Let Me In, the unusual story of a child vampire and the human boy she comes to love, is moody and quiet. It's a movie whose horror slowly creeps up on you, leaving a profound feeling of disturbance behind.
Set in the early 1980s in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the movie is visually swaddled in deep layers of snow, and thematically in layers of Reagan's rhetoric about "evil in the world" that we see issuing from every television set that comes into view. It's in many ways a character study of Owen (Kody Smit-McPhee), a scrawny kid who is constantly being beaten up by boys at school who call him a girl, and neglected by his wine-guzzling, religious mother. One night he's sitting outside his apartment building in the snow, when he sees Abby (Chloë Moretz) moving into the apartment next to his with an older man he takes to be her father.
Abby isn't wearing any shoes. In the freezing snow. It's our first hint that she's something other than human, followed by the strange activities of her "father," who murders people in order to drain their blood into plastic jugs and bring them back home. Abby's relationship with the unnamed man is deteriorating and she's looking for a new companion to help her survive. She sets her sights on Owen, who is awkwardly delighted to find a girl who is as odd as himself. The question is whether he loves her enough - and is alienated enough from the human world around him - to accept the nomadic life of vampire companion.
Based on a Swedish book and film called Let the Right One In, this American incarnation is written and directed by Cloverfield creator Matt Reeves. The tone and pacing of this film couldn't be more unlike Cloverfield, however, although Reeves does add some violence and gore that we didn't see in the Swedish version.
What's missing in the American version is the sexual dimension of Abby's strangeness that we see explicitly in Let the Right One In. In that film, we never know for sure what the vampire's gender is - he/she goes by "Eli" and wears androgynous clothing. In the American version, Abby is clearly a girl, at least outwardly, but she does have some intensely strange conversations with Owen about how she's not really a girl - "I'm nothing," she says - and at one point Owen sees her naked and looks extremely surprised. If you add to that the way that Owen is constantly being called a girl by bullies at school - well, this is still a movie that's dealing with gender ambiguity.
Fans of the Swedish film worried that the American version would drain the sexual ambiguity out of the story, but I think it's still quite sexually unsettling. Especially when both characters look pre-pubescent and we see them engaging in very adult interactions, both emotionally and possibly sexually too. The American film is less sexually ambiguous in other ways too, making it quite obvious that Abby's "father" was once a boy like Owen who fell in love with Abby and became her companion. There are some truly creepy moments where Abby and her "father" embrace - chastely, but there is clearly more going on. It's testimony to the brilliant acting in this film that so much is conveyed in such sparse, quiet scenes.
In the preview screening that I saw, several people actually left the theater during some emotional moments between Abby and Owen - not because there was gore, but because their relationship is just so genuinely creepy.
There's a way in which Let Me In is a post-apocalypse film in miniature: It's about what happens to a boy who lives beyond the destruction of his own personal civilization. Owen's homelife is a burned-out husk since his parents' divorce, his school life is about as savage as it can get, and his only hope is to join up with a creature whose entire existence is death.
If you're looking for a movie that delivers monster scares and vampire gore, Let Me In is probably not going to work for you. It does have some scary scenes, but most of its emotional power comes from watching the perversity of Owen and Abby's relationship unfold while people in the small town begin dying so that Abby can live. And when Abby begins to help Owen deal with the boys who bully him, things get twisted to the point of no return. This movie won't make you jump out of your seat in fear, but it will leave you with a lasting impression of what it feels like to become so unhinged that a life of murder is better than anything else.