The undead seem to be everywhere these days. In literature, film, and television, there are more vampires out there than you can shake a stake at. And multitudes of zombies are shambling along on the big screen and the small screen, not to mention across the pages of Pride and Prejudice. And while it might seem odd to use the word “overkill” when talking about the undead, I’m definitely reaching a saturation point when it comes to vampires in particular.
So I didn’t rush out to the movie theaters to see Let Me In, which is both a remake of the Swedish movie Let the Right One In and a new adaptation of the novel by John Ajvide Lingquist on which the original film was based. In all three versions, the story involves a 12 year old (although, as she says, she’s been 12 for a long time) vampire who moves into an apartment complex where a timid and bullied boy lives, and it’s the boy who is the primary character, as he gets to know the new girl (although, as she tells him, “I’m not a girl,” at least not in the human sense).
The American movie moves the setting of the film from Sweden to Los Alamos, New Mexico, while retaining the original’s snowy bleakness (with the addition of artificially enhanced snow for the New Mexico location scenes). The opening shot of distant police cars and an ambulance traveling along an empty road through the snow with a mountain range in the background is a striking beginning, a nod to the wintry bleakness of the original as well as connecting the film to the empty and majestic desert settings of the American western. Let Me In is just as clever and disturbing in its twists on the vampire film as Let the Right One In, and the New Mexico setting provides an additional interesting element to the film.
The plot and characters in the film come directly from the Swedish original and are true to the source. The western elements occur in the use of setting and particularly in the film’s visual style, which is heavy on quotation and allusion. The director Matt Reeves has mentioned Alfred Hitchcock (specifically Dial M for Murder) as an influence, and the early scenes allude to Rear Window, with the boy Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee, who played The Boy in The Road) in the role of Jimmy Stuart’s Jeff Jeffries. Confined not so much by a wheelchair but by his young age and an unhappy home life (his father absent, his mother in the process of divorce), Owen spends his evenings with a telescope, spying on his neighbors in the apartment complex.
John Ford also seems to be an influence on the visual style of the film, especially Ford’s emphasis on shooting through doorways and windows (most famous example, the final shot of The Searchers), and in Ford’s use of doors and windows as visual markers for other borders and boundaries, inside and outside, civilization and savagery. In one of the final scenes of the film, we look into the interior of a train car through the doorway at one end, and that shot in particular seems a reference to The Searchers.
As an Indian hunter, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards exists on the border between civilization and savagery, employing savage violence to protect civilization from the dangers of savagery (in terms of the film’s construction of Native Americans as a threat to white civilization). He doesn’t enter the house, but stands framed in the doorway before turning and walking away. By the end of the film (and some spoilers follow here), Owen has made a similar choice, forming an alliance with the savage vampire Abby (Chloe Moretz, who starred as Hit Girl in the film Kick-Ass—and in some ways, her Abby, although prone to primal violence when feeding, is less savage, and certainly less profane, than Hit Girl).
Owen becomes a border character, becoming Abby’s go-between to the human world, the human face who will help conceal her vampiric existence. Visually, the shot through the doorway suggests that Owen has crossed that border to another way of life, one that is well outside the social roles (son, student, bullied victim) that have defined him throughout the rest of the film.
As the title suggests, the film spends a lot of time exploring different living spaces, and is particularly interested in the consequences of who you let come inside. Movements from one space to another, through windows, through doors, from inside to outside, are a central part of the film’s action. One of my favorite shots of the film is looking up at the skylight above a school’s swimming pool, where we see one broken pane of glass, and a swirl of snow coming through it—a natural force crossing that protective barrier. The vampire Abby is a similar force, and one of the interesting things about the film is her ambivalent portrayal. Is she hero or villain? Without giving away too much of the plot, the film makes it clear that the civilized world of humanity is anything but civil and has its own monsters (the bullies that terrorize Owen).
Let Me In is violent, brutal, and bloody at moments, but mostly it’s a character study that slowly and carefully shows the development of the relationship between Owen and Abby. In this regard, I actually found the Swedish Let the Right One In to be too slowly paced. Both films are almost the same length, but I did find Let Me In to be more engaging, perhaps because I already know and like from earlier films the two young actors in the lead roles.
So even if you’d rather burst into flame every time you step into sunlight than to see yet another vampire film, Let Me In brings something different to the genre, not the least of which is its use of western settings and allusions to western films.