Let Me In is one of those strange tweener movies that is neither fish nor fowl. It was a fall festival hit, but movie audiences like their movies to fit into neat and tidy categories, and this one defiantly refuses to do that. Here's why.
It's a remake. Yes, director Matt Reeves decided to do an American redo of Scandinavian horror fave Let the Right One In (backed by Brit Hammer FIlms) but it's arguably better than its predecessor. He refused to age up the story to lure bigger stars, and kept the 80s Reagan-era suburban setting of his own youth, moved it to the wintry altitudes of Los Alamos, New Mexico, and focused on the heartbreaking loneliness of two neighbors in a housing complex, a bullied boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a twelve-year-old girl who happens to be a blood-sucking vampire (Chloe Moretz). Overture in marketing the coming-of-age story tried to find a way to let fans of the original know that this wasn't a casual rip-off, but a personal reinvention with a strong point-of-view.
It's a box office dud: Unfortunately, the film opened with less than 50 per cent overall tracking awareness, which is anemic for a wide release film and indicates a lack of marketing support; better to have platformed it than to go wide without the proper amount of media behind it.
It's a bloody, violent R-rated art film. I liked this movie so much that I showed it to my UCLA Sneak Previews class and watched aghast as quite a few of them peeled off; they couldn't see the artistry for the violence. The majority braved the movie and recognized its caliber--but this is why Let Me In isn't performing at the box office. (It's holding on to 1200 screens this weekend, but I'd go see it fast.) The art house crowd tends to be older, proper folks who are too-sensitive for realistic blood-spurting thrills. And the mainstream audience doesn't want its gore presented as an intimate naturalistic English-language European art-film.
It boasts the year's best score. One reason that I didn't expect so many of the Sneak Previews crowd to bolt was that I had seen the film before the preview without the score by last year's Oscar-winner Michael Giacchino (Lost, Up), which upped the dread and intensity quite a few notches. The film moves from delicate interludes with two young people learning to love each other to brutal school bullying and horrifying, animal-like vampire attacks, as well as what looks like the pathologically methodical murders of a serial killer (Richard Jenkins).
It has three of the best performances this year. Reeves' coaching from mentor Steven Spielberg on working with children paid off in spades. The two kids kept journals and Reeves listened to them; Smit-McPhee suggested one close-up shot of a toy on the floor that Reeves shot. Smit-McPhee is far more compelling and accessible than he was in The Road, and Moretz plays a nomadic 250 year-old vampire emotionally trapped at pre-adolescence with a strange, soft, yearning dignity. "I am 12, I've just been 12 for a very long time," she says. And the always outstanding Jenkins (who Reeves met at an Overture party for The Visitor, for which he was Oscar-nominated) is heartrending in the role of the always-young vampire girl's wearily grizzled, sad and tender caretaker. What would drive a man to be this way? Jenkins' eyes are the movie's center; he still haunts me.
Director Reeves has a stunning career ahead of him. The brilliant conceit behind Reeves' debut Cloverfield was the notion of shooting a giant monster attack on Manhattan from the POV of a hand-held video camera. It worked. The guy's a smart writer/director with Hitchcockian instincts and ambition, brainy ideas, visual panache--he shot this with 35 mm anamorphic lenses--and acting chops. What's not to like? Well, in this case he didn't foresee the tweener problem. He made a smart horror movie--much as Sam Raimi did with Drag Me to Hell --without realizing how it would or would not play. "It's a vampire story but like Cloverfield, it's not a genre film," says Reeves, who resonated with the bullying. "It's so clearly personal. It kept digging into me...You can't discount the connection and love these people have. And you can't discount the darkness." One creepy thing Reeves pulls off in the film is to draw the audience--inspired by Dial M for Murder, he admits-- into identifying with characters doing upsetting, nasty things of which they would never approve.
It's a critics' fave. The movie isn't scoring with moviegoers even though critics loved it:
"An imaginative and largely intact retelling of this gory, troubling, uniquely sweet and uniquely dark vampire tale."--Salon's Andrew O'Hehir
"The subtext of the relationship is not sexuality, as it is in "Twilight" or "True Blood," but rather the loneliness of children and their often unrecognized reservoirs of rage."--A.O.Scott, The New York Times
"Those hoping to see a 'vampire movie' will be surprised by a good film." --Roger Ebert The Chicago Sun Times
It won't be an Oscar contender, even with rave reviews, for all the reasons above. But Overture is smart to present the movie to critics groups because year-end kudos could help move some DVDs. The critics aren't hung up on the horror genre (even if the Academy generally is: Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs is the exception that proves the rule) and could lavish some awards on Let Me In. And that could inspire film fans to add it to their Netflix queues.
[Photo of Matt Reeves courtesy of the Los Angeles Times)