Let The Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in
d. Tomas Alfredson / 2008 / Sweden / 115 mins
Let Me In
d. Matt Reeves / 2010 / USA-UK / 116 mins
Screen 2 @ Cineworld West India Quay (London, UK)
A little while back – having watched the films almost back to back – I wrote about the similarities between two English-set 1940s classics, Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and the Robert Stevenson-helmed Orson Welles-led version of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. And then, in a post about Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, I was rather disparaging about the very concept of a Hollywood remake, particularly the way that a dire, saccharine-drenched film such as You’ve Got Mail could suck all the life and energy out of one of the all-time classics of romantic comedy.
Before the firing squad this time around is another remake – albeit from an entirely different genre – and the tale of two films much closer together (temporally, but also in form and intent): Tomas Alfredson’s original Swedish adaptation of Låt den rätte komma in (2008) – better know to fanboys around the world as Let the Right One In – and it’s recent Hollywood revision as Let Me In.
First things first, it only seems fair to look at the original, free from the clutches of Hollywood’s regurgitation machine. And Let the Right One In is a brilliantly weird, delightfully unexpected slice of Swedish genre cinema which manages to be strangely bang-on in terms of its general atmosphere and in the deployment of temporal markers relating to its 1980s setting. At its best, the film is a picture of understatement – more than willing to let the audience decide for themselves about the nature of evil and the evils of nature. And yet, no matter how out of place it might have felt in such an unassuming film, Alfredson isn’t afraid to titillate genre spectators with the odd hyperbolic set piece. My personal favourite is, of course, that sublimely ridiculous cat attack:
Sadly, from plot progression to temporal marking, the curious mix of subtle understatement and genre thrills in the original is almost completely missing from Matt Reeves’ recent dull thud of a remake, Let Me In. Where the original didn’t particularly strive to draw attention to its ‘period’ setting (or at least seemed to spring from a particular context), Let Me In is shot through with America’s typical penchant for twentieth century nostalgia. And whilst Reeves has thankfully steered clear of any sort of ultra-blunt, Hot Tub Time Machine-style face-slapping 1980s markers, he does still manage to mangle almost all of the subtlety from the original. What’s worse, Reeves also manages to twist this nostalgic mangling into a typically contrived, contextual subplot featuring Ronald Reagan’s infamous Evil Empire speech; no doubt intended to reflect the plurality of evil which otherwise drives the narrative.
In the interests of full disclosure I should probably note that, having somehow managed to miss Let the Right One In during its theatrical run, I actually watched the two films on the same day; the original at home on the small screen and the remake at a preview screening (yes, I’m still that far behind on these updates!) Having watched Alfredson’s version, I made a few speculative notes about the likely differences (and similarities) I was expecting to find in Reeves’ English-language update. Unsurprisingly, I was curious to see just how predictable this remake would be.
I started with my concerns about the temporal setting:
It’ll be interesting to see a) whether the remake even bothers with setting it in the past, and b) how much it strives to bang us over the head with it if it does.
And to be fair, despite the leap in subtlety from the original, Reeves doesn’t fare too badly in this respect. Obviously, the decision was taken to set Let Me In in more or less the same time period as the original – Reeves has suggested that he was drawn to the images and memories of his childhood – although for obvious reasons, the location shifted from snowy Sweden to snowy New Mexico. Which brings me neatly to another concern:
It’ll also be interesting to see whether Reeves has adapted his own visual style/palette or just cribs directly from the original.
Sweden, by virtue of its Scandinavianness is often quite snowy. So keeping well away from trailers and promotional images, I wondered how Reeves would translate the frigid bleakness of a Swedish night to the scorching heat of the arid New Mexican plains. And like a lot of people, to be fair, when I think New Mexico, I tend to think this:
…and not this:
Needless to say, New Mexico is a rather vast state that possesses a range of climates and at least two out of the four seasons. Even so, how dare Matt Reeves play with my preconceived notions of how parts of the USA should appear on screen?
This contrast leads me to one of my key concerns about remakes of recent foreign language films in general, and this remake in particular. You see, the worth of a remake – without getting into a discussion about the inherent ‘difficulties’ of watching a film in a language other than ones own – surely lies in its ability to ‘add’ something to the original, to somehow improve upon or enhance what was so attractive about the original film.
Of course, few remakes ever do this and Let Me In is no different, with its inability to add to the original arriving both figuratively and, in many senses, literally. True enough, Reeves has expunged certain minor characters from the original and replaced them with his own, added his own little (largely superflous) subplots, and shaded in the background with snippets from Reagan speeches, but the majority of what is on screen – and, indeed, what the characters say – is lifted wholesale (and usually word for word) from the original.
With this in mind, perhaps the most astounding thing about Let Me In comes with the closing credits. The Swedish original, although directed by Tomas Alfredson, was written for the screen by the author of the source novel, John Ajvide Lindqvist. And yet despite lifting large chunks of both dialogue and imagery from Let the Right One In, this remake is credited – rather prominently – as ‘A Matt Reeves Film’, which is, in itself, outrageous enough. But as one credit fades into the next, we are expected to believe that a film which lifts roughly half of its dialogue directly from its predecessor was ‘Written for the Screen and Directed by Matt Reeves’.
I mean, come on, this is not Jean Luc-Godard we’re talking about. Or Lars von Trier. Heck, it’s not even Christopher Nolan. He’s not exactly an established filmmaking presence; he’s Matt Reeves, a man whose previous writing credits include countless episodes of Felicity and whose only other directorial credit outside of television – aside from the merely passable Cloverfield – was that low watermark of mid-90s romcom, The Pallbearer.
Again, watching the films back to back means its terribly difficult to detach oneself from the original whilst watching the remake. But despite the directly translated dialogue, the tendency to ‘borrow’ entire scenes (stylistically and spatially, see above), and the sheer disingenuousness of the end credits, it’s actually the differences with which I have the biggest gripes, because the brilliance of the original was built almost wholly on its ability to withhold detail and maintain complexity.
But for the duration of Let Me In, Reeves adds the dullest, most American of contrivances to paper over the very ambiguities that made the original stand out from the vast swathes of straight-to-DVD Euro-horrors. Framing the film as a question of ‘good vs evil’ is always a bad start, as is the introduction of notions of religion: both very American preoccupations. And whilst the lack of police presence has been cited by many as one of the few failings of the original, Reeves’ introduction of a (seemingly) lone detective adds not only a convenient foil to the story, but also a hefty amount of lone cop cliché. And just in case we hadn’t cottoned on, Reeves even brings religion and justice together, with the cop (repeatedly) airing his assumptions about Satanism, that great spectre of Hollywood.
Equally confounding is the treatment of Oskar/Owen’s parents. Buried amongst the relative ambiguity of the various interpersonal relationships in Let the Right One In is the curious triangular relationship between Oskar, his mother and his absent father. Oskar lives with his mother, but it’s all very Scandinavian, with Oskar moving freely between the two households with no hint of antagonism between the parents. In one particular scene, a moment between Oskar and his father is interrupted by an unnamed male interloper who, we can only assume, is the father’s current lover.
And yet in Let Me In, the relationship between Owen’s parents is far more blunt, American and clichéd. She’s cast in the mould of a struggling single mother, whilst he is very clearly (and unambiguously) painted as the absentee bastard of a father who doesn’t particularly care for his son. And then there is the exact nature of the relationship between Eli/Abby and the old man (Håkan/’The Father’) which, again, remains suitably unexplained in the original but is repeatedly hinted at in the remake.
What’s worse, perhaps, is that whilst the original wriggled around its meagre visual FX budget with the use of clever lighting and the classic technique of – gasp! – not showing everything, Let Me In doesn’t bother doing something so subtle, lumping instead for woefully underpar digital FX that just look, well, silly.
Then again, perhaps I’m being a little too harsh. In terms of Reeves’ additions, the car accident scene is quite memorable, and it should be noted that Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Moretz do make a pretty reasonable fist of the central duo. But they’re just not Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, and ultimately, I think that’s precisely the problem.
Despite all his protestations about making a ‘new’ adaptation of the original book, there’s no getting away from the fact that Matt Reeves’ has taken a brilliant, unassuming film – already considered a cult classic – removed much of the subtlety and merely produced an inferior copy. Where once there were shades of grey, now there is only black and white, leaving many of us yet again begging the eternal question: what, exactly, is the point?