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Monday, February 21, 2011

DVD Review: Let Me In

Let Me In
2011 Anchor Bay Entertainment
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

I rarely buy into glimmering testimonials, but when a rave quote comes dialed up by Stephen King (the man who inspired me to pick up a pen at age 14), I do take it seriously. When the master of horror himself declares something to be "The best American horror film in the last 20 years," I am going to give him a de facto benefit of the doubt. After all, who better to lift his thumbs-up to a vampire film than the author of 'Salem's Lot? Unfortunately, there's a caveat here, since Let Me In is actually a remake of a Swedish film.

The immediate Americanization of a foreign film these days comes with the dubious air of it becoming nothing more noteworthy than a potential franchise vehicle. The Grudge and Bangkok Dangerous come to mind, though the latter has yet to see a sequel, even if you have to suspect one will manifest eventually. In the case of Matt Reeves' Let Me In, let's pray there will be no sequel or continuation, because his westernized take on the 2008 film Lat den ratte komma in (or Let the Right One In) and originating novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist is well...pretty danged close to what Stephen King declares it to be.

Backed by the sixties' moguls of vampire chic, Hammer Films, Let Me In is leaps beyond The Vampire Lovers and in pretty comfy quarters alongside The Horror of Dracula. Different times of conception, different methods of filmmaking and different times altogether, Let Me In is still a gutsy transcendental horror flick even presented as a period piece.

No, we're not talking about the Victorian flamboyance of Hammer's tried 'n trues. Let Me In is set in the early eighties with the ghosts of Reaganomics and David Bowie's "Let's Dance" chiming through the movie. Old Datsuns and rusty car door huffs bring us back, along with the Rubik's Cube, Ms. Pac-Man and Jordache jeans, carefully planted within a New Mexican tundra to set up Let Me In's frigid yarn. Matt Reeves brings a Gen X authenticity to this story that's equal to the task of conveying the double jeopardy motif imagined by Lindqvist. I think all we were missing from Reeves was The Smurfs.

Getting serious, though, Let Me In haunts on two separate levels: the vampire circus-de-slaughter and the brutal trials of adolescence. Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) plays the doe-eyed Owen, a persecuted 12-year-old who is about to meet a friend literally for life. Chloe Grace Moretz (from Kick-Ass) brings maturity and fragility to her tween vampire lead, Abby. Add to that, ferocity. Perpetually stuck at 12-years-old herself, Abby resists befriending the tormented Owen until their paths become forever entwined through blood and snow.

Abby shows up as a new tenant in a (seemingly) subsidized apartment complex with her "father," the famed Richard Jenkins. Jenkins, we learn, has been with her since he was a lad himself, and is Abby's provider--in the means he kills and drains victims so Abby can sustain herself. As Jenkins grows weary of his long-tenured sanguinary devil deeds, Abby grows closer to Owen, who is seeking his identity in the midst of an ugly divorce and even uglier mistreatment by bullies at his school. As a pair of outcasts, Owen and Abby give new definition to the phrase "bonded by blood" as Jenkins' character miscues a murder attempt and douses himself with acid, ultimately leading to his death.

Let Me In thus becomes a study of confused, raging hormones and the comeuppance of a vulnerable fop in the company of a bloodsucker he's both attracted to and feels a nurturing heart for. Despite learning Abby's nasty secret and witnessing her chaw down a detective (Elias Koteas, also the voice of Owen's father in a phone scene) who's established in the film's opening sequence, Owen can't stay away from her. Despite her best efforts to stave her hunger when Owen cuts his finger and asks her for a blood pact before the revelation of her vampire's curse, Abby is forced to leave him. Leaving a trail of corpses in her wake and treating Owen with the same discipline and affection as she did her previous charge (and assumedly preteen love interest), this sets the course of the kids' future together.

The term "let me in" in this film refers to the old vampire lore that a nosferatu cannot enter one's home without invitation, and the film gives us a messy reason why. It also endears Owen to Abby once he sees the bloody repercussions of not verbalizing her invitation. In turn, his caring provokes Abby's loyalty. Following her departure, Abby delivers on a previously-issued promise to back Owen against his nemeses.

Together, as they say, for life.

Moretz and Smit-McPhee are magical together. You understand Owen's attraction to Abby from their first formal introductions. Abby walks barefooted for much of the story, and while Owen picks up on it, his sense of self-worthlessness carries him past any preconceptions. Even when Abby slithers naked and freezing into Owen's bedroom with gore on her face, the awkwardness of the moment comes off pure and innocent. Owen obeys Abby when she tells him not to look at her, but he still wants to consummate the moment, not by trying to cop a feel, but by asking her to go steady. Having spied on his neighbors having sex with his telescope, the delicate measures he takes to procure this outrageous relationship is strangely dear.

At the core of Let Me In is a sub-story of teen rage and it's hardly Twilight melodrama. The personal traumas Owen faces in and out of school are as unnervingly accurate as the references made in the film's setting. Placed within a stark, cold, hick town takes this film beyond 30 Days of Night, much as the latter film's premise is one of the niftiest of the genre. What Let Me In accomplishes is to touch multiple nerves on both a visceral and subliminal level.

Filmed largely in the dark and under the camera obscura, Let Me In is at times claustrophobic, at times horrific and even heartbreakingly sweet where it's supposed to be. Though it's hard to imagine a 12-year-old child running away with his vampire friend, the blood he's seen, the abscence of his single mother and the deadly events he suffers courtesy of his antagonists does allow the probability of the film's ending. Let's hope the story remains content to stay on that note, because it will prevent unnecessary taint upon a well-earned title as a modern horror classic. Even as a remake. Hey, the Stones did a rip-roaring honky tonk take on Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" and Slayer a thrash-styled yank on "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida." Anything's possible at times.

Rating: ****1/2

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