Monster mash: Non-sparkly vampire romance

In honor of Halloween, I’m spending the days leading up to All Hallow’s Eve pitting off foreign horror movies against their American remakes.   We’ve spent a lot of time on Asian movies, but today we’ll look at one from Sweden:

Lat den ratte komma in (Let the Right One In) versus Let Me In

Warning. Spoilers! I’m typically assuming you’ve seen the American version of the movie, so hopefully I’m not spoiling much.

The original story. Oskar is a meek kid who spends his days being ruthlessly bullied at school and his nights scrap-booking about murderers. One night he meets Eli, the slightly odd girl who moved into the apartment next door with her dad Haken.   Over the next several nights, the two kids meet at the playground of their apartment building and develop something of a friendship, Oskar sharing Rubik’s Cubes and Morse code with Eli, Eli sharing tips on beating up bullies with Oskar (which midway through the movie he uses on his bullies to gory effect).   At the same time, however, darker things are happening with Eli’s family.   Haken repeatedly goes off at night to kill passersby for their blood for Eli; when he fails the first time, Elie goes out and slaughters someone herself.   When he fails the second time (and is caught), he disfigures himself with acid and is sent to the hospital; Eli finds him there, and feeds on him instead.   She returns to Oskar, who suggests they go steady over a blood pact, but at the slight of Oskar’s blood, Eli goes feral, runs away and instead attacks a woman called Virginia.   Eli admits that she is a vampire to Oskar, a fact graphically confirmed when she starts bleeding from every pore after entering his room without being invited.   Virginia turns into a vampire during her hospital stay, and bursts into flame when exposed to sunlight. Lacke (who is closed friends with both victims and also lives in Eli’s apartment complex) breaks into her place for revenge.   When he discovers her asleep in the bathtub, he is momentarily distracted by Oskar, giving Eli enough time to kill him.   Eli flees the city, but returns to save Oskar from being drowned by his bullies out for revenge.   The movie ends with Oskar and Eli on a train, starting a new life together.

The two movies. The 2008 Lat den ratte komma in isn’t really a horror movie: it’s more a romance movie with a vampire in it, like   My Girl with the undead, or Twilight without the lame.   It never really attempts to be scary per se, although it frequently aims for unsettling.   For example, the lines between the good guys and the bad guys are blurred at best.   The two protagonists, with whom we can empathize, are both monstrous in their own ways: Eli literally is a monster, who kills to survive; Oskar is fascinated with revenge and murder and fantasizes about killing.   The antagonist Lacke, while fairly unlikable, would in any other setting be the hero: he’s looking to avenge his friends and stop a monster from killing again.   Even Oskar’s bullies are shown to be remorseful, with the exception of the alpha bully and his big brother, which makes their eventual slaughter at Eli’s (unseen) hand all the more satisfying.

Speaking of which, the final scene in the movie is spectacular.   Oskar is being drowned by the oldest bully (well, he’s being held under for three minutes, which is pretty much the same thing).   The camera never moves, positioned underwater with the (minimally) struggling Oskar in the foreground and the expanse of the pool behind him.   We only hear the vague sounds of struggle above, and the occasional commotion break through the plane of the water above Oskar’s head, like a pair of legs yanked across the breadth of the pool, or a head plunking in the water, or the arm holding Oskar’s head down go limp and fall in the pool, ripped from its shoulder.   It’s beautiful and quiet and surreal.

Indeed, the movie’s handling of Eli’s vampirism is top-notch and very traditional.   Eli doesn’t “vamp out” and turn monstrous when she feeds, she just attacks, bites, and drinks blood (although the feral sounds she makes when on the prowl are far scarier than any Hollywood make-up).   When she doesn’t feed, she looks withered and gaunt and smells of death; afterwards, she looks healthy. Like most movie vampires, she’s super-humanly agile, but these effects in the movie are understated and subtle rather than overtly CGI’ed*: we see her scale a hospital, but she’s just a speck in the background; we see her scale a tree effortlessly, an eery effect achieved through some wire-work and clever camera angles; she can fly, although we never see how.   Perhaps most unsettling, though, was her biological response to entering a room without being invited: a spontaneous, hemophiliac fit of bleeding through every pore, which was creepy as hell.

* The exception being the cat scene, in which Virginia is attacked by a bunch of house cats.   The crummy computer-generated kitties really detracts from what is otherwise are really freaky sequence.

The 2009 American remake Let Me In is a pretty faithful recreation of the movie, sometimes being a shot-for-shot duplicate of the original.   Of course, being a Hollywood movie helmed by a Hollywood director (Matt Reeves of Cloverfield fame), it subscribes to the usual Hollywood conventions, like scarier make-up (including fairly cliche “vamp out” effects for the vampire) and more CGI and gothickier set dressings.     Most of these effects, I think, work to the detriment of the movie.   For example, Abby (the renamed Eli) turns into a video game character whenever she attacks someone, which looks stupid rather than scary.   Similarly, the veiny, zombie-esque vampire make-up is, well, a little over-the-top for the spirit of the rest of the movie.   (However, the waifish Abby’s continually bare feet in the snow is wonderfully creepy the whole way through.)

That being said, the remake does make a few alternations that I thought improved the story. For example, the movie introduces an element of immediate tension by telling the story non-linearly, opening with the aftermath of the second failed attempt to get blood, and then jumping back to tell the story.   It also ejects Lacke’s character (who is connected to the crimes and the killer by a sequences of ever increasingly improbable coincidences) with a detective investigating one of the deaths.   The movie also explores Abby’s past a bit more: we see that her dad is not her dad, but merely her familiar: a boy who has stuck with Abby his whole life, who loves her dearly, and (presumably) has killed for her for decades.   The upshot of this is that the blossoming friendship between Abby and Owen (Oskar’s doppelganger) has a sinister edge to it.

Oh, and the final, beautiful, quiet, surreal scene from the original?   How did that fair with a Hollywood budget and tendency to supersize the effects?   Amazingly enough, they resisted temptation and stayed true to the spirit of the original.   Nailed it!

The verdict. This is a tough call.   Although it occasionally goes a little overboard with its make-up and CGI, the remake does pull together a tauter thriller while still keeping the friendship aspects of the original intact.   And it didn’t screw up the ending, either.   I’m going to go with the remake on this one.

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