Owen and Abby, both 12, are what some kids in a suburban school in Los Alamos, New Mexico, would call “besties” — close friends. Unknown to them is that the two have just started going steady. They’re quite an odd couple, those two. Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), looking undernourished and underweight for his age, has a familiar face, especially to a trio of bullies who hacks on him every chance they get, taunting his girlie looks. Indeed, if you dressed him up in white gingham and touched up his face a bit, he could pass for a girl. But nobody has ever laid eyes on Abby (Chloe Moretz) who’s just moved in next door to Owen and his alcoholic mom. She looks rather moody but otherwise normal, so who’d ever guess that she has been 12 “for a very long time” and that she’s in fact a vampire?
The pact between Owen and Abby is as simple as the games children play. Their exclusive club has only one rule: If one of them wishes to enter the room of the other, one must ask and wait for a clear answer. A nod, a gesture or an approving look won’t do; one has got to say it. Never mind that Abby has special powers which she could use to have her way. She can easily leap from the ground straight up to his room, or smash the window with her wolverine teeth. Indeed, we see her later decapitating a victim in one stroke, with one quick crunch of the jaw. But clearly she’s fond of Owen and won’t ever do anything that would harm him. But can she be trusted?
Going steady doesn’t mean they’re “doing it.” They date, they hug, huddle and even kiss each other’s cheeks, but they keep their affair pure and chaste. This brings us to the chosen style of “Let Me In,” a virtual reproduction of that of the widely acclaimed Swedish 2008 horror drama “Let the Right One In.” No style guide could be as simple and as effective as its basic principle: that less is more.
The unlikely bonding of two people who are essentially still children could have provided opportunities for the original film’s director Thomas Alfredson and the remake’s director Matt Reeves to burrow into the deep corners of preteen sexuality, resulting in titillating moments that would not have been out of place in a vampire flick. But no, what we get is a drama that peels the genre to its bare minimum, an inspired depiction of pure horror and a redefinition of it.
“Let Me In” as a title is an improvement of the original. As a movie, it aims to please the fans of the original — some of who may not welcome the unsolicited product –- and make it accessible to a bigger audience who tend to shy away from subtitled movies. The new version tries to double the pleasure and to stand on its own. Like Alfredson, Reeves’s modus operandi is slow exposition, a relentless, drip-by-drip account of what happened in a suburb Los Alamos that snowy winter of 1983 during the early Reagan years. The city is one of America’s most affluent and has the distinction of being one of the major sites of the Allied countries’ Manhattan Project of the 1940s that led to the invention of the atomic bomb.
***(Spoiler Alert: The following may contain details that could spoil your viewing pleasure.)***
Reeves (who also wrote the screenplay) strips the main characters to their bare essentials, to a fault, resulting in a slow-moving first half that is stronger in mood than in plot movement. Owen’s character is defined by the sadistic bullying in school, while Abby’s is framed by her constant thirst for blood as supply dwindles, and the danger that the law would catch up with her and her guardian. They need to connect, they long for protection and they cannot exist in a vacuum.
The face of Owen’s mother, a devoted but alcoholic Catholic, is studiously kept out of sight, an unnecessary and puzzling tack that could be excused as an attempt to increase the sense of Owen’s isolation, shedding light on why he finds comfort in Abby. The police detective (Elias Koteas) hounding the killer in a spate of gruesome murders in the area helps a bit to build suspense. With his every appearance, we come to witness another intriguing, bone-chilling happening.
“Let Me In” discards many conventions of vampire films. There’s none of the crucifixes, garlic gunk, holy water and mirror phobia chronicled in a long list of vampire pictures and, happily, none of the high-tech dabbling of recent ones. The coffin concept lives on, but in the form of a sinister-looking room that Abby shares with his stepfather (Richard Jenkins). Also kept is the idea of sunrays as a vampire slayer, as well as the vampires’ powers of flight and instant mutations. There’s only a hint of the dreaded viral infection transmitted during blood-sucking, while vampire families’ ritual of sharing blood is shown in a tender but startling scene between Abby and her guardian parent.
The second half of “Let Me In” operates on the level of horror classics. Carefully paced, the suspense and the shockers pile on to each other and what was a simple storytelling in the first half becomes a more complex interweaving of several story threads. The restraints are lifted, making way for fascinating sequences.
The killings become increasingly bloody, including an attack inside a young man’s car and another that takes place inside a tunnel (where the split-second decapitation occurs). A body bursting in flames instantaneously is quite a sight, if only in a flash. While busy killing, the vampire morphs into several beasts in a row, now looking vaguely like a wolf, and in a wink shifting into the contour of a demon or some monster rising from wisps and swirls of gray smoke.
Two extraordinary scenes
Of special interest to fans of horror and suspense are two scenes that define the creators of this film and the original as genuine film artists. The first occurs during a class excursion to a frozen lake where Owen, accidentally gets hold of an ice hockey stick and, when threatened, follows Abby’s advice to the letter (“you gotta strike back hard”), punctuated by shrieks of terror from his classmates. The other scene comes later at the school swimming pool, where the bullies exact a cruel vendetta against Owen.
“Let Me In” does not flinch away from graphic images of violence and mayhem –- blood smeared on the lips, acid trickling down and searing the face, a frail young body being dragged on concrete –- but it does so with a certain grace and never in excess. They serve one purpose: to advance its theme of the presence and persistence of evil. The evil in Los Alamos, as it was in Sweden’s Blackeberg, permeates the air, ready to pounce anytime and is bent on perpetuating itself. It takes many forms, from something as banal as school bullying, as sad as a messy divorce to something as tragic as the murder of people we love.
We also learn something rarely mentioned in vampire movies: that evil will choose annihilation over being subjected to the laws of man. This is conveyed by the sequence where Abby’s stepfather mutilates his own face to delete his identity and later jumps from the hospital window to self-destruct on the snow. The old man’s escape weapon is sulfuric acid. Another man of evil, Adolf Hitler, preferred a cyanide pill.
From the start of production, this movie was going to float or sink depending on its two lead characters. As Owen and Abby, Smit-McPhee and Moretz were lucky to have a director in Reeves, who clearly has great rapport with preteens; a very able cinematographer Greig Fraser who frames them in the most fitting angles; and an editor who makes up through cuts and timing what the young actors lack in finesse. Their roles get a boost from the more talented Dylan Minnette who as Kenny is a natural villain, high school bully and closet wimp.
Precisely because of their complete lack of artifice, Smit-McPhee’s unsullied looks and air of vulnerability combined with Moretz’s angel-to-demon transformations convince us and prevail, down to the movie’s final twist. They leave a memorable and tragic portrait of a boy from the world of imperfect humans and a girl from the netherworld of the undead — he the flesh-and-blood Romeo and she the vampiric Juliet — trying to make sense of their doomed existence.