Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Let The Right One In / Let Me In

Let the Right One In (2008) was the best horror movie of the last decade. It manages depths of character and visual beauty that few films rival, let alone films within a genre dominated by archetypes and little more than padding between the shocks and thrills. You know sometimes you connect with a film on a romantic level? Well, I did. It comes very close to perfect. Stephen reviewed the film as an adaptation of the original book last year.

You can guess how I felt about the news that they were making an American version. But it was being directed by Matt Reeves, who made the excellent Cloverfield, and the buzz about the remake was that it wasn't quite as awful as it could be. So we had to take a look.

I didn't decide to write a review in which I slate one film for being a pale imitation of another. I decided to write a review because in many ways, everything that's wrong with the American remake Let Me In (2010) demonstrates what is so right about Let The Right One In.

Both films are about a twelve year old boy, who meets a new neighbour of the same age, who turns out to be a vampire and helps him stand up to his bullies. Between them, these two films showcase four excellent child actors, who all did brilliantly with what they had to work with. None of those kids can be faulted. Some other things can be.

Let The Right One In is a brilliant study in how to paint character with very few brush-strokes. We understand the protagonist Oscar, we understand his relationship with his parents – including his love for them and his profound sense of betrayal by them, without more than a few glimpses into his back story. We understand his helplessness against his bullies and the raw impotent rage this draws from him. We know something of Eli's relationship with the man who goes out to murder for her, although there is ambiguity here. We know that he adores her and is not a natural killer - he's a bumbler. The American version was far more efficient, creepy and altogether less likely.

There are very few films that really invoke how it is to be a pubescent child (or at least, the kind of child I was). The intrigues and frustrations of that age, where your own fantasies have taken the place of second-hand make-believe and the world grows a little darker and richer for it. At twelve years old, we knew what we have largely forgotten since; There are dangerous people in the world and some of them are children.

In Let The Right One In, the bullies are sadists, monstrous: ordinary kids. It doesn't matter to us or Oscar what made them that way – unlike his American counterpart, Oscar never needs to ask if there is evil in the world because he encounters it every day. In Let Me In, the bullies talk too much.  Their greater size and strength, together with their preoccupation with masculinity – constantly taunting that their victim is a little girl - make them pathetic rather than menacing. As a viewer, I'm well aware that I am grown up and could shrink them down to size with a few cutting words. I'd also ask their victim what was so wrong with being a little girl? 

But then, apparently, femininity sucks in 1983 America. The boy's father informs him that his mother is sick and has funny ideas about things. We see no evidence of this so I'm not sure if we're supposed to believe it – we never see the boy's mother's face, and we're not given any clue as to how he feels about her either way, just that he can't turn to her in his struggle against the bullies. We know she's religious – perhaps from that we're supposed to assume that she's an intolerable harridan? Elsewhere, we're treated to the horror movie convention that if you've seen a woman's breast, she's thereafter fated to die a horrible death without getting a single line of dialogue. 

All ambiguity around gender and sexuality has been painstakingly removed by the American film-makers. Yes, this is a hobby-horse of mine, but it matters! It's hard to tell ninety minute stories which reflect the full range of gender and sexual variation, but with ambiguity, you feel like you might be being represented in there somewhere.

Twelve year old sexuality is almost always ambiguous. You're twelve! Your own body becomes mysterious to you, let alone other people and their bodies. In Hollywood, this isn't allowed to be the case. On the one hand, they weren't comfortable, as the Swedes were, for the camera to linger on a half-naked twelve year old, because you know, that would be weird – you can only show naked people that the viewer is allowed to lust after! But then, moments after we've first met the boy, we see him using his telescope to spy on his neighbours' making love. So we can see the naked breast of Sexy-Bound-To-Die-Now-Lady. So we can see the boy is normal, because he infringes upon the privacy of people with breasts.

Whereas when, in Let The Right One In, the beautiful androgynous Eli asked Oscar if he'd still like her if she wasn't a girl, we sense the question has two meanings: What if Eli was not human? What if Eli had a different gender?

Later, we see a fleeting glimpse of a genital scar on Eli. The American vampire is unambiguously feminine. She's blonde, conventionally pretty and romantic and never even bedraggled. When she attacks someone, her face changes shape, in true Buffy tradition, because you can't have pretty girls do monstrous things whilst still looking like a pretty girl.

Finally, Let The Right One In is such a beautiful film. You can smell the fresh snow and taste the cold night air, feel all the textures as well as the warm breath and cold touch of the characters. The Scandavians know how to film snow. Snow and Fairisle jumpers. There are long periods and big wide shots of stillness or relative stillness, but never any drag. Although there is blood, gore and pretty awful (as in both severe and ropey) burns injuries, these moments are chosen and handled carefully. The climax of the film is horrific, shocking and wonderful and involves bright lights and very little blood indeed.

The Americans decided to represent the early 80s by making the whole world a little bit dingy. Despite the snow, there was more a sense of damp than the dry cold of the Swedish film. They did some things very well – in particular, there was a new scene with a fabulous tracking shot, with a camera mounted inside a car as it crashes and rolls down a hill. They did however enter the running for my new film award category "Most superfluous use of CGI in a scene that might have been scary otherwise" when they decided that a small child clinging to a grown man as she sucks the blood out of his throat just isn't scary enough. And although there was much similarity to the original film's climax, they reduced the light, added gore and (literally) threw in a severed head.

I can't discourage anyone (except those who just don't like scary films at all) from watching either movie. The trouble is that of its genre, Let Me In isn't a bad film by any stretch of the imagination.  It's just that it's an Americanised, simplified and straightened-out version of an absolute masterpiece. 


Stephen said...

The Scandavians know how to film snow. Snow and Fairisle jumpers.

Just one of the many, many reasons why I love you.

Now the question is - when can I get you to sit down and relax long enough so you can read the novel?

Cusp said...

Havent been back here for such a long time and so pleased to discover all your recent successes and happiness. Still such a great blog. Thanks x

The Goldfish said...

Stephen - soon!

Cusp - Thank you - it's good to see you around. I've read of your current crisis and don't know what advice anyone can offer - I just hope things get easier for you soon, somehow.