So I thought I’d do something a little different with this Graf Recommends. You know – try and start a thing. More and more we’re seeing the American Syndrome take hold of good foreign films and the result is a brutal remake made to reach a larger audience. So with last week’s post, I managed to suck the life out of Dracula Untold, but I’m not quite ready to leave the horror genre or the biting social commentary offered by the undead.
I mean, Vampires – come on. I love ‘em! They’re a truly unique and fascinating literary and cinematic tool for tackling some very real and surprisingly human topics. So grab your sunflower seeds and start counting down – cause we’re about to start our first “international vs.” entry (and it’s vampire themed).
Believe it or not, there is a quality vampire film made in the last decade, and it’s the 2008 breath of fresh air Let the Right One In. It’s minimalist horror at its finest and superbly adapted for the screen from the novel penned by John Ajvide Lindqvist. You’ll find little over-the-top supernaturalism, and it doesn’t offensively pander to the gimmicks of the genre.
Instead, LTROI is simply an endearing coming-of-age story full of childhood romance, friendship, and plenty of throat-ripping. Oh, it also happens to have a blood-sucking adolescent girl that has a penchant for puzzles.
Now, like a lot of international films, we have the classic case of trying to capitalize on a great idea and sell more tickets by making an American remake. We saw it with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; we saw it with The Eye, and we see it here again with the 2010 version simply called Let Me In.
I’ll be the first to tell you – yeah, the American version fails to create a unique identity from the Swedish version. That being said – yes, they’re both nearly identical (save for some minor tweaks), but they both take some cinematic departures from the original novel.
Let the Right One In is directed by Tomas Alfredson, who some of you might recognize from Tinker Tailor Solider Spy and stars Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson as Oskar and Eli respectively. To classify this as a Horror film puts it on the same level as something like The Silence of the Lambs. There is very little gore, and I’m pretty sure the word ‘vampire’ is only said once in both versions.
Regardless of the absent pools of blood or long black capes, I contend this is more of a vampire film that the majority of the other nonsense that’s currently out there – especially Dracula Untold. It’s through the subtlety and craftsmanship of the narrative that we are ultimately terrified of this prepubescent ‘other’, NOT through gratuitous amounts of CGI.
Our protagonist Oskar is a meek and uninteresting boy living alone with his mother in a suburb of Stockholm called Blackeberg. Because of his size and build, he is picked on by the bullies at school and, unfortunately, has entered into that twilight period of his life between childhood and adolescence.
While attempting to find solace in the snowy courtyard of his apartment building – stabbing trees and generally being a sociopath – he is introduced to a rather peculiar girl – Eli – who has recently moved in next door to him. She is barefoot and wearing only a very thin dress, yet is miraculously not cold in the frigid Scandanavian suburbs. Unbeknownst to Oskar, the man with which Eli lives is a serial murderer that preys on young men and drains them of their blood.
Blood, only coming out at night, not getting cold; yeah, you guessed it – Eli’s a vampire. It’s in the tagline of the movie for those prone to violent online outbursts whenever you come across a spoiler. She’s 12 going on 200 and wants to drain you dry. Just bring a Rubiks cube or throw some sunflower seeds to ward her off – or at least that’s what comforted Mulder in his quest for the truth.
Like I said before, the American version has basically the same story. The names and locations are changed a bit (Owen and Abby instead of Oskar and Eli), and now they’re in a sort-of snowy town in New Mexico. The time period for both is set in the 1980’s, and, for the most part, the American director Matt Reeves just painfully recreates some of the more iconic scenes from the Swedish film to a fault.
Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass, The Equalizer, Carrie) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Congress, The Road) take the main stage in the 2010 version, and other than replacing a nosey neighbor with a pesky detective, the rest of the characters are all pretty much the same.The casting in both films is absolutely superb, and I think both duos showed great chemistry among themselves despite their relatively young age. Their respective relationships are authentic and touching to say the least.
One primary difference between the two versions is that the American version has a much more superficial narrative. Instead of purposely being reserved so as to make the audience think, the 2010 version just mind-numbingly panders to the audience and vomits exposition everywhere. The explanation of Eli/Abby’s relationship with the older gentleman/caretaker would be the perfect example. It pains me to see a good story cheapened because – god forbid – something might be initially confusing. I see the American version being a product of director Reeves saying ‘Hey, let’s put a car chase or two in there, dumb it down a bit for Bubba Six-Pack and make some money.’
And therein lies the key difference; the American version attempts to jazz itself up a bit by adding a bit more action and poorly rendered CGI. That’s it. The vampire scenes of Abby have a tacky feel to them. In LTROI, you don’t have to SEE what Eli is doing to appreciate its horror. Some dude walks into her sleeping quarters, there’s what sounds like a struggle, and then she walks out covered in blood. Boom – there’s instant recognition of what just transpired. Conversely, you see Abby unnaturally latch onto a victim and rip his fucking throat out in a goofy and poorly rendered sequence.
The American version does indulge a bit more in this respect, but the Swedish version isn’t without fault. Just wait until the cat scene and you’ll see what I mean. At least director Reeves had the good sense to not include that comically awful scene (though it is in the book and reads just as terrible as seeing in onscreen).
I thoroughly enjoyed the book when I read it, and for the most part, there aren’t too many key differences. The films tackle a lot of the same taboo subjects like pedophilia and gender identity, but there are also the usual suspects of alcoholism, parental detachment, and murder. The theatrical stories are a bit more romanticized and tend to skate over some of the more unspeakable subjects, but that is only to be expected. After all, you’re probably not going to include attempted child rape or the infamous “piss ball” of Oskars’ in your film. Then again, LTROI is a Swedish film…
I’d say the Swedish version is probably closer in tone to the novel, whereas the American version is more detached with a focus being on the nature of good and evil. I liked that Reeves included the Reaganism of the 1980’s and the introductory speech about the ‘enemy among us’ (the ‘other’ of vampiric literature), but he didn’t expand the resultant witch hunt to a Salem, MA level of pandemonium like he should have.
Again, the lead actors in both versions do an excellent job making their respective relationships believable, and the cinematography is beautiful all throughout. What’s more – despite a few CGI issues, you won’t find a contrived version of a vampire in either version. That seems like an oxymoron to have a contrived vampire, but what I mean to say is that where Dracula Untold indulged in all the tropes of the modern vampire movie, LTROI and Let Me In were both more reserved like the classics Dracula and Nosferatu.
Now I’m not saying that you won’t find some of your favorite vampire lore drawn upon in either version of the film (there’s plenty biting and sunlight and pseudo-coffins), but like I said at the beginning, these films are dramas that just happens to have a vampire as a main character. Eli and Abby aren’t the centerpieces of their respective films. They could have been werewolves or aliens or robots – it wouldn’t have mattered for what the story sets out to do. It’s meant to question the morality of good and evil and explore the intimacy of friendship.
The fact that the little girl happens to be a centuries-old vampire is just a cinematic storytelling device. It paints her as ‘the other’ whom a confused and bullied little boy has to figure out on his own. To Oskar and Owen, the fact that Eli/Abby is a girl is about as foreign as her being a vampire. It’s unfortunate that both versions shied away from some of the gender identity themes, as I found the notion in the novel of Eli being essentially genderless to be quite an original aspect of the story. If you watch the Swedish version there is one scene that might hint at some gender ambiguity, but you’ll understand why I’d rather not bring attention to it once you watch the movie.
Yes it’s a highly sexualized drama, but that comes with having a vampire in your story. As if biting weren’t pseudo-sexual enough, the fact that a creature is draining your blood or ‘life’ right out of you is the core of what the vampire is. You could say a loveless marriage or a Debby-downer is a vampire. You could say the boss you hate is a vampire. Let the Right One In is so much more than just a vampire movie. It’s charming, thought provoking and simply refreshing in everything it sets out to do. Let Me In? Well – it is what it is.
So with that, you’re probably asking yourself which version wins. Well the simple truth is they both do. As standalone versions they’re both definitely worth a watch. I know I harped a bit more on the American version, but they’re virtually the same movie. DISCLAIMER: The Swedish version has subtitles. God Forbid you have to read something…If you’ve read this far in this post you’ve probably read about as much dialogue as is in the film. If you really can’t stand subtitles, then yeah – you can probably get away with watching the American version. Chloe Grace Moretz is great and it has a fun 1980’s soundtrack in reference to the book.
What is Graf’s recommendation? Watch the 2008 Swedish version and the Swedish version alone. It’s a more quality film, I think Lina Leandersson’s Eli is a better and way creepier vampire, and it’s more artsy and less of a ‘big-dumb-horror-film’. You’ll be charmed, refreshed and mad as hell once you realize that this type of movie only comes around once a decade or so.
The Bottom Line:
They’re both good movies, but the Swedish version obviously takes the top billing. If you see the American version first, you definitely need to watch the other version. If you watch the Swedish version first, you probably don’t have to watch the other one, but it is interesting to see how a few slight changes can alter the tone of the movie. But the Swedish version is on Netflix though, so just stick with that. Additionally both versions don’t start fucking up the vampire lore like Dracula Untold did.
– Let the Right One In
– Let Me In
I find this pair of movies and their similarities to be particularly fascinating. The majority of the key scenes are remade nearly identical in the American version save for changes in lighting, ambiance, vital dialogue, camera angle, etc. If you’re more of a technical sort of person, you’ll be enamored when watching both versions just to observe the varying aesthetic effects and how minor changes can have a significant impact on your perception of the film. One fun experiment you might try is to watch a silent film in its original version and then find another version that has replaced the accompanying musical score. You’d be shocked just how much it changes the feel of the film. I watched Nosferatu and then the same movie only with a modern industrial soundtrack, and they were entirely different films despite having the same visuals. It’s a similar effect in LMI vs. LTROI. One has a much more melancholy score and the other has 1980’s rock and pop, and the tone is ultimately changed for better or for worse.