Another week, another vampire movie, or at least that how it feels. Studios don’t seem to tire of the adolescent fables and the sexual angst the classic monsters seem so apt at stirring up on screen. Let Me In is a slightly different take on the genre, shedding any trace of Twilight melodrama for a story that is self-consciously mature and “serious.” It is a beautifully shot, elegantly paced love story between a miniscule 12-year old boy and his new next door neighbor, Abby. The movie is based on the Swedish film Let the Right One In that was based on the Swedish novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist. I have neither seen nor read these precursors, but Let Me In’s tone is so uneven, its intensions so murky, that I can only assume that something is lost in the translation of the popular foreign film material into its American version.
The movie’s most thrilling bit is its opening half-hour, which is carefully structured to leave you wondering just what kind of creature is lurking behind the mysterious discovery of a badly burned man. When that man throws himself from his hospital window, the movie jumps back in time to show us how we got there. The man is the creepy and suspicious father (Richard Jenkins) of a young girl who moves in next to Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his mother (Cara Buono). Owen’s mother and father are in the midst of a divorce, making his home life nearly as unbearable as school, where he is relentlessly bullied. Owen spends a lot of his time out on a snow-covered playground in the center of his dreary apartment complex. That’s where he meets Abby (Chloe Moretz), the mysterious man’s daughter, who walks around in the snow barefoot. “We can’t be friends,” Abby says moments after they meet for the first time, but you know their friendship is inevitable.
Abby turns out to be a vicious vampire, but she also teaches Owen how to stand up for himself. Their relationship unfolds in a way that is tender and genuinely endearing, but it is oddly juxtaposed against other scenes of Owen at school, dealing with his tormentors, and Abby’s father in the woods, draining blood from dead bodies. It is a strange mashup, and one in which the component parts never feel like they add up to a whole.
Still, there is something surprisingly enjoyable about watching Let Me In. With his bashful eyes underwhelming presence Kodi Smit-McPhee captures something of the awkwardness of his age and the fragility of his constitution that makes you feel those incomprehensible emotions again. Chloe Moretz’s Abby is stonier and less engaging, but the young actress is handed a difficult role. The script doesn’t quite give her the material to flesh-out a character who is both a vampire and a 12-year old girl, someone who has been alive for hundreds of years and yet has not managed not to age in mind or heart.
The love story is further challenged by the gory interruptions which are so campy that you begin to doubt the film’s romantic sincerity. We see Abby attacking her victims golem-like, scurrying about on their necks and shoulders, chomping and chewing – or her father pouring acid on his face after a brutal car crash. When one of Abby’s victims becomes a vampire only to burst into a fireball in her hospital bed when the nurse opens the curtains, letting the sun, you can only laugh. Eventually you give up on the dramatic potentiality contained Let Me In’s elegant lyricism and brace yourself for the severed heads – they come.