Saturday, October 2, 2010

Let the RIGHT One In -- Reflections on "Let Me In" (2010)

Chloe Grace Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee pretend to be
Eli and Oskar -- er, Abby and Owen -- in Let Me In (2010)

I remember the first time I saw the Stanley Kubrick version of The Shining. I was around 15, sitting in my parents' living room on a Saturday night. The novel had long been one of my favorites and I couldn't wait to see how Kubrick envisioned the book on film. A lot of my friends told me how scary it was, how it messed with their minds, et cetera, et cetera.

The film started great, with a long shot of the Torrance family jalopy climbing the treacherous, desolate Colorado mountains on the way up to the notorious Overlook Hotel. The music had me, the pictures had me.

Then came the first flashback, showing how the Torrance's got to this place in their lives. There was Jack Torrance, played by none other than the supremely awesome Jack Nicholson, and I was ready for things to get really good.

Until something happened that changed my feelings about the movie forever.

Nicholson smiled. Grinned, actually.

I know, it's a weird thing, but I didn't see Jack Torrance smiling his shit-eating smile as he went through the motions of his job interview. I saw Jack Nicholson. It was no longer an immersive storytelling experience for me; I couldn't connect with a man I knew was play-acting. I finished the movie and didn't much care for it. It was a well-made, beautifully shot horror movie, but throughout I just couldn't enjoy it. I kept flashing back to that grin.

I feel simlarly about Matt Reeves' Let Me In. For those of you who don't know, this film is an American remake of the 2008 Swedish vampire classic, Let the Right One In, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. The story is about a bullied 12-year old named Oskar who strikes up a complex and twisted relationship with a girl named Eli whom has just moved into his apartment building. Eli, we discover, is a vampire.

Like Stephen King's novel, The Shining, I fell in love with Let the Right One In. It was the most unique vampire film. Eli was savage and gruesome, yet her dealings with Oskar were kind and, in their own way, loving. Oskar was like a serial killer in training, using his pocket knife to stab trees, pretending them to be victims as he used them as vessels to unleash his repressed anger towards the awful bullies that punished him at school. Yet, Oskar was likable, sensitive.

The American remake has nearly all those things (although Oskar's inner serial killer is toned down quite a bit), but it lacks something so wonderful in the original.

Unknown actors.

Just like I knew it was Jack Nicholson pretending to be Jack Torrance as I watched him smile, I knew it was Chloe Grace Moretz, the foul talking little girl from Kick-Ass, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, the tough little trooper from The Road. They pretend really well -- their performances are quite good -- but it's still pretend.*

* Horror movies often benefit from having relative unknowns cast in the most important roles, and saving well-known actors for stunt casting. It's hard to buy into the idea that a star could die at any moment during the movie since they are so special in real life. Suspension of disbelief is at a low in these situations. Wes Craven understood this perfectly when he cast Scream (1995). He cast relative unknown Neve Campbell as our heroine, and used Hollywood star Drew Barrymore as the stunt cast in the beginning. Killing off Drew in the opening minutes was a stroke of genius and made that movie one of the great horror films because it was absolutely unsettling. Hitchcock did a similar thing with his classic, Psycho (1961), casting well-known Janet Leigh as the false protagonist who gets it early in the infamous "shower" scene.

A great performance should make you forget who the actor is. For example, Nicholson, in my opinion, botched The Shining, but he is so amazing in As Good As It Gets, where he disappears and literally becomes the lovable racist-misogynist-homophobe Melvin Udall. When the movie was done, you knew it was Jack, but during that two hours it was Melvin Udall.

As I watched Let Me In, I couldn't stop thinking that the girl from Kick-Ass was doing a good job playing Eli.

Only, in this movie, she's renamed Abby. Oskar is Owen. The setting is New Mexico, the time is 1983. Reagan talks about evil on TV, Ms. Pac-Man and Rubix cubes are all the rage, and Boy George is wondering if you really want to hurt him. The changes in names and setting don't make much of a difference, and outside of a couple moments -- a car chase sequence filmed entirely inside one car -- the movie is almost a complete copy of the Swedish film. It felt a bit like plagiarism at times.**

** Would it have hurt the producers to wait a couple more years before releasing this film, as it is only two years removed from the original? Most remakes occur well after the original, giving them time to breathe.

As a movie, though, it's well-made, and most will like it. It has a couple good scares, a few gross-out moments, and a great story. The acting is excellent, and the cinematography is top notch.

Unfortunately, it suffers the same fate of The Shining. At least for me.

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