Wednesday, October 13, 2010

How different? Maybe not enough

Warning! The following post contains spoilers about both Let Me In and Let the Right One In. Read on if you've seen both, or if you've seen one but don't care about the other. If you've seen neither, you probably won't have any idea what I'm talking about anyway. Also, what in the world are you waiting for? I'll give you another spoiler warning before I get into anything too serious, if you want to read the first 8-10 paragraphs.

I figured out a pretty good way to catch an extra movie or two in the baby era -- go to a 10:05 showing on a Monday night. See, my ability to take responsibility for watching my son is in highest demand during the hours that my wife would actually like to be awake, actually doing things that need to get done. He's developing a routine of winding down around the time we wind down, but before then, we might expect anything from inconsolable crankiness to angelic sweetness. So before then is when I need to be there ... and the late show is when I might get a chance to sneak out. Besides, who wants to see a vampire movie during daylight hours?

The vampire movie I saw last night was Let Me In, the Hollywood remake of the Swedish masterpiece from 2008, Let the Right One In. And not a moment too soon did I see it -- its inexplicably poor box office suggests that it might not survive this Friday in most theaters. Ten days ago I blogged about my interest in seeing it, and was determined to award it a theatrical screening, based on my love of the original and my stated confidence in director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield).

What I really wanted Reeves to do -- and this may seem funny in light of what I'm about to tell you -- was recreate the tone of the original. He did that in spades. In fact, perhaps the box office failure of the movie is more explicable than I thought, and has to do with Reeves' extreme faithfulness to the European stylings of the original.

Maybe too extreme?

No, that's not it -- but there was definitely something too similar about Let Me In to make it as enriching an experience as I wanted it to be. Tomas Alfredson, the director of Let the Right One In, has gone on record not understanding the point of remaking his movie -- he's said that only bad movies should be remade. And while there's obviously a little immodesty in that statement, it's certainly justified. With such an excellent specimen of this story already existing on film, an American remake seemed to demand some slightly different vision -- not essentially the same vision with American actors.

And so yeah, even though I thought Let Me In was technically flawless, and quite good in every way you'd want it to be, it contained very few surprises for me. Hence, it wasn't a home run for me, even though I don't think I could have asked for much more from Reeves. Maybe Alfredson was right, and there was nothing more to say, cinematically, about this particular story.

Or perhaps it's so close in quality to the original that whichever one I saw first, I would have liked better. I find that idea somewhat sacrilegious, because the original is so good. However, I have long held the opinion that whatever version of something you consume first is usually the version you like better. This is most often the case with songs. If you fall in love with one version of a song, usually, even a different version that is objectively just as good, or possibly better, will not affect you in quite the same way. The same principle seems to hold for movies.

So I guess I'm paying Let Me In a really big compliment -- for all intents and purposes, it's in the same league, creatively, as Let the Right One In. But because I saw Let the Right One In first, I can't see it as different enough to stimulate me the way I wanted to be stimulated.

But since I have you here, I thought I'd use the relative freshness of my viewing of both movies (I saw Let the Right One In for the second time about a year ago) to do a comparison of the original and its remake. And here's when those spoilers I mentioned come into play. Last warning!

Consider this your Cliff's Notes on the differences between the two movies. And to make things shorter, I'll use acronyms (LTROI vs. LMI).

1) LMI starts in the middle of the action. LMI starts (quite arrestingly) on a pair of emergency vehicles winding their way through the distant hills of snowy Los Alamos, New Mexico, so far away that their sirens are at first not audible. These ambulances are hurriedly transporting a man who has just disfigured himself with some kind of highly corrosive acid. It's an event that's quite familiar to those who have seen LTROI, but there it occurs somewhere in the second act. Since we've gone on the record with our intention to ruin things, this is the scene where the vampire's guardian (played here quite well by Richard Jenkins) is about to be caught bungling a murder, so he uses a tupperware container full of acid to render his facial features unrecognizable, to protect the vampire from discovery by association. (Though in LMI, we don't discover these details until later on.) In this opening scene, we're seeing just the aftermath of that decision. After the rest of the scene plays out -- I won't ruin that part, but it's the same as in the original -- a title card appears on the screen reading TWO WEEKS EARLIER.

Verdict: It's a bold way to get us into the action, and the scene is shot with excellent depths of focus and a lyrical beauty that is simply stunning. However, I also think it's a bit lazy. TV writers have been majorly relying on this device as a crutch in recent years -- to start with some inflammatory piece of exciting action, and then to include a title card that reads something like EIGHTEEN HOURS EARLIER, and proceed to go back and tell you how we got to this point. In fact, since I had just picked on this very thing in an episode of Lie to Me we'd watched that afternoon, I felt like I couldn't really let LMI off the hook for resorting to this, even if it was done pretty well.

2) The guardian's murders are carried out differently. In LOTRI, the guardian randomly encounters a man on a snowy path and kills him, proceeding to turn him upside down and drain his blood in a spot not very far away. There's more premeditation in LMI, as the guardian favors putting a trash bag over his head and lying in wait in the back of automobiles, before pouncing on the unwitting driver in the front seat. (The first such instance here is pretty memorable, as he catches the driver stopped at a train track as the train goes by, and the sound of the train muffles the victim's screams.) He then takes the victim to the same wooded setting for the draining scene, which is botched in a slightly different way. The bungled murder that leads to him disfiguring himself is also in the back of a car, and Reeves holds his camera in the back seat as the car flips and goes tumbling down an embankment in one of the film's most memorable sequences.

Verdict: Possibly more memorable in LMI, though a cynic would say that Reeves may have just been showing off. That may point to the need for an American film to have more set pieces that are specifically recognizable as part of the horror genre. A killer waiting to pounce is a bit more Hollywood than a killer randomly walking up to a victim and attacking him. However, I do think that the decision to disfigure himself seems more like a desperate last resort when he is pinned in a car, unable to escape. In LTROI, he disfigures himself more out of resignation, when it seems like he might have a possible escape route.

3) Less ambiguity about the relationship between the guardian and the vampire. The first two points I brought up were essentially cosmetic or structural differences. This one is substantive, and it's kind of a big deal. In LTROI, you know there's an older man living with the vampire, and his status is assumed to be her father a number of times, because that's society's default norm for the relationship between a man and a young girl. (Actually, he could be her grandfather, given their age difference). But Alfredson smartly keeps us guessing about his true identity. He could be her father, though that seems like the least likely explanation. He could be a mortal who was once her age, but has grown old while she's stayed young. That seems more likely. Or he could be a pedophile that she has lured to do her bidding, which would serve as kind of a moral judgment against his value as a human being. That's very tempting but is a bit more outside-the-box.

LMI makes a crucial mistake by giving us a definitive answer to this question. While at Abby's house, Owen finds a heavily yellowed sheet of pictures from a photo booth, featuring her and a bespectacled boy, who we are meant to believe is the younger version of the (now recently deceased) guardian. To Reeves' slight credit, he never actually spells this out in the dialogue, but it's pretty clear which answer to the above question he favors.

Verdict: Advantage, LTROI. Leave it to a Hollywood film to be uncomfortable leaving questions unanswered.

4) No digital cats. One thing that LTROI has that LMI doesn't seem to have is a hint of a sense of humor. Not much -- they are both pretty somber affairs -- but there are a couple visual gags in LTROI that can have no other purpose than to make us laugh. One has to do with the neighbor the vampire bites, but does not kill. In both films, this woman perishes in the hospital when the window shade is thrown open and she's incinerated by the sun. However, in LMI, this occurs the next morning after her bite, moments after she's started sucking on her own IV wound. In LTROI, the woman survives for a couple days, showing a number of the symptoms of vampirehood, before she finally needs to be hospitalized. During this period, she's attacked by a bunch of digital cats, who swarm all over her body as they try to attack the evil inside her. The scene is almost played as slapstick.

Verdict: Which actually works, even if just as a short respite from the bleakness of the rest of the film. Besides, I liked following this character for 5-10 minutes on screen as we see her becoming sicker and sicker, kind of a side plot to the main narrative. The extra screen time this character gets in LMI is when Owen (Rear Window-style) spies on her getting busy with her boyfriend in the apartment across the way, through his telescope. This serves only to show us Owen's budding sexual desires, a theme that is not really explored in the Swedish film.

On the subject of humor, I must have watched LMI with the wrong audience, because the time I heard people tittering was when Abby kisses Owen in the wake of tearing out someone's neck, and leaves a smear of blood on his lips. I thought it was supposed to be a poignant moment, but the fools behind me were laughing.

5) Abby leaves no survivors. The climactic scene in the swimming pool, which is possibly the most memorable set piece from the original film, occurs more or less the same way here. You hear chaos and see heads and other appendages dropping into the pool as Owen is being held under the water to drown, and Abby slaughters his assailants, just out of view. Again, though, I thought Alfredson did this with more of a sense of humor. The scene is choreographed as outrageous -- you see legs dragged through the pool, etc. You're supposed to laugh as kind of a tension relief. I did not, maybe because I already knew what was coming, so there was no sense of surprise. However, there was another fairly serious tonal misstep by Reeves in this scene, that makes it considerably less funny. In LTROI, one of the more mousy of the bully's minions is left without a scratch on him, whimpering and shaking in fear on the bleachers beyond the pool. In LMI, there's nothing but carnage, puddles of dead kids, both bullies and their minions.

Verdict: Again LTROI has the advantage, because that act of mercy of leaving the least threatening minion behind to tell the story makes us like LTROI's Eli all the more. However, I have to admit that what happens in LMI may be more "realistic" in terms of portraying the vampire's protective instincts over her loved one. Having not witnessed Owen's dalliances with the bullies up close -- they all occur during daytime, at school -- Abby would probably not know which ones really posed a threat, which ones had caused him the most pain, and which ones should be spared. A clean and efficient execution of all parties would be the most vampire-logical response.

I've highlighted the key differences. Everything else is close to an exact duplication of LTROI. Which is not necessarily such a bad thing. But in the same way that people hated Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of Psycho, it's reasonable to question the point of making an American version -- albeit a very good one -- of this film, if you aren't going to change more significant aspects than these.

A couple other thoughts on the movie:

1) Really enjoyed Reeves' decision to treat Owen's mother as the equivalent of the adults who sound like out-of-tune saxophones in the Peanuts specials. The role is played by Cara Buono, but you never get a straight-on look at her face. It's a conscious decision designed to highlight Owen's alienation from her as she and his father go through a divorce. This may constitute a difference from LTROI, but I can't remember the way Oskar's mother and/or parents are handled there, so I won't swear to it. I will say it's too bad, because I adore Buono and would have liked to see her face at least once.

2) Found all the actors in this film to be excellent at duplicating what the actors in the original brought to the table, without exception. However, for some reason I did not like Chloe Grace Moretz quite as much as I thought I would. Kodi Smit-McPhee, on the other hand, is perfect. Elias Koteas and Richard Jenkins are also both superlative.

3) Found the score to be pedestrian. That's another big difference from LTROI, which has a wonderfully plaintive score that also seems original. This score was plaintive but seemed kind of trite. That said, I did really enjoy the selection of 1980s pop songs that helped flesh out the setting.

Okay, I think I've written just about enough on this particular topic.


The Mad Hatter said...

If we were to pretend the original didn't exist: what would you think of this film then?

Vancetastic said...

I don't know that it's possible to give a satisfactory answer to that question. As I stated a couple times, I think the film is very, very good. However, part of what makes me love the original is the outside-the-box decisions Alfredson brings to the table, particularly some of his camera setups, like in the swimming pool. Knowing that Reeves is essentially copying, almost identically, the same inspirations that make the first film a masterpiece, I can't help but be slightly less impressed.

That said, Reeves does put forth a bunch of other really interesting camera setups and shooting styles, that don't owe a direct debt to Alfredson. That's why I described this film as in the same league as LTROI. If LTROI had never existed, I think it would have blown me away. But this particular narrative only gets one chance to truly blow me away, and LTROI got there first.

I'm interested to hear your own viewpoint on this, since you only teased me with what it might be in your comment ...

The Mad Hatter said...

Well, since you asked...

Sebastian Gutierrez said...

Ok, I have yet to see LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, but I saw this, and loved to holy heaven!!! I don't why. This one just resonated with me in a way that few films do.

I feel your pain about the assholes laughing at the poignant scenes. In my theatre there was a whole group of kids who WOULD! NOT! SHUT! UP! They were joking and laughing at all the scenes that were supposed to be poignant and beautiful, like when Abby crawls into bed with Owen. God, I wanted to punch them!

And, no offense, but I think you're crazy for not liking Moretz! I absolutely adored her! That was one of the best performances by a child actor I've seen in quite a long time! To hear her say, with so much pain and confusion in her voice "I told you we couldn't be friends", I get chills just thinking about it! I thought she was simply astounding! One of the best performances of the year.

Anyway... good post! I just hope LET THE RIGHT ONE IN isn't ruined for me because I saw LET ME IN first, but whatever. I love LET ME IN, and I'm positive I will love LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

Vancetastic said...


I should clarify regarding my teasingly brief comment about Moretz ... my expectations were through the roof because of Kick-Ass, so I probably was more critical of her performance than I would have been had I come in without those expectations. I ended up enjoying her performance in Kick-Ass better than this one, so I guess my view of this performance is "negative" by comparison. Overall, you're correct that it's a remarkable performance, especially when you consider her age.

If you do watch LTROI soon, I'd be interested to hear your feedback about it, if you want to check back in here with your comments. Most people I know will have seen them in the other order, so I'd be really curious about your perspective having seen LMI first. Thanks for reading!