By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Count me among those moviegoers who saw 2008's Swedish vampire shocker Let the Right One In and thought it brilliant, nearly perfect. We're also the ones who winced at the announcement that the director of that annoying, jiggle-cam monster mash Cloverfield would do an English-language remake.
It turns out that Matt Reeves does know how to lock down a camera and let scenes breathe, and he can write a trenchant screenplay if it's adapted from a masterpiece. The new version Let Me In isn't an improvement, but it displays uncommon respect for the source, especially for an American retread.
Like its predecessor, Let Me In is a moody piece about puppy love, and one involved party has very sharp teeth. It's a younger, much smarter and gorier Twilight, with vampires bursting into flames when sunlight hits their skin instead of glittering like a New Year's Eve party favor. There is an ache shared by its mismatched preadolescent couple — also a vampire and a mortal — more affecting than the Bella-Edward-Jacob triangle.
This is how a romantic vampire flick should work. At least the original did, and Reeves wisely follows its lead. Let Me In dumps a few striking images from Tomas Alfredson's original (no cat attack or intimate scar this time) and makes others — like the classic, climactic swimming pool scene — busier than necessary. But the overall eerie factor is comparable.
Starting with a new prologue featuring a nameless detective (Elias Koteas), Reeves sets his film in a 1983 New Mexico winter nearly as snowy as Sweden's. The detective is hoping to interrogate a hospitalized, horribly burned suspect about a series of ritual killings. The man has other plans, and Let Me In has the opening hook that Let the Right One In didn't need.
Flash back three weeks and the introduction of Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road), a latchkey loner bullied at school, so he spends time alone in the playground of his apartment complex. New neighbors move in next door, apparently a father (Richard Jenkins) and his odd daughter, Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz), who walks barefoot in the snow, knows nothing about Rubik's Cube and candy, and immediately tells Owen she can't be his friend.
Yet the relationship grows into going steady, and Owen slowly realizes that Abby is an eternally 12-year-old vampire. The man she lives with isn't her father but her longtime provider of blood, who trusses and drains random victims like deer. After he bungles a couple of takeout orders, Abby takes matters into her own teeth. Cody should be repelled, but he's captivated by her gruesome decisiveness and wishes he could do the same to his tormentors at school.
Moretz and Smit-McPhee perform in synch with Reeves' stealthy sense of dread, more intriguing (perhaps more "European") than creepy kids have become in horror flicks. They're so effectively understated that the CGI and makeup tricks Reeves feels obligated to add seem out of place. Yet the movie never seems unnecessary, as remakes of foreign films typically are. Let Me In isn't the right one to see but closer than expected.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.