Let’s be clear from the start: There are no glittering diamond abs in Let Me In, nor any hunky Native American werewolves prowling after the heroine. And the film’s female lead isn’t a damsel in distress at all, but rather a bloodthirsty vampire desperate to sate her hunger and quell the loneliness blooming inside her.
In Let Me In, the English-language remake of 2008 Swedish feature film Let the Right One In (itself based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel), the horror that unfolds is provocative and gripping as much as it is brutal. Unlike the Twilight films—or Stephenie Meyer’s novel series on which the vampire franchise is based—it’s more of a coming-of-age story that’s drenched in blood than it is a tortured teen romance.
Which might be both the beauty and horror of this haunting story. Writer/director Matt Reeves, no stranger to the genre after his accomplished filmic sucker punch Cloverfield, shifts the action from Blackeberg, Sweden to a hushed and snow-swept town in New Mexico, anchoring the story of a young vampire and her new human friend in 1980s Reagan-era America.
The story of eternally pre-adolescent Abby ( Kick-Ass’ extraordinary Chloe Moretz) and bullied loner Owen ( The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee) is both about the loss of innocence and its salvation, a non-sexual romance that’s filled with 1980s ephemera, from Now and Later candy to Rubik’s Cubes.
“What is interesting is the ideal in the United States of Reagan talking about the 'Evil Empire' and the idea of evil not being within us but it being something other,” said Reeves, sitting in a deserted hotel ballroom in San Diego back in July, a few blocks from the madness of Comic-Con. “The idea of how being a 12-year-old and growing up being bullied mercilessly in a town that, unlike Blackeberg, would have plenty of churches and would be talking about the idea of… evil, how you would deal with that.”
Reeves was initially against adapting Let the Right One In for U.S. audiences, especially when he heard that the studio was considering aging the characters and pushing them into adolescence, perhaps an attempt to transform Owen and Abby into something closer to Twilight’s Edward and Bella.
“It would be a huge mistake,” said Reeves, “because no matter whether you make this with me or with anyone, it’s a story about being at that age, in that pre-adolescent moment. If you change that, you change what the story is about, which is a coming-of-age story in the guise of a vampire genre film.”
Let Me In is definitely about that particular chasm between childhood and adulthood. Escaping the constant arguments between his divorced parents, Smit-McPhee’s Owen encounters a strange girl in the snow-covered courtyard of his apartment complex. He soon forms a bond with this girl whose secrets are far darker than his.
“The movie for me was about being trapped,” said Academy Award-nominee Richard Jenkins ( The Visitor), who plays Abby’s enigmatic protector known only as “The Father,” as he unwrapped a grape Now and Later. “Whether you were Owen or Abby. I always thought vampires were free. They could change and fly. But you see this girl who has to have cardboard over her windows, can’t go outside, and is dependent on this man. She’s just as trapped as Owen is.”
While Twilight might be about the escape of romance and of first love, Let Me In explores how we can find ourselves trapped within repeating patterns and how pivotal moments in our lives enable the chance for release. The knowledge that Abby is actually hundreds of years old but has to depend on someone to care for her is a chilling one.
“What’s so great about that idea is she would need to groom someone new,” said Reeves. “You could imagine that that’s what Owen is for her. But it doesn’t mean that she isn’t lonely and doesn’t need someone and doesn’t love him.”
“She’s still emotionally a 12-year-old and is stuck at that age,” he continued. “We realized that we didn’t want her to play a vampire. We wanted to find the emotional reality to it… She’s seen things and been through things that no 12-year-old should have to be participating in. But she’s still 12. That makes it worse.”
It also separates it from other vampire dramas like HBO’s True Blood or the CW’s Vampire Diaries, which typically examine the vampire mythos through the prism of addiction, repression, persecution, or sexuality. Here, the romance isn’t about sexual release or abstinence, but rather something chaste and tender, a kinship among outcasts. Despite the glut of vampire-based programming, it’s the genre’s innate flexibility that allows for an alternate takes on bloodsuckers.
“What’s exciting to me about genre stories is the use of metaphor,” said Reeves. “ Cloverfield is all about anxiety for me… The ways that this story explores the themes are very different: the complexity of how someone can do something so horrendous and yet there’s love in there… It’s smuggling in a story about the pain of being 12, being an outsider, being lonely and your parents getting divorced and being bullied mercilessly and having no one. And then finding someone and the pain of navigating that.”
The film tracks the sorrow experienced not just by Owen and Abby but those around them as well, Jenkins’ “Father” character and Owen’s unnamed mother (played by Mad Men’s Cara Buono). It’s perhaps “The Father” (or Hakan, as he was known in the original Swedish film) who emerges the most tragic character of all.
“How do you stay trapped in a world for 50-some years and not long for something else?” said Jenkins. “What is this hold she has over you? Is it fear? Is it love?”
The movie, director Matt Reeves said, “is a coming-of-age story in the guise of a vampire genre film.”
Ultimately, it’s those questions that linger long after the closing credits and the question mark that the plot’s unsettling resolution presents.
“What’s most exciting for me is the idea of people living through Richard’s experience in the movie, living through Kodi’s experience and Chloe’s,” said Reeves. “Walking in these other people’s shoes and understanding how even in the darkest moments, you can relate to them and the humanity of that.”
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.