The remake vs. original debate is a tale as old as time, or at least as old as the film industry. It sometimes seems like whenever original ideas run dry, Hollywood turns to the untapped (from the average Joe’s perspective) well of talent to be found in world cinema. English-language takes on Train to Busan, Toni Erdmann and Another Round have all been in development in recent years. American remakes of acclaimed world cinema films might be abundant, but very rarely are they as satisfying as the originals.
Swedish coming-of-age horror Let the Right One In and its American remake Let Me In could be argued as extreme rarities in that they both ended up being rather exceptional films. But that doesn’t stop us going over them with a fine tooth comb to try and put one out in front of the other in this edition of Original vs Remake.
In 2008, Tomas Alfredson burst onto the international stage with his striking film adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 vampire novel “Let The Right One In”/”Låt den rätte komma in”. Alfredson’s chillingly atmospheric film of the same name retained much of the traditional vampire lore of popular culture, but developed and altered it in some fascinating ways as well as providing a new perspective on pre-teen emotional processing and relationships.
Two years later, Cloverfield director and future Planet of the Apes helmer Matt Reeves remade the film, keeping the early 1980s setting but transferring events from Stockholm to winter New Mexico. While it could be argued that Let Me In is not a direct remake (as Reeves claims to have based his film on the original book more than Lindqvist’s self-adapted screenplay), it does inevitably echo the original’s tone, has plenty of visual similarities, and hits almost all of the same key story beats as Alfredson’s Let the Right One In.
Both films concern a lonely and bullied 12 year-old boy with a terrible 80s haircut meeting and befriending a mysterious girl who moves in next door. Their relationship soon blossoms, but when Eli/Abby’s vampirism is revealed, both of their lives (or lack thereof) are changed forever. Can he accept what she is and go steady with a centuries-old creature of the night? Will she be able to overcome her predatory instincts enough to feign normality? And what sort of dark side will she bring out in the previously innocent Oskar/Owen?
Let the Right One In in particular is highly effective as a horror, with the constant feeling of tension and unease it maintains throughout. It is equally a cutting social drama with its story of social divides as well as Oskar finding the courage to physically stand up to his tormentors and escape his unhappy life at home. It’s also affecting as a love story, though a highly unconventional one. Alfredson and Lindqvist keep the vast majority of the film’s events and character motivations up to viewer interpretation; we never quite know the extent of Håkan’s relationship with Eli, or who Eli was before she was turned, nor do we know what Eli’s real intentions for Oskar are, as he clearly loves her but it’s difficult to tell whether she has any real affection for him or whether she is simply grooming him to become her new human guardian in case of Håkan’s demise.
Let Me In‘s key strength is in its in-depth characterisation and the ways some figures go down slightly different paths than their Swedish counterparts. In the original film, Per Ragnar’s Håkan was always an enigmatic figure, but in Let Me In, the brilliant Richard Jenkins brings pained emotion and pathos to his version of the character, becoming far more sympathetic in the process. He is an extremely troubled soul, obliged to serve and protect Abby not just out of fear, but out of love, as it is made explicitly clear he used to be exactly in Owen’s place when he was a child. In the scene where his attempts to kill a young man in his car to provide Abby with a meal are thwarted by the unexpected appearance of the victim’s friend, you almost will the would-be murderer not to be found – it’s a very Hitchcockian twisted moment where you find yourself rooting for the bad guy to get away with it. It’s also a nice touch that you never get a clear look at Owen’s mother, who was a friendly but burned out presence in Let the Right One In; here she is always just out of shot or out of focus, so you are alienated from her just as Owen is.
The transference of the story from Sweden to the States also allows Reeves to draw comparisons between the film’s events and the heavily moralistic political stance of The Republicans of the 1980s. Particularly noteworthy is the use of Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech in the film’s opening to accompany police radio chatter about later events in the film.
There is truly very little in fact that elevates one film above the other. Let the Right One In is an extremely visceral and haunting experience that will stay with you for a very long time. It might be relatively slow-paced, but that simply adds to its creepiness and sense of foreboding. Lina Leandersson’s Eli is also a far scarier vampire than Chloë Grace Moretz’s Abby, not least because of the last minute decision to re-dub her voice with another actress – the less child-like and androgynous sounding Elif Ceylan. It gives Eli an unnatural, otherworldly quality ideally suited to the character.
Reeves’ Let Me In thankfully didn’t look to simplify the original film for English-speaking audiences. The remake may have a little more money behind it than the original, but this added budget isn’t squandered on unnecessarily pumping up action scenes, with every VFX-embellished stunt and special effect that there is (such as the bestial way Abby moves when hunting or the re-jigged swimming pool massacre at the end) adding something to this story.
Let the Right One In was an exceptional example of a fantastical horror deeply rooted in humanity, and rather than being an inferior imitation of this winning combination Let Me In built on these successes and added a more fluid method of storytelling, rounded characters and a memorably moody score by Michael Giacchino. Perhaps Alfredson only slightly tops Reeves by virtue of getting there first.
With so little to separate the films, it merely depends on your preferred method of filmmaking as to which screen version of this story you prefer. If you would rather watch a more raw, more natural and more spiritual film, then see Let the Right One In. If you favour a slightly more slick and character-driven film, go for Let Me In. If you see both, however, then you can really appreciate them for what they really are; far more than an original and a remake, Alfredson’s and Reeves’ films are the same vision through two different lenses, two takes on a timeless story of boy meets not-girl and blood in the snow.