Give two artists the same still life to paint, and you'll get two different results. Give an American director coming off a big monster movie the remake rights to a subtle, chilling European thriller and you get "Let Me In."
Matt Reeves' shaky-cam hit "Cloverfield" featured a giant lizard flattening Manhattan. He doesn't ruin his remake of the masterful Swedish chiller "Let the Right One In," but the results are seriously flawed.
The original is a film that knows far more about love than do most romances. It is a horror movie not because it concerns a vampire, but because the story leaves you horrified and saddened. When Reeves sticks to the original, the U.S. version is as cold, dark and dangerous as black ice. Sour notes invade the symphony when a yen for hyperbolic makeup effects, computer-generated shock effects and gore overtakes him. Instead of exploring uncanny realms of psychological terror usually reserved for Poe or Lovecraft, he goes all Freddy Krueger.
The film opens with a bang, in an ambulance on a snowbound New Mexico road. A writhing acid-burn victim moans and strains against his restraints. Shortly afterward the detective on the case must deal with a bloodier catastrophe in the hospital.
The focus then shifts to Owen, a lonely middle-school student (Kodi Smit-McPhee, who proves that his riveting performance in "The Road" was no fluke). Bullied by older boys, he wants blood, but he's no match for the three thugs who torment him. Enter Abby, a mysterious new arrival to Owen's apartment complex. They may be kindred spirits. She's kind of a weirdo loner, too, given to walking around the frigid courtyard barefoot. Aloof at first, she warms to Owen when she sees a scar his persecutors have put on his cheek. When she offers to help, he protests, "You're a girl." "I'm a lot stronger than you think I am," she replies.
Chloe Grace Moretz (Hit Girl in "Kick-Ass") delivers that line with a Mona Lisa smile. Owen is hooked, and his attachment grows from awkward puppy love to a connection that is both obsessive and heartbreaking. Observing this development, unhappily, is a character the credits call The Father, though his role in Abby's life is not so simply described. Richard Jenkins plays him as a haunted shell of a man. He is anonymously ordinary, the better to run his risky nighttime errands for Abby. His near-slavish devotion suggests that the girl is not as guileless as she seems. His clipped "Stay away from that boy," could be a parent's advice or a lover's plea.
The truth about Abby's nature and her demands on the men in her life emerges slowly, against the background of Owen's everyday life, which magnifies the growing dread. The story has a nightmare logic that survives even Reeves' gratuitous shots of Moretz wearing "Exorcist" makeup and mirrored contact lenses. But "Let Me In" would be better if he had left well enough alone.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186