In seven days and ten hours, I’m going to see The Avengers. That fact is entirely irrelevant to today’s film. Which is…
Vampire Girl Vs The 80s
Owen is a lonely 12-year-old living with his single mother in New Mexico in the early 1980s. Things start looking up for him when Abby moves in to the apartment next door with her father, but Abby sits barefoot in the snow, and her windows are boarded over, and he only ever sees her after dark. Abby has a secret, and it will change Owen’s life forever.
You’ve heard of Let The Right One In. At this point, I can make that statement with a pretty good degree of certainty. You’ve heard of it, but have you seen it? If you are one of those people with an irrational hatred of subtitles, then you probably haven’t. But worry no more. Despite writer/director Matt Reeves’ insistence that he was going back to the original source novel to adapt this screenplay the two films bear a striking resemblance, particularly in the visuals. We’ll come back to that comparison later though; for now, I’m just going to talk about Let Me In.
The most obvious thing to discuss here is the quality of the two central performances by Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz. Both still pre-teens at the time of filming, they are astoundingly good. The film lives or dies (pardon the phrase) on the believability of Owen and Abby’s – or Oskar and Eli in the original – relationship and they knock it out of the park. They get ample support as well, in particular from Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas as Abby’s ‘father’ and the cop on his trail, respectively. What Jenkins manages to accomplish with a bag over his head is nothing short of amazing. The man deserves every accolade to come his way in the last few years.
Greig Fraser’s cinematography is a thing of beauty. I’ve never seen New Mexico as anything other than an arid desert, but when covered in a blanket of fresh snow (even if it is fake) it takes on an other-worldly aspect that the camerawork exploits just right. Reeves has enlisted his old high-school pal JJ Abrams’ go-to composer Michael Giacchino to provide the score, and the result is very tuned-in to the era in which the story takes place, but he’s not afraid of silence either.
So how do the two versions measure up? How do they differ, or resemble each other? [Yarrgh!] Well, Reeves’ is a more streamlined story. Similarly to Fincher’s versus Oplev’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo movies, the American film is tighter and better paced, but the Swedish one is more faithful and a fuller adaptation. This is particularly apparent when it comes to the group of middle-aged drunks who veer in and out of Lindqvist’s novel. In his script for Tomas Alfredson, these folk had quite an extensive subplot with names, motivations, relationships… In Reeves’ film only Virginia (played by The Hangover’s Sasha Barrese) is explicitly named, and her boyfriend Lacke’s hunt for the missing Jocke is completely excised. In fact there is no indication that they even know each other, other than as neighbours. Virginia’s fate is unchanged, but at least Barrese doesn’t face the much-maligned cat attack that befell her predecessor. The advantage of this is that Let Me In has one less diversion from its central story of Owen and Abby.
Then there’s Håkan*. In the book, Håkan was explicitly a paedophile who had been fired from his job as a teacher, and harboured sexual desire for Eli. Lindqvist scaled this down a bit in his first adaptation but it is removed entirely here. This has a double-edged effect for me: by taking out this motivation it weakens the character a bit (although, you know, it’s Richard Jenkins) but at the same time it amplifies the similarity between him and Owen, the two of them being at either end of the same life. Also, the manner of his capture is changed from being cornered in the boys locker room to a frankly damned awesome car accident presented as a single shot from the back seat as the vehicle crashes through a barrier and rolls down a hill. It’s a combination of shots built with all sorts of effects techniques, of course, but it is still quite an accomplishment. I’m not a fan of the way Reeves chose to put Håkan’s capture, disfigurement and swandive in the prologue though. I really liked the way Lindqvist and Alfredson teased you with his little bottle a few times before he went and poured it all over himself.
Despite Fraser’s excellent work that I mentioned earlier, the two films are very similar visually. Both directors favour either long, static shots or careful dolly moves – no handheld, ever. The colour palettes too are almost identical; lots of mid-tones in the interiors while the exteriors are all snowed under, except for the odd burst of bright red blood. There were a few times during some of the longer dialogue-free moments when I half-expected subtitles to appear along the bottom of the screen.
Taken as its own separate entity this is a very good, well-made film with two haunting central performances, and if it had been the first adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, it would have easily been the definitive version. Coming so soon after – and being so similar to – Alfredson’s film can make it seem anything between pandering to the subtitle-phobic or just pointless, if you are feeling particularly ungenerous.
*In the credits for Let Me In, Richard Jenkins is listed as “The Father”. I’m just going to call him Håkan for convenience.