New Materials From “Case 39”

“Let Me In” surprises in that despite being an unnecessary remake of Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 acclaimed Swedish vampire film “Let the Right One In”, it avoids most of the traps that so many Hollywood films fall into when adapting foreign language films for less discerning audiences (ie. those who refuse to watch subtitled films) within the Western market.

Its slavish adherence to Alfredson’s work and failed attempts at exploring effective new angles means this never truly stands apart as its own adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s original novel. Nevertheless it is a commendable achievement by all involved and a surprisingly more earnest and effective work than you’d expect to see within this genre.

Many of the expected changes that come with any cross-Atlantic translation show up here. The subtle, aloof and grounded sense of empathy in European filmmaking usually gets replaced by the heightened, obvious and grossly manipulative emotional antics that Hollywood films love to wallow in.

Director Matt Reeves does manage to reign it in for the most part with only the occasional appearance of needless sentimentality or arch bit of characterisation betraying the subtler approach of the original. Most importantly though he gets the two key kid characters and their relationship right.

“Kick Ass” scene-stealer Chloe Moretz demonstrates remarkable earnestness in the very different role of the young girl with a dark, blood-soaked side. Moretz nails the characterisation throughout, even during the overdone moments requiring her to be in make-up, and outperforms her Swedish counterpart Lina Leandersson in the scenes demonstrating the character’s acceptance of her lot in life and her trepidation over disrupting that.

Though not as good as his remarkable Swedish counterpart, young Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee delivers an adept performance here with convincingly frustrated and frightened character work which drastically improves on his frankly annoying turn in “The Road” last year. His darker side, built-up rage from the deftly played divorcing parents and the insipidly overdone bullying scenes, is handled just right while the pair’s friendship and eventual closeness is given the appropriate time to germinate naturally.

A shift of the focus to the kids and away from the other supporting characters works better than expected as well, as is the amateur sounding trick of never showing the faces of the boy’s parents. One distinct character change is the vampire’s guardian, and Richard Jenkins delivers solid work in a role that makes his and the girl’s relationship more paternal than parasitic in nature.

Their backstory with each other and his motivation for helping her are kept deliberately murkier while at the same time we seem to sympathise with him more as a character than we did in the Swedish film. The changes of his character’s relationship to both the girl and boy are subtle, but are the most welcome of all the nipping and tucking Reeves’ version has done.

By changing him however, this version omits some of the darker elements of the Swedish film toned down from the original novel, yet still hinted at enough to keep an edge. There’s no question of the vampire’s gender in this take, while any hint of the vampire/guardian relationship involving a more pedophiliac angle has been completely excised.

One small but important change that hasn’t worked well however is the action elements. Much like “The Omen” remake, the film re-stages several key death scenes with the same camera setups and shots, but feels the need to throw in some horrendously bad CG effects to try and deliver a bigger impact. Say what you will about the admittedly cheesy ‘cat swarm’ scene in the original, the first attack in the tunnel here is laughably worse and turns our supposedly dangerous vampire girl into what looks like something that escaped out of scrapped animation tests for “The Mummy Returns”.

Subsequent scenes are similarly fucked up, though the famed pool sequence at the end is handled quite well while a new addition in the form of a first-person perspective car crash is superbly executed. Elias Koteas shows up as a cop who essentially takes over the subplot that the neighbour character Lacke served in the Swedish film, but adds nothing particularly new or different to his portrayal to take it beyond serving as a plot device.

The shift of locale from early 80’s outer Stockholm to early 80’s New Mexico has little impact, the wintry exteriors are a tad less eerie while hints of the Cold War playing out in the background remove some of the timelessness that came with the original. The setting is necessary though as a modern day take, with cell phones and heightened surveillance, would change the very nature of the story. Production values all around are quite strong, aside from a rather awful score which comes as a major surprise considering composer Michael Giacchino’s consistently brilliant previous work.

Ultimately “Let Me In” will occupy an interesting and I suspect quite different place in people’s affections. There’ll be fans of the excellent but admittedly overrated original who’ll consider any attempts at a re-tread everything from pointless (a fair call) to a sacrilege (reactionary nonsense), no matter how strong it is.

There’ll be those who consider this superior for its flashier production values and more ‘accessible emotional’ character elements which frankly tells you more about their taste and level of emotional maturity than anything else. There’ll also be those lucky enough to see this with fresh eyes who’ll probably walk away fans, and those newcomers who’ll find the pacing tedious and the lack of humour or mythology annoying.

I suspect most though will probably see it for what it is – an accomplished work that may be a needless retread, but one that is respectful and smartly done. It doesn’t offer anything really new to it that will draw away fans of the old one, but at the same time doesn’t soil it either. It’s rare that Hollywood actually delivers a remake that isn’t either outright shit or distinctly inferior, so its best to savour these few occasions when we can.