Sunday, March 13, 2011

Wendigo Meets LET ME IN (2010)

In what might serve as an omen for the makers of the American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Matt Reeves' Americanization of Sweden's other big cinematic export, Let the Right One In, bombed utterly on its release last fall. It must have struck the producers as a cruel surprise, given how the Swedish film had become a cult hit as a film and DVD in America. My friend Wendigo became one of Let the Right One In's admirers once he caught up with it on DVD. He wasn't surprised when the remake failed, and he remains unsurprised now that he's seen Let Me In and found it a respectful remake and a good film.

The Swedish film was only ever an art-house or cult success, he notes, so any effort to retool it for mainstream multiplex moviegoers was doomed. At this time in genre history, the John Lindqvist story has nothing that mainstream American vampire films want. Above all, it doesn't have sex. When he heard that an American version was being made, Wendigo was afraid that "Oscar" and "Eli" would be turned into teenagers and their relationship romanticized in an effort to lure in the Twilight audience. But if anything, Reeves doomed his project by remaining faithful to the original and keeping the main characters as children, or in the image of children.

Let the Right One In impressed Wendigo as a uniquely creepy film because of the deviant relationship between the childish protagonists, the eternal-child vampire and her dysfunctional servant-to-be. He appreciated the intensity of Oscar's alienation and resentment, how the bullied boy could well have been a serial killer in the making even if he hadn't met Eli. The Swedish film is a portrait of co-dependency that emphasizes the neediness of both characters on many levels. It refuses to romanticize the relationship; it offers no fantasies of power or pleasure, but predicts a terrible future for Oscar in the path of the pathetic father-figure who fetches victims for the vampire. The barren Swedish landscape suits and helps set the movie's bleak mood. Above all, Wendigo liked it because it was different and original. He likes Twilight and will defend it against all comers, but he doesn't need or want every vampire film to be Twilight. As we've shown repeatedly, Wendigo likes the versatility of the vampire as a cinema subject, the variety of things that can be done with it. When he sees something new that's well done, he treasures it.

Ronald Reagan (televised, lower right) should get credit for a cameo role in Let Me In.

Let Me In, of couse, is not something new. It's a remake, sometimes shot-for-shot, of a story familiar enough for us not to synopsize it here, moving the location from Sweden to New Mexico but keeping the period the 1980s. If not for the original, Reeves' movie would have become one of Wendigo's favorites. The ranking isn't automatic -- Wendigo likes The Ring better than Ring, for instance. But in this case the Swedish film feels more spontaneous, and the American version a little too overproduced.

"I'm not a girl," the vampire says, and sometimes Chloe Grace Moretz makes you believe it.

Wendigo admits that the comparison is unfair on at least one level, since his unfamiliarity with the Swedish actors allows him to identify them more completely with their roles, while he couldn't help identifying Chloe Grace Moretz's "Abby" with her Hit Girl from Kick-Ass. But the American actors eventually won him over, and he feels that Moretz and Reeves were more successful than their Swedish counterparts (right) in stressing the femme vampire's disquieting androgyny, and complementing it with a certain androgyny in Kodi Smit-McPhee's "Owen." Moretz looks bigger, more robust than her counterpart, and wears pants and hoodies that sometimes conceal her femininity -- as is appropriate given the original character's backstory, while Smit-McPhee's abject wimpiness gets him called a girl by his bullying tormentors.

Who are these masked men?

Owen's uncool weakness only makes his fantasies of violence and revenge more disturbing, and his wearing a clear plastic mask parallels the garbage-bag mask used by Richard Jenkins's father-figure minion, tagging them as two of a kind. Jenkins makes a stronger impression than his Swedish counterpart because he adds a level of bitterness and resentment for both Abby and his own predicament. Moretz comes across as more compassionate and understanding toward Jenkins, though her eternal immaturity makes it impossible for her to fully empathize with him.

Wendigo hasn't seen Smit-McPhee's previous showcase film, The Road, so he probably doesn't see how the young actor probably hurt the film despite his strong performance. Smit-McPhee is the true Wimpy Kid of today's cinema, and I think that fact disturbs a lot of viewers who aren't really comfortable seeing such blatant weakness and neediness on screen. Many Americans would rather that everyone was cool, or at least self-reliant. I think guys especially dig seeing strong, self-reliant female and child characters, not because it's politically correct, but because it takes them off the hook. The thought that someone might become dependent on them might be scarier for a lot of us than many more conventional horrors, and the Lindqvist story, in both forms, is all about weakness and neediness. It's a real modern horror story.

Reeves does some interesting original things, from the odd way he never puts Owen's mother in focus, which emphasizes the mutual alienation of son and mother, to his reimagining of Jenkins's attacks. In America you can't just hang around someplace waiting for someone to walk past, so Jenkins carjacks folks, breaking in and hiding in their vehicles to jump them at railroad crossings. These sequences are nicely done, especially an admittedly Hitchcockian scene when unforeseen complications lead Jenkins from desperation to disaster. As Reeves notes elsewhere on the DVD, his intention is to get you rooting for Jenkins to escape his predicament, no matter how evil his purpose and how foredoomed he is to anyone familiar to the story. With us, he succeeded.

Abby is never so much an American vampire as at moments like this.

If Let Me In falls short of its original, that can be blamed on overproduction. There's a little too much CGI climbing and leaping, and Moretz gets to wear a CG "grr-face" that her Swedish counterpart never needed. Wendigo has nothing against "grr-faces," but he doesn't understand why nearly every American vampire film needs them. Why aren't fangs enough? Maybe they aren't cool or badass enough, and maybe effects teams do it simply because they can. The reductio ad absurdam of that mentality was Stephen Sommers' Van Helsing. Since then, excessive FX often makes it more difficult for Wendigo to take vampires seriously, a problem he never had with more minimalist vampires of the past and present.

The American film doesn't live up to the original's wintry cinematography, despite much imported snow, and Reeves reveals some limitations as a director following the stunt of Cloverfield. He seems to lose track of Owen's creepiness once he starts "going steady" with Abby, and other interesting angles end up underdeveloped. Reeves seems to have a reason for using clips of Ronald Reagan beyond establishing the period, but search us for what it was -- probably something to do with "evil," I suppose. He also lays the pop soundtrack on more thick than the Swedes did, in what struck us as an obvious attempt to sell an album. These complaints don't add up to a negative review. Wendigo stresses again that Let Me In is one of the better American vampire movies he's seen in a while.

2 comments:

Pablo Luis González-Rueda said...

I understand that Lindqvist wrote a short post Let the Right One In story in which Oscar becomes a companion to Eli, not a father/scavenger figure.

Sam Juliano said...

"The Swedish film was only ever an art-house or cult success, he notes, so any effort to retool it for mainstream multiplex moviegoers was doomed. At this time in genre history, the John Lindqvist story has nothing that mainstream American vampire films want. Above all, it doesn't have sex. When he heard that an American version was being made, Wendigo was afraid that "Oscar" and "Eli" would be turned into teenagers and their relationship romanticized in an effort to lure in the Twilight audience. But if anything, Reeves doomed his project by remaining faithful to the original and keeping the main characters as children, or in the image of children..."

Superlative point Samuel, and while the film did fail at the box office it received very strong reviews for the most part. Ultimately I thought it was a pale imitation of the original, even if within limitations it boasted some stellar craftsmanship, largely the result of fidelity, even blatent replication scene-by-scene of the Swedish film. But the brooding atmospherics weren't captured and teh chemistry between the two kids -again as opposed to the original - was non-existent. It really all comes down to what you say near the beginning of this very fine piece - that the transference of art house to multiplex is an awkward one.