Hear Me Out: Let Me In

Subscriber Exclusive

Movies Features horror movies
Hear Me Out: Let Me In

Hear Me Out is a Paste column dedicated to earnest reevaluations of those cast-off bits of pop-cultural ephemera that deserve a second look. Whether they’re films, TV series, albums, comedy specials, videogames or even cocktails, Hear Me Out is ready to go to bat for any underappreciated subject.

When an acclaimed, non-English language film is remade in the U.S. for American audiences, an unavoidable talking point tends to be whether that film “needs to exist.” There is a natural compulsion among film geeks to leap to the defense of the original piece of art, a feeling of responsibility, as if we the viewers need to stand between the honor of the original and the presumed desecration of the subsequent “rip-off,” to protect its reputation with our scorn. And to be certain, there’s no shortage of instances where a pedestrian remake loses the spark of whatever made the original interesting, whether accidentally or through purposeful sanitizing–look at something like 2022’s Goodnight Mommy remake, which lacked the conviction to translate any of what made the Austrian original so disturbing. But there are also instances where a remake not only faithfully translates its material to an American mindset, but also improves on aspects of it, and this can be difficult for the self-proclaimed cinema defender to accept. A film like 2010’s romantic vampire drama Let Me In is one of those instances–a movie that may not actually need to exist, but one that discovers new layers of pathos in its own story all the same.

Of course, director Matt Reeves, who already had Cloverfield under his belt at the time, would probably have insisted that Let Me In wasn’t necessarily a “remake” to begin with, but rather a separate adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel Let the Right One In. That’s all well and good, but let’s be honest with ourselves–Reeves’ film bears striking similarities in most respects to the masterful 2008 Swedish adaptation of Let the Right One In from director Tomas Alfredson, doing most of the same things well. If not a “remake” in name, then it’s at least a remake in spirit–and it’s an excellent one! Let Me In deftly manages the rare balancing act of taking a critically acclaimed, oddball drama suffused in a specific sense of place–the chilly, emotionally stunted suburbia of 1980s Sweden–and transplants that same feeling to characters who are easier for American audiences to access. Nothing is lost in translation. In fact, the new additions are some of its best choices.

Those characters are Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a 12-year-old boy reeling from the fallout of a messy parental divorce and the attentions of a group of sadistic bullies at school, and Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), a seemingly 12-year-old girl who is in actuality a vampire implied to be hundreds of years old. As Abby and her protector/familiar Thomas (Richard Jenkins) arrive in Owen’s snow-blanketed block of identical, anonymous apartment dwellings, the two strike up a tentative emotional connection, with Owen desperate for companionship and Abby seemingly curious to connect with a person who doesn’t understand her true nature–someone capable of seeing her as human. Perhaps it’s a muscle she hasn’t exercised for a while, an experience she had more or less forgotten in the decades of being kept out of the public eye. But either way, the experience of innocently interacting with Owen seems to give her a new vitality.

For you see, Abby is a decidedly unusual vampire, by any cinematic metric one would choose to measure these things–or perhaps it’s just that Let Me In spends a bit more time pondering what life would really be like for an immortal trapped in a 12-year-old girl’s frame. Regardless, she can’t exactly be seen wandering the streets in search of prey, not unless she wants to be picked up by police or social services, forced to endure questions she won’t be able to satisfactorily answer. The longstanding arrangement seems to be that companion Thomas has for decades been the one tasked with going out to acquire fresh blood to sustain Abby, which he does with the methodical precision of a serial killer, stalking and draining the blood from locals before the two presumably move on to yet another new, temporary home to stay ahead of suspicion. Abby, meanwhile, just sort of … whiles away immortality in listless despondency, solving the same puzzles over and over again, having long exhausted any point in life. She’s a vicious predator by nature, but one that has been put out to pasture by her loving protector, for her own safety.

That’s the core theme of Let Me In, even more so than in Let the Right One In: The extremes we will go to for love, and the use of our love as a tool of manipulation and servitude. We see this in Richard Jenkins’ fantastic performance as Thomas, a role that carries very little weight in the Swedish film but here is brilliantly expanded to give the viewer a greater sense of how he has sacrificed his entire life in service of another person. When he was younger (they’re implied to have also met as children), Thomas perhaps viewed Abby primarily as a romantic partner. Perhaps his affections were even returned, back then, but if this was ever the case it’s clearly in the long-distant past. Now he’s just going through the motions, getting sloppy in his work due to some combination of age, fatigue and simmering resentment for the nomadic existence he has presumably had to live. Abby is his entire world, and perhaps “love” isn’t even strong enough a descriptor–in some senses it’s more like indentured servitude, or outright worship. But Thomas is struggling now, and he can no longer keep up the charade that he’s living some kind of romantic life on the run with his partner. He feels the call of the void, the impulse that leads him to make rash decisions that could get him killed. Hiding in the back seat of a local high schooler’s car one night, stalking another person to satiate Abby’s unending thirst, he endures a sequence of unbearable suspense and is forced to burn his own face and hands with acid after the botched killing to avoid leading the police back to Abby. There’s almost relief in his mangled face, knowing his responsibility is nearly over.

Abby, meanwhile, facilitates all of it, although her motives are held at arm’s length from us, inviting the audience to puzzle over them. Her mental state is one of Let Me In’s great questions: Does she act out of instinct, or methodical planning? Does she retain the mental development and emotional maturity of a 12-year-old, even after all these centuries have passed, effectively frozen in development at the same age she became a vampire? Does she even see herself as possessing emotions at all, or is it all an act, something she has adopted because she knows she can’t get along in the modern world without someone to provide for her? Is there anything she wants out of life, besides another day of survival? Is “she” even the right word to be using, considering that Abby repeatedly stresses that she’s “not a girl”? The screenplay feels no need to directly address such questions, leaving them open to interpretation.

At the very least, though, we can accurately say that Abby seems quite skilled at a particular brand of emotional manipulation. She keeps Thomas around for decades–a lifetime–by seemingly rationing out just enough affection or validation to keep him going, always knowing the precise moment when a steady hand on the cheek will smooth over his doubts, until the next time his resolve wavers. Owen, on the other hand, is moved by Abby with a different set of levers–she advises him on protecting himself, but is ready to ultimately step in and rescue him from injury or even death at the hands of his bullies when her “fight back against them” advice backfires. Did she know that things would work out this way? That the final step in enticing a new lifelong servant would be saving him from the very confrontation she influenced him to seek out, resulting in a final shot of Owen staring up from below at Abby with a gleam of worship in his eyes? How much benefit of the doubt can we possibly give to a vampire, one who we’ve seen prey on multiple random bystanders without the slightest hint of regret? It’s only because she looks like a 12-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz that we are primed to sympathize with her at all.

Because rest assured, Owen has a pretty good idea of what he’s getting himself into–we even see him react with fear at the dawning realization of Thomas having spent his entire life serving Abby, from the time they both were “children.” Owen can’t pretend to be unaware of what is happening. Let Me In is both a coming-of-age story and that of a fall from grace for him, with Abby the consummate predator seeming to instinctually sense the dark path that Owen has already been psychologically treading. This is part of Let Me In’s brilliance, to not shy away from Owen’s own twisted fantasies of revenge, the product of the abuse he suffers on a daily basis, away from the eyes of absent parents or inattentive teachers. When Owen buys a small knife, it’s with the dreams of acting out the same sadistic violence that is visited on him daily, and he even practices by repeating the exact same threats (“Are you a little girl?”) that his bully incessantly makes. We even see that bully’s older brother use the same language, seemingly Reeves’ commentary on the transmissive nature of abuse from person to person, down the line.

In other words, Owen is no sympathetic victim here, with high-minded virtues or an aversion to eye-for-an-eye vengeance. The only thing stopping him, in fact, from embracing what seem to be blooming psychopathic tendencies is a lack of nerve, the fact that he’s hopelessly overmatched by his multiple bullies and doesn’t dare to strike back in a way that raises the stakes too high. It takes his meeting Abby to break down that final barrier of his reticence, to go from a passive witness of violence to an active participant in it. Ultimately, this is the test that is put to him: He must turn his back on any remaining shred of his own humanity in order to pursue this relationship with Abby. Is that relationship a friendship? A romance? A master and her newly minted servant? By the end, as he’s staring up at her in awe, you get the sense that she will dictate the rest of his life, until she finds the next Owen. And he’s already coming to terms with that.

Of course, this is likely to fly over the heads of some viewers, and it is perhaps meant to–the constant allusions to teen romance trappings, especially in all the direct Romeo and Juliet references, are meant to put us in this frame of mind. We have to constantly remind ourselves: Abby has done all of this before, and she’s become quite good at it over the centuries. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to survive, and in Owen she’s found someone with very little tying him to his current life. He doesn’t even seem to spend a moment considering the ramifications of disappearing from the likes of his alcoholic, depressed mother or absent father–he just melts away into the night with Abby, the one person in his life who has shown him they will protect him. What will his parents believe has happened to their son? How long will it be before he’s stalking the streets, killing strangers in Abby’s name?

Such is the tragic, misanthropic streak that both Let Me In and Let the Right One In possess, films that capture elements such as the callous randomness of schoolyard bullying better than the vast majority of comparable horror titles. If you wield any unit of power in this world, it’s to predate and grow fat off the pain of others, regardless of whether you are human or vampire. The romanticism of say, the Anne Rice vampire, creatures who feel every sight, sound and emotion 10 times more strongly than the mundane humans, is entirely absent here. Abby and her bare feet, crunching through the snow, can’t feel anything at all, besides a bestial hunger.

Which is colder, the frozen Earth or a vampire heart that has long ceased beating?

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin