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Thursday, October 17, 2013

HubrisWeen Day 12: Let Me In (2010)

Screenplay by Matt Reeves and John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Directed by Matt Reeves

Kodi Smit-McPhee:  Owen
Chloe Grace Moretz:  Abby
Richard Jenkins:  The Father
Elias Koteas:  The Policeman

I like to think of this one as the Bizarro World version of Twilight. It's about a relationship between a permanently adolescent vampire and the young-but-growing human that falls in love with a blood-drinking monster. Having been made on Bizarro World, it's about a female vampire and a male human love interest. It's also extremely good, giving the audience a good hard look at just what it would entail to be devoted body and soul for decades to an ageless beast that needs to kill multiple people every week to survive.

Fittingly enough, this film is one of the first productions of the revived Hammer Studios, who gave the world Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee portraying Doctor Frankenstein and Dracula--updating the 1930s Universal monster series two decades later with color film, authentic hand-crafted British accents, and explicit sex appeal and gore that was extreme for the time. But now the older Hammer films seem classy and restrained compared to what we got in the 1970s (Leatherface and the trends started by his movie shifted the Overton window of what filmmakers could get away with several feet towards the nauseating and explicit, for better and for worse). There had been several attempts in the eighties and nineties to revive the studio's brand, but it wasn't until the late 2000s and early 2010s that any actual films got made under the banner. If I'd thought HubrisWeen through a little more before committing to it, you'd be reading reviews of a couple of the older films; as things are, it's this one and Wake Wood on the schedule. Both are from the last three years instead of being six decades old.

While I'm going through my True Confessions at the start of the review, I should admit that I haven't seen the Swedish movie, Let the Right One In, that this is a remake of or read the novel of the same name that the first film was based on. Also, I never liked you, Brett.

The first scene is an ambulance and two police cars with lights flashing and sirens blaring, winding down a lonely road in a snowstorm. The titles inform the viewer that it's 1983 in Los Alamos, New Mexico while a paramedic in the ambulance lists their patient as a middle-aged man with chemical burns all over his hands and face. The horribly burned man is a criminal suspect; the detective talking to him in his hospital room says that even though the law doesn't know who he is now, it's only a matter of time before they find out who he is and who else he's knows that's connected to his criminal activity. The man can't speak due to damage to his lips and throat, so the cop leaves a notepad for him in case he feels like helping the investigation (which would probably help him out at trial; both the detective and the horrifically burned man in the hospital bed know he's guilty as hell but the system hasn't started working its way through his case yet).

The detective is called away by a nurse--there's an urgent call for him downstairs. While he's on the phone the heart monitor and other devices hooked up to the burned man start emitting their alarm tones--by the time the policeman makes it back to the tenth floor where the burned man was in custody, that guy's down on the ground floor (courtesy of the window in his room). The only clue for everyone to work with is "I'm sory Abby" written on the notepad.

Now that we've seen where things are heading, why not go back two weeks and watch how all the pieces fit together that doomed the unlucky bastard with the self-inflicted Harvey Dent skin condition in the hospital bed?

A skinny boy is sitting alone at night on a snow-covered playground in the courtyard of an apartment complex. He's small for his age, swallowed up by the silver parka he's wearing, and in the shots introducing him is utterly, utterly alone. He has dinner with his mother (who gets a phone call related to the ongoing process of her divorce from the boy's father during the meal); significantly, her face is never shown in focus in the entire movie--either her head is cut off by the top of the frame or she is a nearly featureless blur. It's a way that the director and cinematographer show how little presence or influence she has in her son's life. Owen, her son, is barely communicative. He won't talk about what's going on at school and barely picks at his dinner. His mother fails to pick up on the fairly obvious signals that something's wrong with her child. But the viewer gets more information than she does, and being shy and withdrawn is barely the start of it.

Owen spends the rest of his evening his room, either spying on his neighbors with a telescope (and some part of him knows how creepy this is because he ducks down out of sight when he thinks he's been noticed by an attractive woman in her bedroom across the courtyard) or wearing a cheap Halloween mask and no shirt, threatening his reflection in the mirror and waving a kitchen knife at it. No matter how drunk or religious his mother is, I'm willing to bet that if she knew just how curdled Owen's psyche is, she would take steps to address it. Hopefully with some kind of professional help, because she's clearly outclassed by whatever is going on in Owen's head.

Owen hears a truck pull up and sees two people walking through the courtyard--a middle-aged man in glasses carrying a trunk and a girl about his own age, walking barefoot through the snow without it seeming to bother her at all.

At school, Owen is sitting on bleachers by the side of the pool while the rest of the class is exercising. I'm inferring that his mother is keeping him out of the class, because my own memories of school in 1983 don't include any instances of a teacher caring what a student wanted to do during class time. After gym class, fifth hour apparently is Kenny the bully and his two hench-bullies making Owen's life miserable and laughing at his terror and pain. That night, at the gas station / convenience store that is apparently the closest thing to a hangout spot Los Alamos has for adolescents, Owen buys a handful of candy and a small pocketknife. He's stabbing a tree and pretending it's the chief bully in his life when the girl he saw before silently walks up to him and tells him she can't be his friend by way of introduction.

The girl's father, meanwhile, breaks into a car and hides in the back seat, his face and body hidden by a garbage-bag mask and poncho. The driver doesn't see or notice him, and one jump cut after the car is stopped at a train crossing the man hangs the teenage driver upside down from a tree, cuts his throat, and saves the blood in a two-gallon plastic jug. Which he then drops and spills thanks to the poor visibility and slippery ground. Back at the apartment Owen hears Abby and her father fighting through his bedroom wall. He doesn't have enough context to know what the man means when he says he thinks he wants to get caught, but even though Owen doesn't know specifically what he's talking about, he knows it can't be good news.

The next day at school there's a class assembly where the local police notify the students that a recent graduate was killed and that they should tell an authority figure if they see anyone new or suspicious in town. That night, Owen is failing to solve a Rubik's Cube out in the dark on the playground. Abby sees him and the puzzle, and they strike up a conversation. Neither one is particularly good at talking but they both enjoy each others' company. After they go their separate ways, Abby ambushes and drains a jogger (breaking his neck afterwards) and her father flies into a rage when he realizes it. Again, Owen has no idea what the older man means when he says "You did it again" and stomps out to clean up the mess, but he's been bullied and mistreated long enough to know the tone he's hearing and how it's not likely to ever change.

After another bullying session at school leaves Owen with a cut on his cheek courtesy of his main tormenter, he doesn't trust any of the authority figures in his life to the extent that he's willing to say what happened. He does let Abby know, though. And she tells him to hit the bullies back harder than he ever dared and they will leave him alone. She also tells Owen that if his knife isn't enough to get the bullies to back away, she'll personally come to his rescue. They go out on the kind of date you have when neither person has any options or knows what to do--playing video games at the convenience store and Abby tries her first taste of candy in what might well be decades, if not centuries. Her body rejects the Now & Later and Owen, sympathizing rather than being repelled, gives her a hug. They say good night and part ways.

That same night, Abby's father tries to find another victim and a sequence of pitch-black comedy ensues--his victim picks up a friend who needs a ride home, and who comes within seconds of discovering the garbage-bag-wearing killer lying down in the back seat three or four times (even smashing him with the seat when the passenger slides it back for more leg room). The killer winds up sedating the passenger when the driver's out paying for gas and stealing the car--the entire chase and wreck that follows is shot with a static camera in the back seat and the viewer has to piece together what's happening without any of the usual movie grammar to assist them. It's a virtuoso setpiece and the use of one big POV shot for the action sequence is possibly a nod to the director's previous movie, Cloverfield. After the crash, Abby's father is trapped in the wreckage and pours a bottle of acid over his face in order to delay identification (I think he was also trying to kill himself to protect Abby, but failed).

In the hospital, we see the same scenes from the start of the film, but with more context. We also see Abby finding out where her father was being kept, climbing the side of the wall and drinking his blood before he falls to the ground as his last sacrifice to aid her--and we also see the police detective looking down at the suicide in the parking lot, and missing seeing Abby by inches. Back at the apartment, Abby surprises Owen by tapping on his bedroom window and spending the night next to him; they agree to "go steady" together but it's pretty clear that neither one of them knows exactly what that would entail. Abby vanishes to the safety of her own apartment before sunrise.

The next day at school, the body of the jogger Abby killed is discovered frozen in the pond that's being used for ice hockey by the gym class. Coincidentally, this is seconds after Owen finally fights back against his abusers, clocking the main one with a metal rod and tearing his earlobe badly. Like most bullies, when confronted with actual consequences for pushing someone around too much he collapses like a house of cards. In the most realistic scene of the movie, Owen is the one threatened with expulsion from school for fighting; one thing you can always count on in the American educational system is a zero-tolerance policy for bullied kids hitting back.

At the apartment, Owen shows Abby a disused storage room that was turned into a hangout by some of the teens who lived at the complex. None of the adults know anything about it and Abby asks her not-quite-yet-boyfriend what he'd like to do now that they're alone together and won't be interrupted. Owen slices his thumb with his pocketknife and says they can make a pact together, which is probably not what Abby thought was going to happen. She fixates on the blood, licking it up from the floor and accidentally revealing her nature to Owen at last. She runs out of the room and attacks one of Owen's neighbors rather than him, but is chased off before she can break the exsanguinated woman's neck.

That night, Owen calls his father (who never appears in the film; he's just a voice on the telephone) and asks if there is such a thing as evil and whether people can be evil. His dad assumes that Owen's been contaminated with his mother's religious mania--which is everywhere in the film, and actually one of the things about 1983 that I remember like it was yesterday. And like all the other adult figures in Owen's life, his father can't help him. None of the adults in the movie come close to noticing the undead parasite in their midst until Abby's bitten through their neck. Owen is left to his own devices (which will work out for the worst--he's trying his best but he also doesn't really know what he's doing and he's not mature or practiced enough to heat up a TV dinner without burning it, let alone make life-defining moral choices on his own). But in the universe of the film, Owen is utterly and completely on his own. The characters like the detective, his mother and father and Abby's father are never given names; they're off in the adult world of rationality and Owen is stuck in a childhood where he's either ignored or abused and he can't count on any help from any of the sources he's been told to trust since he was old enough to know what that word means. The closest thing he has to a positive adult figure is the gym teacher, who lets him start strength training after school (but who is more interested in reading the newspaper than talking to Owen for any longer than necessary).

Everything comes to a head when the detective figures out what's going on, aided by the sight of her surviving victim bursting into flame in her hospital bed when a nurse opens the curtains and lets the morning sunlight in. At roughly the same time Owen and Abby have a talk about what she truly is--she tells Owen that she's twelve, but she's been twelve years old for a long time. In this same scene Owen sees a photo-booth picture of Abby looking exactly the same but wearing clothes that would have been in style twenty or thirty years before. Next to her, beaming and obviously in love, is a glasses-wearing adolescent with a prominent birthmark on his face. Her father was actually her Renfield, a boy (and later a man) in willing thrall to her and finding a safe way for her to feed without turning anyone else into a vampire or revealing her nature to the world. And now Abby needs a new one; the implication I got is that every forty or fifty years she needs to find someone willing to kill for her, over and over, and when that person is used up one way or another she gets another doomed soul to serve her. Her own actions towards Owen sometimes suggest that she knows she'll need a replacement for her current pet serial killer and she's testing him to see exactly what she'll need to do to ensare him completely.

At the end of the story, both Owen and Abby need to leave town (following a standout scene where Abby's attack on the school bullies is simultaneously gorily explicit while also being left to the viewer's imagination). Owen sees her kill for the first time and shuts his eyes, blocking everything out so he doesn't have to witness it. The poor trapped bastard is going to get used to that--and a lot more--over the next years. His damnation occurred thirty years ago; if he's still alive now, he'd be about the same age as Abby's former servant was at the start of the movie, and he'd have known for three decades how his servitude would end one day.


  1. Wonderful movie. I read somewhat less predatoriness into Abby's courtship of Owen. He would have made a perfect victim in the hidden storage room but she spared him and found another more dangerous meal. Though with her "dad" already gone I guess you could make a case that she didn't want to ruin her new pet.

  2. I think the first time she met Owen, Abby simply liked him and felt pity for the weird kid. But as time went on and her "father" looked more and more likely to need replacement she started figuring out ways to turn Owen into her next retainer. I think there is some genuine affection still there towards Owen, but that it was being used as a tool to snare him once events started to take their course.

  3. Curiously, the Swedish version is much more ambiguous about the relationship, and the short story that serves as an epilogue to the original book has a very different ending than Let Me In. (Whether it is better or worse for the boy is a matter of opinion, I suppose, though he seems happy enough...)

    Its a great example of using a remake to explore different variations or themes, rather than just aping the original.

  4. There's a few tiny glimpses of Americana in the remake that probably weren't in the original as well--the "Eat some now, save some for later" jingle is pretty horrifying when you realize that's Abby's survival strategy. And I'm not entirely sure what setting the film in Los Alamos does but that's where nuclear-weapons research took place for decades--it's got to mean something, but I'm not entirely sure what. You don't accidentally set a story someplace like that.

  5. Lindqvist helped write the screenplay, and if his novels are any indication, he loves to throw in weird little details.

    I wonder whether Abby is his version of an "American" vampire. She is almost the archetypal child vampire: pretty, blonde, and utterly ruthless. Eli is brunette, somewhat odd looking, and both conflicted and even vulnerable (especially in the book).

    I think Let Me In is a better movie because it doesn't encumber the plot with details from the book that don't really add anything; but the original book (and the follow-up short story) are the most interesting version of the story.

  6. Tim, did you ever get around to seeing "Let the Right One In"?

  7. I'm afraid not. I should have grabbed that one as the L film for HubrisWeen, but went with something more obscure (but also with a vampire) for it this year.