For better or worse, 2008 became a watershed year for cinematic depictions of vampires with the release of the genre’s biggest phenomenon (and punching bag), Twilight. The franchise’s rabid fan base of predominantly teenage girls provoked a rather hyperbolic and admittedly childish backlash from both the horror community and the online film community as being an illegitimate and emasculating portrayal of vampires. If only they knew that in that same year, a disturbing yet realistic take on a vampire romance was readily available for them to go see. They would just have to go to an art-house theater to see it.
Let the Right One In is a 2008 Swedish vampire horror movie directed by Tomas Alfredson, whose filmmaking career following the release of this breakout film has produced mixed to outright disappointing results. His follow-up, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, while it received mostly positive critical reception and earned Gary Oldman his first Oscar nomination, was a much drier and less viscerally engaging venture to what he has previously shown to be capable. His return back to the horror/thriller genre with The Snowman was an unmitigated disaster that even he disowns as being a rushed and unfinished mess.
Inversely, the remake’s director, Matt Reeves, has only seen an increase in his filmmaking trajectory since. Coming off of directing the J.J. Abrams-produced found-footage monster movie Cloverfield, Reeves was given the opportunity to direct the American remake of Let the Right One In, simply titled Let Me In, and has gone on to direct two critically and financially successful entries in the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise, as well as being attached to direct an upcoming Batman film.
Both versions of the story follow a bullied young boy (Oskar played by Kare Hedebrant in the original and Owen played by Kodi Smit-McPhee in the remake) who befriends and begins to develop a relationship with a young vampire girl (Eli played by Lina Leandersson in the original and Abby played by Chloe Grace-Moretz in the remake). Both live in isolation due to their own respective reasons and together form a personal bond as they each try to survive in their individual environments.
Let the Right One In paints a unique and subversive perspective on the depictions of vampires in media. Our perceived conceptions of vampires are typically predatory, almost animalistic monster stalking its prey in the dead of night, almost as if it’s for sport or pleasure. Much of the originally intended tragedy of the vampire as a being who is cursed to lurk in the shadows and feed off of human blood for sustenance tends to get lost in these iterations where the creature is instead depicted as a nefarious monster that needs to be destroyed.
The best depictions of vampires are the ones that understand this sympathy, as well as the looming threat that they present. It allows the vampire to have personality and a seductive charm that endears them not only to the audience but to the prey that they are attempting to lure. By having the vampire be a child, Let the Right One In trades the sexual seduction that is normally associated with vampires, for a sympathetic innocence that she uses to her predatory advantage. One of the most memorable scenes in both versions has the girl huddled at the end of a tunnel as a passerby attempts to help the poor child in need. As she draws him in closer, she uses this opportunity to pounce.
The development of a romantic relationship between two young, preteenage children is one that needs to be handled with specific attention and balance to assure that the relationship is believable and endearing without being uncomfortable or creepy. Let the Right One In manages to capture the intimacy of the two leads’ relationship, yet refrains from ever veering it into a physical manifestation of the attraction towards one another.
The film also builds sympathy for the blood-thirsty vampire by treating her necessity for blood as the only vaccine for a life-threatening illness. When deprived of blood for a long period of time, she becomes weak, pale, and sickly in a way that only blood can cure. It provides an emotional connection between her and her father (played by Per Ragnar in the original and Richard Jenkins in the remake), who is the only person that she can rely on to go out and collect blood for her when she is too weak and bedridden to do it herself.
This relationship is possibly the only area in which the remake improves over the original, given Richard Jenkins’ wonderfully sympathetic and paternal performance that highlights his undying love for his daughter and his dedication to protecting her at all costs. His subplot results in possibly the most cinematically impressive sequence in the film, in which he attempts to steal a car, which eventually crashes and rolls down a hill, all shot from the perspective of the car’s interior.
Let Me In is a prime example of a shot-for-shot remake that feels like it was only made for people who don’t like to read subtitles. That is not to say that all American remakes of foreign language films suffer from this same problem. Just one year after Let Me In was released, David Fincher remade another critically beloved Swedish film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with his own distinct cinematic vision that still stays true to the story of the original, but expands upon the characters, their relationship, and the execution of sequences in ways that set it apart from the original and allows it to stand on its own.
Let Me In recreates the original to an almost slavish degree, from the sequence of events, to the dialogue, even down to specific blocking and shot composition are emulated to replicate the original. The pacing and atmosphere of the original allow for it to effectively take its time in developing its characters, their relationship with each other, and the story surrounding them. In the remake’s attempts to simply provide a chronological scene-for-scene retelling of the original with the style and pacing of a mainstream American horror movie, the intimate emotion and atmosphere of the original feels rushed in its attempts to endear you to its characters and engross you into the environment.
Its slavish devotion to the original is even more concerning because it doesn’t bother to attempt to improve upon any of the original’s shortcomings, which easily could have been implemented. The bullies in the original film are ridiculously cruel to an almost cartoonish degree that real-life bullies do not operate on. Their abuse towards him extends far beyond simple middle school bullying and borders on attempted murder.
While the bullying does create an interesting juxtaposition between Oskar’s vengeful blood thirst and Eli’s literal thirst for blood, that connection never feels fully formed beyond this point. The last fifteen minutes of the film also feel as if they could have been removed since the film feels like it has a clear ending point before that, and everything following that is only meant to resolve the bully conflict which could have been handled better or just removed entirely.
It’s hard to make vampires feel new and inventive anymore, given the various interpretations that have been made ever since the earliest days of literature. Let the Right One In gives new life into a genre that had remained mostly stagnant. It creates such an engrossing cold and isolated atmosphere that reflects the inner mindset of its characters and develops a genuinely sweet relationship between its two reclusive leads. Even though the remake can feel like a tedious retread for anyone who’s seen the original, it’s such a refreshing and unique take on a vampire story, that there’s still the possibility that anyone who hasn’t already seen the original might be able to come away from the American version with more of an appreciation, or better yet, inspire them to seek out the excellent original.