The vainglorious reaction to Parasite’s Oscar win for Best Picture showed us again that there’s something unseemly to the American mind about watching a movie with subtitles. So, when Hollywood bought the rights to the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In, it was as obvious as it was disappointing that a damn-near perfect horror movie was going churned in the remake machine because some people can only watch a movie in English. But cynicism can sometimes leave you open to surprise, and as fate would have it, horror fans managed to get two similar, but very different adaptations from the same source material.
There were two big vampire movies in 2008. One was Twilight, which was about a high school wallflower who becomes the object of undying obsession by the handsomest vampire there ever was. The other was Let the Right One In, which was as chilling as a wind coming off the Baltic Sea; desolate, foreboding, and gruesome. It was everything that Twilight was not, which is why it stood out for true horror fans. As Twilight became a global phenomenon; Let the Right One In was anything but romantic, even though it was still, essentially, about two lost souls finding each other.
The plot of Let the Right One In is about a 12-year-old named Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) who lives in a Stockholm suburb with his divorced mother. One night, Oskar watches as what looks like a father and his young daughter move into his building, and while playing outside the next night, Oskar meets “the daughter”, who he thinks is a young woman about his age. But Eli (Lina Leandersson) is a vampire, and her “father”, Håkan (Per Ragnar) stalks the trails around town to drain lone hikers for their blood.
It’s not just the snow that’s cold in Let the Right One In, Håkan methodically hangs his victims by their feet to drain them of blood, but he’s clearly getting old and is not as fast as he used to be. Although vampires are typically seen as the most intimate of killers, biting and feeding on their victims at the neck, director Tomas Alfredson always stages the attacks from a distance. Even though this takes place in an obviously a small community, the danger always feels like its at a distance. It’s almost foreign.
Meanwhile, our protagonist Oskar lives in fear of his school bullies and spends almost all his time alone. He acts out imagined scenarios where he stands up to the bullies, but he never does. So he just tries to flint through school anonymously before he goes home, plays alone outside, or collects news clippings about grisly murders and other crimes. Then, when someone his age (or at least appears to be) finally seems to act friendly towards him, Eli tells Oskar they can’t be friends.
Let the Right One In, and its refusal to indulge in sentimentality, was going to lose something in the American adaptation. Americans are typically more maudlin as a people, and there was going to be a natural impulse to lean into the melodrama. In Let Me In, Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) too lives with his divorced mother, but whereas Oskar seems to have a good relationship with both his mother and his father, Owen’s mom has thrown herself into religion and Reagan, while his father is absentee at best. Owen is, somehow, even a lonelier figure than Oskar.
What’s interesting is that Owen seems to be a more hopeful figure than Oskar. He doesn’t just hover around his yard like a spectre, but heads into town to the corner store to buy candy, or to the arcade to play a game. Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), Owen’s new vampire neighbour, also seems warmer in spirit. When Abby tells Owen that they can’t be friends, you can immediately tell that she doesn’t mean it. It might because her “Father” (played by Richard Jenkins) just doesn’t have the heart anymore to care for her, and he tells Abby as much after he fails to collect the blood she needs.
In adapting Let the Right One In for the United States, there was a question if director Matt Reeves could find a location as frigid and barren as suburban Sweden. Let Me In is set in Los Alamos, New Mexico, which looks like it could be one town over from Blackeberg. Although the film doesn’t touch on it, Los Alamos is famous for being the “birthplace of the atomic bomb,” a place from which great darkness was born, and is, in essence, still nurturing the darkness given the presence of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, even if the science done there has now gone beyond atomic research.
The lurking and lingering darkness is a theme in both versions of the film; adults seem distant, authority seems lacking, and a picked-on kid seems largely left to fend for himself. Both Oskar and Owen sign up for strength training after school, both carry knives in the belief that it will offer them protection, and both whack their bully in the head, strong enough to split his ear open. One of the big differences in Let Me In is that the police have more of a presence in the story, whereas there’s nary a cop to be seen in Let the Right One In despite all the blood-drained bodies around. Given these conditions, finding your soul mate in a vampire makes a certain kind of sense.
In other differences between the films, Let Me In leans a little more into the gore. It’s an aesthetic choice, but it’s hard to tell which creative decision is the more effective. Alfredson’s distance is more voyeuristic, and perhaps more psychologically disturbing, but Reeves’ intimacy makes you realize how close the danger is in this insular community, and maybe what danger that Owen is courting by being friends with Abby. It’s an interesting observation for these movies set in the early-80s, the last days before “Stranger Danger” when kids could enjoy relative freedom and before the advent of “helicopter parents.”
In returning to comparisons to Twilight, it’s important to note that these are vampire movies with a capital ‘V’. Stephanie Meyers may have thought she was reinventing the wheel with Twilight, but her vampires are more like X-Men than Lost Boys. As the title implies, Let the Right One In plays on those time-tested vampire tropes: the physiological need for blood, the deadliness of sunlight, and the requirement to be invited in. It’s interesting to note that Let Me In was produced by Hammer Films, which makes Let Me In the product of the legacy of the classic Christopher Lee-starring Dracula movies.
Although both human heroes of Twilight and Let the Right One In respectively find a home in a vampire world, Twilight’s fairytale ending is no match for the great uncertainty in front of both Oskar and Owen at the end of their movies. In a way, we know what path lays in front of them, and it will likely involve them draining people of blood in the woods, but is that any more monstrous than bullying a kid and holding his head underwater in the school’s pool? For horror nerds, the answer is obvious.