bygone good old days to a room of unruly cats; here they become scenes through the other end of a telescope that offer Owen his only pleasure, apart from the Now & Later candies bought with dollar bills stolen from his mother’s purse. A worried, middle-aged woman whose heavy make-up belies her wrinkles in the original is replaced by a smooth-faced brunette beauty in a red satin robe, caressed by a lover.
In this context, when a girl of Owen’s age moves into his apartment cluster and the purview of his telescope, we expect her to be sexualized, and the film does make her budding sexuality unsettling. In Let the Right One In, the newcomer, Eli (Lina Leandersson), is dark-eyed, ravine-haired, with an aloof and androgynous look. Her physical features not only contrast with the pale blondness of the male lead, but form part of the opposition of light and darkness in the film’s overall art design. In the remake, the Biblically-named Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz) is blonde, with a look at once more innocent and more melancholic. The lush amber tone that permeates many scenes between her and Owen suggests a Lolita association. Owen, on the other hand, is shown to be gender-troubled. He is called “little girl” by some bullies at school, whose torments are barely veiled threats of castration. This makes Abby’s repeated statement “I’m not a girl” more unnerving.
The film, nevertheless, does not turn Abby into a straightforward embodiment of forbidden sex, but does a good job of retaining the original’s sense of loneliness and sorrow. Loneliness hurts harder with the first glimpse of love; and sorrow is what lasts when love reveals the dark secret at its heart. Let Me In is faithful, sometimes too faithful, to the original’s depiction of the tentative and heartwarming encounters between the two young misfits, down to the details like the Rubik’s Cube they share and the metal playground in the courtyard of their shabby apartment complex. In the changed context of sex and politics, however, their precarious bond becomes more dangerous and lethal. In the original, loneliness is as ubiquitous as the brutal violence that interrupts the growth of the central relationship. Murders and fatal attacks are presented matter-of-factly, often in meditative long shots merging them with other ignored happenings in a bleak universe. Symmetrical compositions give a sense of stasis. An old man sits in the corner of a dark room, panting; on the other end a young student is hanged upside down. In morbid times like these, the killer and the victim appear as parallels in some shared existential crisis. The violence evoked by the vampire lore is largely a metaphor of this crisis. Loneliness is most pathetically shown in the vampire etiquette referred to in the film’s title, that vampires cannot enter a room without the invitation of a human being. When Eli, bloody due to the breach of this etiquette, pleas her human counterpart, “Be me, for a while,” she articulates the despair felt by all the characters.
In Let Me In, on the other hand, violence is made more explicit and visceral, and directly linked to evil. A murder takes place on the edge of civilization—beside the railroad where a train rushes through while the act of cruelty takes place. The dark room scene is replaced by a car crash, shot in one uninterrupted take from the murderer’s point of view inside the vehicle. These breathtaking and bone-chilling scenes contrast sharply with the vulnerability and melancholy of the central relationship, building tension between the two storylines as opposing forces in the film. Attacks from a hungry Abby are brutal and gory. One of them is shown from Owen’s point of view, pushing the story to its climax. Owen wrestles with his sentiments and sense of morality, but his question about good and evil is ignored by a pious mother, an absent father, and a nation preoccupied with “transcending its past evils.” When the two storylines clash in a pivotal scene, he has to make the fatal choice.
The clash also complicates the character of Abby, who figures in both storylines. As the film unfolds, Abby reminds one more and more of Molly Haskell’s description of film noir heroines in From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies: “She had sensual lips, or long hair that, passing over her face like Veronica Lake’s, cast a shadow of moral ambiguity.” When she kisses Owen while wearing a blood-soaked white dress of his mother’s, or caresses his head with blood dripping from her hands, Abby takes on the role of an underage femme fatale—she has been 12 “for a long time.” But she is a deeply pathetic fatale. Once and again we see her distorted face juxtaposed with the bloody wounds on the victims of her gruesome attacks. When she raises the same distorted face to Owen’s bleeding hand as he cuts his finger in an effort to “make a pact” with her, our hearts break together with his. An old photo of her and a boy of her age suggests a series of past relationships similar to the one enacted before our eyes. Like the seductress on the Dutchman ship, Abby is forever trapped in an endless circle of bitter and fatal romances that lead to evil and sorrow.
LU CHEN is a contributor to the Rail.