Well, that didn't take long. Barely two years after the elegant Swedish vampire flick Let the Right One In garnered well-deserved critical praise and disappointing stateside box-office returns, we have a tricked out, user-friendly English-language version—the same creepy story, only with more gore and less of those annoying words at the bottom of the screen. (Blood: good; reading: bad.) The widespread apprehension that greeted Let Me In was understandable; why scramble to remake a film that was almost perfect in the first place? The fact that Cloverfield director Matt Reeves was both writing and directing the remake didn't exactly put minds at ease, even when he made the inspired choice to cast Kick Ass's Chloe Grace Moretz as the child vampire who befriends a lonely young boy. Horror nerds were practically apoplectic over what would surely be a disaster.
Happily, we were wrong, and wrong in a really big way. Reeves' film doesn't exactly surpass Tomas Alfredson's haunting 2008 original, but it stands on its own as one of the finest American thrillers of the year. Let Me In is a smart, savvy film that has all the brains and, even more importantly, all the heart of its predecessor. Simultaneously touching and disturbing, grisly and beautiful, this is a movie that explores corners of the horror genre that rarely make it onto film. By turns tender and brutal, Reeves' pitch-perfect remake offers enough visceral horror to please gorehounds, but it's far more concerned with opening veins of the figurative sort. Few recent movies have been quite this moving.
Reeves has made only minor adjustments to the plot. Owen (The Road's Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a friendless 12-year-old boy struggling to make it through a stark and snowy New Mexico winter in 1983. His mother, who is both an alcoholic and a religious zealot, is oblivious to the torments that Owen endures every day at the hands of a trio of vicious middle-school bullies. We get the feeling Owen is headed for some serious trouble; he spends his evenings acting out revenge fantasies while spying on his neighbors through his bedroom telescope.
Things begin to change for Owen when a strange young girl moves into his apartment complex. Abby (Moretz), who smells odd and walks barefoot through the complex's snowy courtyard, warns him that she can't be his friend, but a tentative friendship ensues anyway—along with a series of strange murders that begins with Abby's arrival. Owen knows something is very wrong with his new friend, but he's smitten, even when Abby wants to know if he'd like her even if she wasn't a girl. (If you've read the John Ajvide Lindqvist novel that inspired the film, you know what a loaded question that is.)
To his credit, Reeves is more concerned with the touching and disquieting relationship between Owen and Abby than with Let Me In's more horrific elements. The film's trailer, with its emphasis on creepy makeup and CG effects, does it a disservice. Those things are certainly there, and they're considerably more dramatic than in the Swedish original, but Reeves uses them to underscore the film's emotional impact. When Owen sees what Abby becomes and what she's capable of, his devotion to her is even more remarkable, and perhaps more telling of what lies in the boy's tortured heart. The scare scenes are genuinely frightening, and completely devoid of shock chords, handheld camera work, or any of the other tricks that lesser films employ. When she's on the prowl, Abby becomes something feral and violent and distinctly not human. CG work is used to masterful effect as we watch the tiny vampire subdue and consume her victims. No seductive neck-biting-as-metaphor-for-sex stuff here—just primal predation, and it's chilling.
Though Reeves remains mostly faithful to the original film, he makes a few notable divergences. While Alfredson spent considerable time with the adults who populate the children's world, Reeves only spares a few moments for anyone who has already navigated the treacherous waters of puberty. He adds a soft-spoken police investigator, played by Elias Koteas, to the mix, and gives Richard Jenkins a few memorable moments as Abby's put-upon keeper, but Owen's parents are practically nonentities; we hear his father's voice only over the phone, and his mother's face is never shown on camera. It's a trade-off that mostly works. There's no room for the unsettling cat scene that was so memorable in the original, but we get to spend more time observing and understanding the story's emotional core: the relationship between Owen and Abby, and the repercussions it might hold for both of them. It's not so much a remake, then, as a companion to Alfredson's dark fairy tale. Both films deserve a place of honor in the cannon of modern horror.