Maccewill Yip is back with a bite to talk about Let the Right One In in three forms: the book, the 2008 Tomas Alfredson Swedish film, and the 2010 Matt Reeves American remake.
My reviews are usually excuses to create deadlines that force me to do something I have been meaning to do, but haven’t gotten to because of one reason or another (usually procrastination). For Let the Right One In, it is reading my copy of the original book. I actually won it in a contest a movie theater somewhere in North Carolina had to promote the release of the US remake, Let Me In. I can’t remember how I found out about it since I was in Oakland at the time. Anyways, it was a trivia question posted on Facebook: What’s the title of the original Swedish film? I answered with both English and Swedish titles (Let the Right One In/ Låt den rätte komma in), they sent me the book, and since then it was sitting on my shelf for the longest time, one of many “Oh, I’ll read this one day” books. It was actually sitting there next to writer John Ajvide Lindqvist’s other horror novel, Handling the Undead. So now is the day. All this is really just a long way of saying WARNING, this review will have spoilers to the book. And the US remake. Yeeeaaah…so, spoilers galore.
I can’t remember exactly how I first learned about Let the Right One In. It was probably through some blogs or reviews, but it was in the ether when I bought a Blu-ray copy I found at a Half Price Books. Watching it lived up to my expectations, if not exceeded them. There is a simple starkness that fits well with the tone and setting of the story. The acting is superb, especially Lina Leandersson as Eli, who is able to present both a youthful and aged performance that reminds me of the best moments Matt Smith pulled off during his tenure in Doctor Who. The effects are done subtly and sparingly and, except for one scene, are still quite effective to this day. What I absolutely loved are the scenes that are so sparse, and yet are able to portray so much. More on that later.
It’s basically an arthouse horror film, and so of course I was skeptical when I heard that they were doing a US remake. I didn’t see the point except for those who did not want to read subtitles. I became a little more accepting when I heard a couple of things: that it is being produced by the return of Hammer Films, and the phenomenal casting, which included Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas, and Chloë Grace Moretz. When it made the festival rounds, I began seeing some good reviews and became more hopeful. When it was finally my turn to watch, I came out feeling mixed. I remembered some nice shots, and the acting was good, but it seemed to do less than what the original had done. The only interesting change was how Jenkins’ character, credited as The Father, went about getting the blood for Abby, played by Moretz. I think I let some of the reviews get into my head and with the very few good parts, came out with the memory that this was a passable, but unremarkable remake.
Now that I’ve gone through my journey of revisiting the movies and reading the original book, it has pushed my feelings about both films more to the extremes, deepening my admiration for the original but further irritating me about the elements of the remake.
Let’s start with how the Swedish movie compares to the book, both of which were written by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Of course, the book has more content than the movie. It gets into more of the backstories of various characters, of which there are many more. Oskar has a few friends, one of which becomes one of the bullies, and at least another one in his own class. There’s also an older kid who lives in his same building and is the one who had set up the basement room where Oskar was trying to get Eli to make a blood oath. I think the movie is smart in paring down the characters not only to make it more manageable for the runtime, but also to emphasize the loneliness of Oskar before Eli comes to his life.
As for the detailed backstories, it changes the context of how I view some of the characters. One is the lead bully (Jonny in the book, Conny in the movie) and his brother, called Jimmy in both mediums. In the book, their parents are divorced, and the boys are mainly with their mother. The only thing they have of their father’s is a photo album of earlier times when they were all together. Their father had lent it to them, and so to prevent their mother from confiscating it, Jonny hides it in his desk at school. There’s a moment only in the book when Oskar is angry and sneaks into the school to burn two of his tormentors’ desks, not knowing what is inside. It’s this reason that Jonny and Jimmy are especially enraged and plan their attack on Oskar at the pool. In the movie, you see both of them, particularly Jimmy, being pretty sadistic and you will think it’s because of the damage to Jonny/Conny’s ear; but in the book you also see that, because of Oskar, they have lost the only thing the two boys have left from their father.
The other character is Håkan, who is the older man who helps procure blood for Eli. I had inferred that he met Eli as a child, fell in love with her, and later grew up to help her, and so everything that she was doing with Oskar is just Eli repeating the cycle, preparing Oskar to replace Håkan. This is the direction the remake takes, hinted at with an old vintage photo which shows both Eli’s character, now named Abby, and a young bespectacled boy who is inferred to be The Father. However, in the book, Håkan meets Eli when he is a homeless pariah and a former teacher before he was caught in possession of child pornography. It is Eli who approaches him, and he follows her in hopes of being intimate with her. All this is more ambiguous in the Swedish film, which goes toward the interpretation I had inferred. But the biggest divergence of his character from the movies is that in the book, he actually survives being bitten by Eli and falling from the hospital, becoming an almost mindless beast whose intentions I’ll leave unspoiled.
I think I prefer the Swedish film over the book, which strips most of the story to its essence, giving it a focus and leaving enough ambiguity to keep it interesting. I’m sure Lindqvist understood this completely when he adapted his own novel into the screenplay. The book attempts to cover several themes that are only lightly touched upon in the films, such as divorce, fatherlessness, and alcoholism, which is all represented through three families: Oskar, his older friend Tommy, and the bullies Jonny and Jimmy. All of them have no fathers because of divorce or an early death, and at least with Oskar, it’s hinted that it was his father’s alcoholism that led to the divorce and that he is being enabled by his father’s friend, who Oskar despises.
The book also tries to explain various qualities of the vampire lore. The most famous in all iteration of the story is why a vampire must be invited. Another hints at why a stake through heart would kill vampires. (Apparently whatever infection causes the turn affects the heart in a way that creates a cancer that shows both heart and brain cells intertwined.)
The book does help explain a couple of stuff that I had questioned in the film. The first is one I thought as a plot hole and probably still is in the movie: How did Eli enter the building of the hospital and the pool if she was not invited? Well, for the hospital, it’s shown that she had went to the hospital days earlier and was invited in, where she later secretly attacked a patient. As for the pool, one of the bullies, distraught over how far things have gone, sees Eli banging on the doors, beseeching him for an invitiation. Nervous and wanting it to end, he says, “You can come in.”
The other thing the book makes clear is why Eli twists Jocke’s head. It looks like she already regrets having to actively kill and drain him of his blood, so why go on being extra brutal and twist his neck? In the book, it seems it was a preventative measure to stop him from turning, like what happens to Virginia later. She should’ve probably done the same to Håkan, but I guess she thinks the fall is enough to kill him, which it is in the movies but not the book. I’m glad they took the whole Håkan turning subplot out of the films because, A: I didn’t like where it heads, B: It would’ve extended a plotline unnecessarily whereas the hospital fall resolves it perfectly, and C: It complicates the concept of turning, especially why it turns some like Virginia and Eli into normal people with blood craving, but Håkan into a brutal beast.
So now we get into the comparison of both movies. The remake pretty much follows the original film, with a couple of nods to the book: Tommy is mentioned briefly, as well as the brief importance of Romeo and Juliet. However, although they have the same runtime (115 minutes), there seems to be less in the remake than there is in the original. We don’t really get much of the relationship between Oskar, who is now Owen, and his parents, especially his father, who we only hear over the phone. Worse is what they do with Virginia and Lacke (now Larry). In the Let the Right One In, they are rounded characters, especially Virginia. She is attacked, goes through the horrid discovery that she has become a vampire, is going to attack an old acquaintance, is attacked by cats (who senses vampires), is brought to a hospital, where she resigns by asking the nurse to open the curtains so that she can be burned by sunlight. In Let Me In, she is attacked, starts biting at the blood transfusion tube attached to her arm when in the hospital, and burns when the nurse nonchalantly happens to open the curtains. It’s the last part that irks me the most, because it’s Virginia’s decision that she allows herself to burn up in the original film, but an accident by the nurse in the remake. Virginia has a whole tragic arc in Let the Right One In, but in Let Me In, she’s just a random woman Owen is spying on that becomes a vampire and quickly goes up in flames.
The other thing is the special effects. The remake tries to make everything more brutal, from the acts of the bullies, to Abby’s attacks on her victims. However, the CGI to show off the force Abby uses looks absolutely ridiculous. It’s looks terrible then, and certainly an eyesore now. In Let the Right One In, it’s mainly practical effects and a few subtle computer effects. With the exception of the cats that attack Virginia, the effects hold up pretty well today. In Let Me In, they decide to put contacts lenses on Chloë Grace Moretz to make her look terrifying when she’s in beast mode. In the original, however, they just leave Lina Leandersson as is with blood in her mouth, letting her act out aggressively while biting into her victims and allowing her to show the remorse she has after the attacks, which adds so much more dimensions to her character.
Another thing done in Let Me In that I’ve noticed in many US remakes is having to over-explain things. It’s something I first noticed in The Departed, the US remake to the Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, when Matt Damon has to explain in detail how he was going to trick a mobster during interrogation; in the original, they let the scene play out and let the audience figure out how the cop was fooling the gangster into coughing up information. Let Me In is no exception to the loss of subtlety in remakes. The most noticeable to me is the explanation of the acid. In Let the Right One In, there is a liquid in a jar shown and when Håkan realizes he is trapped and about to be caught, the jar is accidentally knocked onto a jacket, where we see it melt the fabric. It’s a wonderfully visual way of showing what is in the jar and the scene itself allows Håkan/The Father a moment of quiet, contemplative tragedy where he knows he is cornered before pouring it over himself. In Let Me In, the whole movie starts with the same character being taken in the ambulance to the hospital, where the EMTs outright mentions that he burned himself with acid. Continuing on the scene in the remake, Elias Koteas as a cop leaves a notepad in hopes that The Father would confess to any details of crime. Later, while everybody is distracted by The Father’s fall from the hospital building, we get a close-up of the notepad that says, “I’m sorry Abby.” This is supposed to create the mystery of Abby, but it’s one of the most idiotic thing in the remake. The whole purpose of Håkan pouring acid on himself was so that he couldn’t be recognized and be linked to Eli/Abby. Now we have a notepad with a note obviously written by him and mentions her by name. And the notepad is never brought up again, just that one scene! Grrr.
As I said earlier, what the original Swedish film does really well is subtlety, both in cinematography and sound design. One is a lot of squares and rectangles formed by buildings or similar structures. A lot of times the separate adult characters we follow, especially ones Eli will attack, are often trapped in these squared off compositions. Think about the man Eli lures underneath the rectangular overpass, or Virginia as she goes up the stairs that’s surrounded from above and sides by buildings, or Lacke trying to escape the bathroom door. Håkan is tight all the way to the left side of the frame/locker room before he is caught. And even though she is never attacked, we often see Oskar’s mother framed in another room; we almost never see Oskar and his mom in the same room, emphasizing how isolated and alone Oskar is. Most of the shots with Eli and Oskar, however, also shows a lot of squared objects, like windows, the play structure, and the Rubik’s Cube, but we often see the children filmed outside of them instead of being enclosed.
The sound design is also done very well, often underlying and adding details to the story of the film. For instance, when Oskar is stabbing the tree, if you listen closely you can hear the door opening and closing and snow steps before the reveal of Eli. The remake tries to make it spookier by doing a rushing wind sound before Abby’s reveal. There is also a low gurgling sound almost anytime you see Eli, emphasizing her constant craving for blood and ready to go out on the hunt. A foreshadow of Virginia’s attack by cats after she’s turned into a vampire can be seen through the cat reacting to Eli by shrieking at her earlier in the movie.
Finally, I think I should mention the elephant in the room regarding the film’s plot. In the book, Eli is actually a boy before she is castrated and turned into a vampire. It’s hinted a lot, especially with the line, “If I turned out not to be a girl… would you still like me?” Also, it’s shown that Håkan as a pedophile had preferred boys. The Swedish film does not outright say it, but it gives a lot of hints. There is a quote similar to the one in the book that was used at the same point in the movie. There is her voice which, because the actress’ voice sounds too feminine, was dubbed over to make it a little more ambiguous. Also, they show a quick shot of her scarred crotch when she is changing. The remake I think stays clear of this premise. They change her name from the unisex Eli to the more feminine Abby. When they show Owen seeing Abby changing, it’s more to show he’s a voyeur and embarrassed to see a naked girl rather than being shocked to see her mutilated, mainly because we only see his reaction and not what he’s looking at. There is even a cut scene that shows a flashback of Abby being turned, but shot like a rape and shows that she was always a girl. And even though they use the line about Owen liking her even if she was not a girl, it seems to imply that she is more monster than human.
Overall, this re-watch has deepened my appreciation for the film, both in how it boils down the essence of the book through its adaptation and the mistakes the US version make. The only good thing I like that is different, as mentioned earlier, is how Richard Jenkins’ character goes about getting the blood, by capturing drivers while hiding in their backseat. I admit that it is well done and very tense, but it could have probably been served better in an original movie. Actually, I think Richard Jenkins tender, heartbreaking performance is one of the few saving graces of the film. We don’t get much from Elias Koteas except as a generic cop, and although he acts well, it’s a waste of good talent. Everything else that is close to being good is copied from the original, but then there are changes that just made for inconsistent plotting and characterizations. Reviewer Mark Kermode said it best when he describes Let the Right One In as a children coming-of-age film that happens to have vampires, whereas Let Me In is a vampire film that happens to have children.
- When Eli twists the head to break Jocke’s neck, it’s 360° in the book, 180° in the Swedish film, and 90° by Abby in the remake.
- It’s interesting and disturbing watching Håkan pack his supplies to go out on the hunt, but I was thinking maybe he should’ve washed the gallon jug after using it use rather than right before packing it in.
- At one point, Håkan drinks a glass of milk at the Chinese restaurant that Lacke and Virginia visits with friends. It reminds me of this video of how men drinking milk emphasizes that they are evil: https://youtu.be/iKDtmV5xSv0
- I thought I had remembered seeing red on the poodle’s muzzle after it licks the blood dripping from the hanging body, but didn’t see it in the re-watch, so I guess I had succumbed to the Mandela Effect.
- The book and Swedish movie have the bullies call Oskar “piggy,” but the remake has them call Owen “girly.” They also tease the girls in class and at the pool, but never are as violent as with Owen.
- There’s a blog post someone did about the straight lines and square compositions you can check out here: http://fxrant.blogspot.com/2009/11/cinematography-of-let-right-one-in-part.html
- One of the few things that came out from Let Me In that I liked was this limited edition custom printed poster from Mondo, especially the Morse code that becomes vampire bites:
- I thought that the end of all versions imply that Oskar/Owen would grow up to take the place of Håkan/The Father. However, through my research I found that there is a short story sequel that Lindqvist wrote, called Let the Old Dreams Die, that shows otherwise. It’s from the perspective of a man who knew a couple that met and fell in love during the investigation of the pool incident and Oskar’s disappearance: a female investigator and the train conductor who punched Oskar’s ticket. It’s a sweet story and worth the read if you wanted to know a little bit of what happens after the events of the book/movies.