Thursday, October 27, 2011

Let the Right One In (2008) / Let Me In (2010)

Some relationships can suck the life right out of you.

Vampire children have always been freaky
Though generally billed as horror, the story told in Let the Right One In / Let Me In is really a genre buster. This story about a loner boy and his relationship with the vampire next door has horror, romance, nostalgia, and coming-of-age all rolled into one.

Unlike so many import films, the American version is extremely similar to the Swedish original. Both films are based off of the Swedish best-selling novel Låt den rätte komma in and were both produced with extensive input from the author, which might account for their similarity. In fact, the differences that are there have so little impact on the central story that just discussing them will make them seem more drastic than they are. But, hey, that is what we are here for...

Most of the changes made in the remake simply make it more accessible to American audiences. The story is transported from a Stockholm suburb to Los Alamos. The names are swapped for ones without umlauts. The greatest alteration is changing the main pursuant of the vampire—the Van Helsing, if you will—from a lone vigilante figure to a police detective. To my American sensibilities, this lends the overall tale greater believability. As to how the story is told, each film is blatant in ways the other is not, and likewise, each is subtle about different things. 

From my perspective, the difference in cinematography was a bigger change than anything done to the story. Most European cinema outside of Britain and France strikes me as a bit of a throwback to when cameras were kept still, cuts were minimal, and shots were either wide or tight—period. Conversely, the American version makes use of more perspective shots and varying angles cut together at intervals of only a few seconds. Both films are shot so artfully, I hesitate to name a better, but I must admit greater comfort with the American style.

Talar du svenska?
The biggest change, surprisingly, came from the way the two leads were portrayed. The original vampire, Eli (Lina Leandersson), was kept rather androgynous, even dubbing the girl’s dialogue with the voice of an adult woman (Elif Ceylan). Her appearance is dark and brooding and, well, very much what one might expect in a vampire. The remake’s vampire, Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), on the other hand is decidedly feminine, blonde, and entirely unassuming as a creature of the night. To that end, her being a vampire is much more shocking.

The boys were cast more similarly, the biggest difference being the original’s Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is blonde and the remake’s Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is dark. However, there is something about the portrayal of Oskar that made me want to side with the bullies from time-to-time. Owen was a more sympathetic character.

Incidentally, one very important setting to both films is a jungle-gym in the courtyard of the apartment complex where the boy and girl live. I happen to think the Swedish film has a cooler-looking jungle gym. Scandinavian design: what more can I say?

At the heart of both films is a budding friendship between two lonely souls: a boy who lives in the limbo created by his parents’ divorce and is the target of bullies and a girl with enough secrets to have mastered evasion at an age too young. Of course, we the audience know early on that the girl is a vampire. Their mutual condition as outsiders is the basis of their bond.

The thing I love most about these films is the way they challenge archetypes. While this is certainly not a novel deed, it is the heart of their shared story. (To that end, I will simply refer to the characters by their type, rather than use names.) The young girl, a symbol of innocence and life, is actually a harbinger of death and maybe even the corruptor of souls. But she is also a mentor to the boy, encouraging him to stand up to his tormentors and ultimately promising to be his protector. The American version smashes us over the head to suggest an archetypal relationship between the pair by having Romeo and Juliet as one of the boy’s class assignments, but this too is disrupted as both characters continue beyond the credits. Of course, an unaging child vampire presents its own challenges to the coming of age narrative. And in the end, the boy seems to retain the fullness of his childish idealism in spite of all that transpires before then.

Some critics have been quick to point out the areas in which one or both films uphold certain archetypes, and are all too eager to call them clichés. There is the single mother, the distant father, the bully who is victim to a greater bully, the lone vigilante/detective , even the foreigner gym teacher. All play their parts as expected. For my part, I find them to be the necessary links to reality which make this fantasy tale more engaging.

Nej, jag behöver inte
Perhaps more important than the rest of these archetypes, however, is the loyal guardian: the man who would seem to be the girl’s father. In actuality, he is an assistant of sorts, going out to kill and gather blood on her behalf. His devotion to the girl is absolute and he is jealous of her new friend. Was he once like the boy? Moreover, he is old and tired and he makes mistakes. After failing in his duties once too many, his final act is one of poignant self-sacrifice.

Naturally, as the story unfolds, the boy discovers that his friend is a vampire. I applaud the manner in which both films handle vampires as a matter of fact. There is no feigning a world where vampires are totally unheard of, nor is there any grappling with the idea that a thing of legend has sprung into reality. The girl is a vampire, and that is that.

At nearly the same time as the boy discovers his friend’s true nature, the detective/vigilante is closing in. This sets the stage for the first part of the story’s double climax. Here is where I think distinctions between the two films become more important.

In both films, the vigilante/detective character intrudes upon the girl as she sleeps during the daytime. In both she is saved because the boy creates enough distraction for her to attack her would-be attacker. In the original, as the girl is subduing her attacker, the boy quickly shuts the door and runs off. But in the remake, the boy stares down at the baffled victim as he gasps for help before slowly, calculatingly closing the door. I like the second treatment better because it gives the boy a moment of catharsis to overcome, and we get to see the decision made. In the original, this catharsis must take place off camera.

The second climax comes after the girl has supposedly fled town. The bullies corner the boy at the school swimming pool. While the eldest bully is holding the boy’s head underwater, the girl comes and saves him by dispatching the tormentors. The original was a stroke of cinematic beauty. If the terms “massacre” and “understated” ever belonged in the same sentence, it is here. The remake, however, showed a much more brutal scene and frankly seemed uninspired.

The final scene shows the boy on a train seated beside a large box. The girl taps from inside the box and the boy taps back. While each film certainly alludes to the idea that the boy is stepping into the shoes of the guardian that preceded him, it somehow isn’t until this moment in both that it really hits home. The jarring realization that the story has happened countless times before and it will happen countless times again is tale setting itself up successfully as an archetype of its own.


  1. I haven't seen either film, so it's hard for me to comment, except to say that I think the transition from a foreign film to an American remake is often a fascinating comparison. I have two films (a Japanese film and a Korean film) that I've been meaning to review by comparing them to their American remakes, which just didn't hold up to the original, but I haven't had the time to put those reviews together with enough care yet.

    I think that too often, Hollywood loses the very essence of what made the foreign film so interesting. Yet, on the other hand, sometimes Hollywood manages to cut away the clunky parts that aren't "culture" per se, but are instead just poor filmmaking.

    This sounds like an interesting set of films.

  2. I have a feeling that at least one of those films is on my list, as well.

    I wanted to give this film attention because 1) I was very impressed with the successful translation and 2) I was irritated by all the other comparison reviews I had read claiming that the remake stripped the film of its subtlety.

    I felt that was an unjust statement. I did note in the article is that each film is subtle in different ways and overt in different ways, so I can see how something that was hinted at in the first film feels like a bludgeon to the head in the other. I guess it is so often true that fanboys will evoke the criticism even when it isn't.

    I also came across a lot of criticism of the religious theme that was incorporated into the American version. It was derided as a trope. I say, not so. What little religion is injected into the American version comes solely from the boy's mother, and then only in the form of a table grace and a religious program on the radio. There certainly weren't any ninja priests jumping around.

    One thing I wanted to note in the article and it somehow didn't fit in anywhere was that there is never a fang bared in either film. I thought that was very neat, but I guess I don't have much else to say about that.