Review: 'Let Me In'

But, despite the critical and cult success of director Tomas Alfredson's Swedish vampire thriller "Let the Right One In" — based on John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel of the same name — the simple fact of the matter is that, relative to its quality, few people saw the incredible movie that first had Austin audiences buzzing at Fantastic Fest 2008. According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, the film made just more than $2 million in the subtitle-averse American market.

Fortunately for English-speaking audiences — both those who have seen the original and those who have not — director Matt Reeves found a deep personal connection with Lindqvist's novel and decided he could bring something new to the frightening coming-of-age story.

The stark film opens in the barren winter of Los Alamos, N.M. — a creepy and isolated stand-in for Alfredson's Sweden — as an ambulance races to the hospital with unidentifiable cargo. A newscast in the hospital informs us that we are in the throes of the Ronald Reagan 1980s, with the concepts of sin and evil casting a pall over the nation.

As a police officer (Elias Koteas) attempts to identify the recent arrival to the hospital, we flash back two weeks to an apartment complex where young Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) stands at his mirror, practicing attacks on imagined foes as his pious and divorced mother drinks in the other room. Owen's room is decorated with images of space, offering the notion that the child would like to trade his confined worldly experience for one of liberation. Out his window, he catches a brief glimpse of a young girl moving into his desolate apartment complex.

Following the slight, pale, pubescent child to school, we discover he suffers constant harassment from a group of boys led by a near sadistic classmate named Kenny (Dylan Minnette). Every day at school for Owen is an exercise in survival and endurance.

Back in the safety of his courtyard at home, Owen meets his new neighbor, Abby (Chloe Moretz), when she comes upon him talking to his invisible enemies amid one of his revenge fantasies. She immediately cautions Owen that she cannot be friends with him. Undeterred by the news, Owen begins to take a strong interest in the enigmatic girl who pats around in the snow without shoes.

His curiosity piqued, Owen attempts to listen in on conversations emanating from the neighboring apartment between Abby and the man whom he assumes must be her father (Richard Jenkins). What Owen does not realize is that the blood relationship between the man and Abby has a shockingly literal value. Almost nightly, the beleaguered older man hunts people in town and drains their blood to return to Abby.

Obviously fatigued by the physical and psychic tolls taken by his stewardship of the vampire who inhabits the body of a 12-year-old girl, the old man begins to get sloppy, and Abby begins to hunt for herself. In the meantime, she grows closer to Owen, whose life spent in the shadows finally feels as if it has been touched by the warm, tender light of something approaching love. Abby consoles the tortured Owen and advises her new friend to strike back at his attackers at school, while he offers his fellow outcast unconditional friendship.

But Abby's secret isn't easily kept, and eventually Owen becomes entwined in a search for the truth his friend can no longer protect. Once he discovers Abby's actual identity, Owen is forced into a decision that could affect the rest of his life.

Some not familiar with the original film or novel may hear the word "vampire" and immediately dismiss the work as the fantastical domain of tweens, but "Let Me In" is a universal tale about the horror of adolescence and the life-affirming and destabilizing power of love.

Both Smit-McPhee and Moretz give mature and nuanced performances of characters mired in a struggle to move beyond their limiting circumstances and take back their lives.

While he hews closely to Alfredson's Swedish film — sometimes even shot for shot — in his equally chilling tale, Reeves amplifies the bullying that Owen undergoes in school to a level that is more nerve-fraying and panic-inducing than any of the film's ample gore. With the help of his talented young actors, the director has created a world with which all moviegoers can likely identify and characters for whose safety and happiness we yearn.

We won't here go into the nitpicking as to whether Reeves' treatment equals or surpasses the original, but I will say that although the original had a more haunting beauty, the remake contains the best scene of either movie. Sure, the themes — and the story itself — are not new, but Reeves' fresh vision and utterly compelling storytelling more than justify the making of this American iteration that could very well make a surprise appearance on year-end lists the way its predecessor did.

'Let Me In'

Our grade: A-

Genre: Horror

Running Time: 115 min

MPAA rating: R

Release Date: Oct 1, 2010

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