In remaking the Swedish vampire cult hit " Let the Right One In," Matt Reeves put himself in a position as fraught as Dracula at high noon.
Most people had never heard of the source material. And some of those who had — and could help him spread positive word — just wished the project would go away. Why attempt an English-language do-over, they asked, of a recent movie that was pretty much perfect in the first place?
"I started writing the script for 'Let Me In,' and then 'Let the Right One In' got big in the U.S. I thought, 'Oh no, there's going to be a lot more focus on this now,' " said Reeves, the "Cloverfield" director and J.J. Abrams protégé who scripted and directed the new movie, which stars Chloe Moretz, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Richard Jenkins. "It was terrifying."
When "Let Me In" opens Friday, fans will have a chance to judge whether Reeves and his cast have paid proper homage to the original while recontextualizing it in a way that's uniquely American.
Tomas Alfredson's "Let the Right One In," based on a script and novel from John Ajvide Lindqvist, was a relatively minor commercial release in the U.S. in the fall of 2008, taking in just $2 million at the box office. But it won an outsized fan base among critics and horror-genre bloggers.
The Swedish-language picture told the story of Eli and Oskar, a young vampire girl and a lonely boy who strike up a friendship in a snowbound, lower-middle-class Stockholm suburb in the early 1980s. Bullied by his classmates and neglected by his parents, Oskar finds in Eli a sympathetic ear, and the two engage in a series of tender meetings in the courtyard of their apartment complex. But the young vampire's life is hardly simple — the blood-craving creature is entangled in an ambiguous relationship with a worn-down, middle-aged man who may be protecting her or exploiting her.
With its exquisite subtlety, metaphoric overtones about preadolescent sexuality and clever inversion of a traditional power relationship, "Let the Right One In" both reinvented a subgenre and transcended it, a vampire movie for non-vampire fans.
Reeves retained Alfredson's structure, relationships, snowy atmospherics and 1980s setting. Again, a lonely boy, Owen (Smit-McPhee), finds connection with a young, androgynous vampire, Abby (Moretz). The vampire, meanwhile, carries on in a murky dynamic with an older man (Jenkins). By relocating the story to America, however (the film was shot and set in Los Alamos, N.M.), Reeves was able to give the material a sociopolitical spin, incorporating '80s pop tunes and Ronald Reagan speeches about the nature of evil.
"It's a balancing act. You don't want to change anything for change's sake, but you do want to personalize it," said Reeves, 44. "Putting in a lot about growing up in Reagan's America is what made it feel closer to my own life."
Reeves elicits a quiet, moody performance from Moretz that is a world apart from the wisecracking swagger of the Hit Girl character she made famous in last spring's "Kick-Ass." And though he maintains the thematic spine of "Let the Right One In," the director makes the scares and the blood more explicit, encasing his psychological and emotional concerns in a genre skin.
"They say the American movie is an arty film and is very European, but it's really not. It tells the story in a more straightforward way," said Carl Molinder, a producer on the original and the remake.
From the start, fans of the original — even those in the U.S. — were wringing their hands about an American take on the story. Chief among their concerns was that filmmakers would transform the prepubescent characters into teenagers. That, they feared, would turn the movie into a "Twilight" knockoff and rob the romance of its gentle innocence. But judging by blog chatter, a lot of fans also feared the opposite: a carbon copy of "Let the Right One In." (To try to avoid this, Reeves asked his cast not to see the original.)
"I understand why people would feel protective," Smit-McPhee said at a party following the film's premiere this week in Westwood. "It's a movie a lot of people feel close to." Or as Jenkins put it, "I don't blame the audience for worrying about a remake — they've been burned a lot."
But unlike many remakes landing in theaters these days, "Let Me In" was hardly the result of Hollywood executives vampirically scouring for any foreign-language hit they could get their hands on. Producers of "Let the Right One In" had actually started aggressively shopping a remake before the Swedish-language version even began shooting, meeting with American studio executives and producers (including, incidentally, J.J. Abrams).
Hammer Films, an iconic British horror label that had been dormant for decades, decided to take on the remake as the first step of its resurrection. "We didn't even need to see the finished film to know this was special," said Hammer's Nigel Sinclair, a "Let Me In" producer.