October 7, 2010 by abbyo
Here is the first in a series of regular columns that I’ll be posting each Wednesday here on the blog. To find out more information and see what other topics I’ll be covering, check out last week’s post.
Generally speaking, remakes occupy a difficult space. They live in a kind of cinematic Catch-22 filled no-man’s land. The problem is this: for a remake to be considered a good film in its own right, it has to vary somewhat from the source material and establish fresh territory on familiar ground. But in order to cater to the fans of the original film, the filmmakers (as with beloved literary adaptations) have to be true to the source material. It’s a tough line to walk. To my mind, the best approach is to re-make movies that are well respected, but don’t have a wide modern audience, because it provides a kind of pedigree while also introducing an old concept to new audiences, as with James Mangold’s remake of “3:10 to Yuma.” Or, as was the case for Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot remake of “Funny Games,” justify the remake by bringing the original movie’s message to the audience it was really meant for.
All of this is to say that while it is possible for a remake to be good, it’s not easy. There are just so many potential pitfalls. Some remakes are made too soon after the original film’s release. Some take too many liberties with the material. But most are just plain unnecessary. “Let Me In” falls squarely into the first and third categories. It’s an English-language remake of a Swedish movie, “Let the Right One In,” released in 2008 that has an established (and still growing) cult following. “Let Me In” does a make a few interesting diversions from its source film, and novel of the same name, but is so concerned with keeping “Let the Right One In’s” subtle tone that it neglects to develop these changes in interesting ways.
The plot of the original film is as follows: Oskar, a 12-year-old kid with divorced parents, is constantly bullied at school. He harbors disturbing violent fantasies about getting back at the nasty kids who torment him. One day, in the courtyard of his apartment complex, he meets Eli, a girl his own age who has recently moved in along with an older man who appears to be her father. Oskar and Eli become friends and begin a sweet and awkward relationship. Then, Oskar finds out what the audience has known all along: Eli is a vampire. Her “father” kills people to drain them of blood to feed her. Surprisingly, Oskar isn’t bothered by any of this. His relationship with Eli continues to grow until Eli accidentally turns a neighbor into a vampire, and the consequences threaten to drive the two kids apart.
“Let Me In” follows the same plot, with a few changes. It adds a local policeman, played by Elias Koteas, who’s trying to solve a series of violent murders (no guesses as to who’s responsible). The vampire girl (here called Abby…That’s right, Abby) also has a slightly more competent guardian, played by Richard Jenkins. His character is sloppy, like his Swedish counterpart, but he’s less comedic and more disturbing. The scenes of Jenkins attacking drivers in their cars, his head covered by a black plastic trash bag, are tense and creepy as all get-out. The apartment complex neighbors are also a lot younger and better looking than the depressed, late middle-aged band of losers portrayed in “Let the Right One In.”
Barring the changes made to Jenkins’ character, the additions made in the American film are the most disappointing thing about it. Not because the film’s writer/director Matt Reeves took liberties with the source material (in fact, the addition of Koteas’ character is closer to the novel), but because he failed to fully explore them. Koteas, for example, seems like a decent cop just trying to do his job, confused about everything that’s happening around him. Because of the way his character was introduced (he’s the first one we meet), I constantly found myself wondering what he thought of everything over the course of the film. Yet the audience never gets his side of the story. We know nothing about him. He merely shows up from time to time as a vague background presence. Abby and Owen’s (Oskar’s) neighbors in the apartment complex are never explored much either. In “Let the Right One In,” they were, and their presence added another interesting and gloomy layer of atmosphere to the film.
This isn’t to say that “Let Me In” is a terrible film. It’s not. Technically speaking, there’s very little wrong with it. After seeing the movie with my friend Dan, he told me, “If I hadn’t already seen ‘Let the Right One In,’ I’d have thought this was the best movie I’d ever seen.” I’m inclined to agree. “Let Me In” is smart, creepy, and builds to an epically satisfying climax. It does well all the things that “Let the Right One In” did, with one or two small-ish exceptions. But, when it comes down to it, this movie is about as original as an English-language dub of its Swedish source. What’s more, the original film is not hard to find, nor is it hard to understand (I’m of the mind that if you aren’t willing to read subtitles, you just shouldn’t bother watching movies, because you’ll miss out on most of what’s good. Sorry). There’s no real reason it needed to be made. It is, as Scott Tobias puts it in his review on the A.V. Club, “a beautiful redundancy.”