Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
It’s a thankless task, to take on an English language remake of a critically acclaimed foreign film in just about any genre. In horror especially, it’s an assignment that rarely bears fruit—even in cases where the film goes on to become a pop-cultural sensation, such as The Ring, there will be no shortage of armchair critics braying that “it’s not nearly as good as the Japanese version,” regardless of the relative quality of either. And that assignment only becomes that much more daunting when the story you’re adapting isn’t some low-stakes popcorn thriller, but a somber vampire drama praised as a masterpiece in its initial release, like Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. That Matt Reeves wanted to roll the dice at all on an American remake is saying a lot about his confidence and love for the original.
Because make no mistake: Let the Right One In is one of the greatest vampire films of all time. It cuts through the clutter of bargain basement thrillers, sci-fi crossovers and attempts to remake Dracula for the 10,000th time to deliver a poignant examination of adolescent vulnerability and emotional manipulation, while simultaneously managing to be genuinely creepy as well. It was a startlingly mature film starring physically immature characters—one, a downtrodden young boy who also may be a budding sociopath, and the other an immortal vampire clad in the raiment of a young girl, unable to ever grow into a woman and stuck in the emotional headspace of a 12-year-old. It’s a film about how floundering people reach out to whatever lifelines are available, and our disturbing willingness to toss such help aside at the moment when something more attractive comes along.
When Reeves’ American remake arrived a decade ago, then, it brought an almost impassable purity test along with it. It’s a testament to the quality of the film that Let Me In was actually received by critics quite warmly at the time—rather, it seemed to be the film geeks in the audience who couldn’t resist condemning the movie for having the audacity to exist. We’re here, however, to make the argument that Let Me In is every bit the film of its predecessor despite the knee-jerk tendency to label it as less than. Naturally, there are aspects that work better in the Swedish original, but the American successor also markedly improves upon the original in other key ways. Each film has areas of transcendent emotion and suspense.
Reeves stated during production that he intended his film to be a second adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel, rather than an overt English remake of Let the Right One In, but it’s hard to deny that the second film follows the first almost to a tee. This, thankfully, is to its credit—almost all the best qualities of the Swedish original are maintained, while the new additions all serve important purposes. Most notable is the dramatic expansion of the character Thomas in prominence—the senior citizen murderer and guardian of the childlike vampire is something of a cipher in Alfredson’s original, and the audience is never really given a chance to feel much more than revulsion toward him. In Let Me In, on the other hand, Richard Jenkins damn near steals the movie with his portrayal of a pitiable soul who has long since passed the point of return, even if he’d like to somehow abandon his job of procuring victims for his tiny ward. He is utterly trapped, both by love and responsibility, committing brutal crimes on a nightly basis for someone who will never love him back in the way he’s always desired. He’s presented as calculating but perfectly human in his fallibility, which leads to an incredibly suspenseful sequence in which the audience knows the killer is about to be discovered in a particularly vulnerable hiding place. Rarely does any horror movie generate such empathy for a killer, in the midst of a mission to kill.
So too does Let Me In dispense with the very few elements of Let the Right One In that don’t work as well, or were constrained by the film’s budget—most notably the “CGI cat attack” sequence that sticks out as the one glaringly awkward scene in the Swedish original. It’s one of those scenes that now gets a pass from fans of Let the Right One In, but if you transplanted the same sequence over to Let Me In it would have received merciless mockery, pointed out as indicative of a vulgar Hollywood adaptation. Reeves clearly knew that it was best not to err on the side of “silly.”
As for star performers Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz … well, it was a very difficult assignment, and they manage about as well as anyone could. This is one area where the Swedish film can’t really be challenged, as it had the freedom to cast performers who truly could inhabit the bodies of kids leading an unsupervised, depressive, unremarkable existence, especially in the case of protagonist Oskar/Owen. It’s one of those roles that calls for the anonymity and lack of ingrained audience recognition you get from casting an unknown, and young Swedish actor Kåre Hedebrant brings a coldness and desperation to the kid that hints at unfathomed depths of darkness under his facade of the meek victim of bullying. We are privy to some hint of his fantasies, and how sadistic he might be if he was in the position to be the aggressor, rather than the victim. Smit-McPhee’s protagonist, on the other hand, is outfitted with a more recognizably Hollywood (black-and-white) sense of morality.
Not that it hurts Let Me In—not really, anyway. Whatever it lacks in the more subtle layers of characterization found in the Swedish original (at least when it comes to the leads), it makes up with polished production and scenes that glow with both emotional and physical tension. It should rightly be regarded as one of the most successful and mesmerizing American horror remakes.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.