Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Let Me In - review

(if you haven't seen 'Let The Right One In', this contains mild spoilers)

Last night I saw Let Me In - the feared/anticipated remake of Thomas Alfredson’s majestic Let the Right One In. Alfredson’s original, gentle, understated vampire fable received one of the most rapturous receptions I have seen at any festival, ever – with the exception of Del Toro's Pans Labyrinth – and effectively earned the status of an instant classic. So the ire amongst fans was palpable - and understandable - at the announcement that the new Hammer stable were to immediately remake the film for the US. Predictable grumblings ensued, and I have to admit to feeling a certain level of concern myself – that is until two things happened.

Firstly, I read John Ajvide Lindqvist book which if you haven’t, and you’ve seen the Swedish film, you must remedy immediately. In fact remedy it anyway. It’s a terrific companion piece, a book which works wonderfully well particularly after you’ve seen the film - shedding light on some of the darker material hinted at onscreen. There is a LOT going on in it.

Secondly, Matt Reeves was then confirmed as the director. Now for my money Reeves’ Cloverfield is a near-perfect film, a 70s Spielberg quality, thrill-delivering shaky cam shocker; one of the most audacious, confident and dazzling genre films of the last decade.

The natural thought for me at this juncture, and for many others too I'm sure, was that perhaps Reeves might go back to the book and take a very different approach. There’s no way he would just remake the understated original in a US setting, surely?

Well the strange thing is that Reeves has pretty much done exactly that, but the result is so impressive that I left the cinema both surprised and affected in equal measure. My companions were not so convinced. I’m not quite sure why I feel this way, and why I didn’t share their disappointment but the answer lies, I think, in the ‘small stuff‘. Reeves’ film makes tiny tweaks and modifications, some work, some don’t. It’s like a fantastically realised cover version that sounds almost the same but is a testament to how tiny alterations can affect remarkable changes in a film’s emotional register.

Reeves' film sticks very, very closely to the original, surprisingly filtering the narrative even further and distilling it down to it’s core essence – the heartbreaking relationship between a bullied, lonely young boy; Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a damaged, mysterious monstrous 'girl'; Abby (ChloĆ« Grace Moretz).

Effectively this decision marginalises the presence of Abby’s 'father' ('Hakan' in the book); a man for whom the term 'special relationship' barely scratches the surface - and effectively jettisons the darker subtext of their bond (explored in hideous depth in the novel).

Where Reeves has modified, the changes are ingenious and the re-routing from Sweden to Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1983 is a complete masterstroke. The roots of trickle-down economic disharmony are being sown and this political context is handled lightly, neither heavy handed or forced. The poverty and social collapse of Stockholm from Alfredson's film is replaced with an America teetering into a darker age of its own; Reagan is in full ‘evil empire’ mode, warning on the television of communist threat and there are various nods to the ‘satanic panic‘ that engulfed early 80s America (which also forms the basis of Ti West’s brilliant recent House of the Devil). The atmosphere of doom and moral panic is extremely persuasive.

I’m not sure the additional police procedural elements really add much to the film, but it's always a pleasure to see Elias Koteas who plays the investigator here. It's easy to forget what a fine actor he is, and he’s on good form - barely recognisable under a large moustache and what appear to be Stanley Tucci's paedo-for-hire clothes from The Lovely Bones.

Richard Jenkins (from Six Feet Under) essays the 'father' very effectively but the characters presence is reduced. His brief moments linger in the memory though and when he is onscreen with Moretz he makes an impact so strong you miss him when he’s not around.

There’s no doubt that Let Me In loses its nerve a little mid-way, and it's hard to shake off the deja vu if you've seen the first (particularly as there's only a couple of years between them!). Reeves does frame the scenes very differently though, favouring overwhelming close ups to the original's medium to long shots. There’s a little bit of dubious CGI here and there too and Abby's cat-like movements are rendered oddly and artificially, bringing you out of the film.
It's also an unfortunate fact that the original had one of the greatest set pieces in any horror film of living memory and Reeves, good as he is, simply cannot top or even match it. That said he throws in one stunning sequence of his own, worthy of Carpenter at his prime – a taut, agonising moment - where Jenkins lies waiting to strike in the back of a car - which goes horribly wrong and ends in a wrenching, point of view car smash. It's quite outstanding. Both children incidentally are wonderful, and Michael Giacchino's score is simply sublime, resonant, poignant and spooky in turns.

Look, not every one is going to go for this. For some the film just won’t be different enough, for others even the fact that the original was so quickly remade will stick in the craw. For me, personally, I'm often a big fan of remakes. I even like Van Sant’s derided shot-for-shot Psycho facsimile and contributed to this spirited top ten horror remakes list, in which I would be happy to include Let Me in.

The fact is that the original exists, the book exists and now so does this - a delicate film of quiet grace and longing, an impressively rendered cover. If it doesn’t quite have the freshness and piquancy of the original it’s still a film of great integrity, a very impressive start for the re-energised Hammer stable and further confirmation that Matt Reeves is a director of genuine skill.

And if it compliments an original work that not nearly enough people have seen and serves as a way of letting them in on a modern classic - that can only be a good thing.

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