Wasn’t it spine tingling to watch the beginning of LET ME IN and see that gigantic Hammer logo with many of the classic images from its heyday drawn inside the letters! And then we observed the beginning title credit sequence, “A Hammer Films Production,” one more time after its absence for decades.
The new reborn-from-the-ashes Hammer has nothing to do with the old company, except its sense of commitment to quality horror movie cinema. Matt Reeves’ remake of the Swedish horror oddity LET THE RIGHT ONE IN from a few years ago demonstrates that in rare instances the remake can equal or perhaps even surpass the original. At least for me the Hammer remake resonates more. I respected the original but was held at an emotional distance; here, I feel the angst and growing pains of the two young characters that hook me emotionally.
And when I watch LET ME IN I see both the integrity of the better Hammer productions alongside the spirit of Val Lewton. I know, I know, Val Lewton is revered for his understatement and subtlety. Why show the gruesomeness of horror when shadows, loud sounds and psychological inner dread say it best.
I maintain the Lewton spirit is just as much about a malevolent tone, an ambiguity of morality where innocent victims do not actually understand the rightness or wrongness of the situation in which they find themselves. We have Irena, from CAT PEOPLE, who keeps herself chaste and abstinent as to not arouse the monster inside, so she can both protect and love her newlywed husband. Yet her inability to consummate her relationship only drives her husband into the arms of another woman. In THE SEVENTH VICTIM we have heroine Jacqueline Gibson try to protect her younger sister Mary (Kim Hunter) from the urban horrors of Satanism. Mary, who comes from a sequestered private school, is a lamb in the lion’s den (or panther’s cage?), no match for the obscenities to be found in the shadowy streets of Greenwich Village. So at the end of the story, the cult closing in, Jacqueline takes the only way out she can, suicide by hanging, which ends this bleak emotional roller coaster ride. In CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, young child Amy Reed, daughter of Irena, must cope with the horrors of growing up. Her fantasy world protects her from the harsh realities of life, something her father Ollie fears, believing insanity and fantasy killed his former wife. Amy gravitates to the eccentric actress Julia Farren, her neighbor, whose daughter Barbara (the excellent Elizabeth Russell) is as alienated from her own mother (who seems lost in the clouds of dementia) as Amy is from her own father. The heartbreak of waking up and discovering that none of her school chums are attending her birthday party is pretty devastating. Of course the fact that the invitations were never properly mailed explains the reality of the situation, but not its emotional reverberations as Amy’s “friends” continue to taunt and ridicule the child. To me these themes constitute the Lewton aesthete as much as subtlety of vision.
Yes, the Lewton films, existing 70 years ago, were tame and subtle and generally did not show monsters, fiends or the undead. LET ME IN does that in spades. But the intense aura of dread and psychological horror that appeared in the Lewton oeuvre 70 years ago is channeled loud and clear in the Hammer remake. Kudos to young director Matt Reeves, the filmmaker who made CLOVERFIELD a few years back where his cinematographer used a shaky hand-held video camera to record the action. Here, doing a 180 degree turn, Reeves is the master of old school cinema, using a stationary camera and close-ups held long to compose his world of snowy vampirism in New Mexico.
Just like with THE SEVENTH VICTIM, we experience a world of ambivalent morality where it is difficult to tell right from wrong. Just as author John Gardner reworked, in 1972, the classic Anglo-Saxon epic poem BEOWULF, rewriting the story from the monster Grendel’s point of view, reminding us that Grendel, a child, ate human beings as food, much the same as humans lived off the “flesh” of fish. In LET ME IN 12-year-old Abby (yes, she is much older but is trapped inside the body of a child victim) sadly confesses to her new friend Owen that she needs fresh blood to live. Yes, her feral transformations into an ultra-strong and fast demonic being are horrifying. When she attacks her victims, she is ferocious, ending up totally covered in the blood of her victims. But wise-in-years but young-in-appearance Abby seems more the victim of involuntary mortality. The appearance of the child walking barefoot in the snow only heightens her vulnerability. Abby kills to survive and, unfortunately, she feeds on humans. But just as Grendel elicited different points of view (monster or sad victim?), so does Abby.
Two telling sequences summarize what is outstanding about this coming-of-age vampire movie. Even though Irena and Ollie were adults in CAT PEOPLE, I see the relationship between the two 12 year olds very similar in LET ME IN. We have Abby terrified to be aroused in front of the boy she befriends, just as Irena denied sex to her husband in CAT PEOPLE because she feared harming him. The first sequence is when Owen and Abby go down to their cellar hiding place and he slices his thumb with a knife before Abby, undergoing the childhood ritual of becoming blood brothers/sisters with a close friend. When Abby sees the blood oozing from his thumb, flowing onto the floor, she looses control and reverts to her demonic self. However, even when aroused, she will not harm Owen. Running full throttle out of the cellar, she climbs a tree and sees an apartment resident and her cat walk past underneath. With silent determination she pounces below and devours both human and cat, satisfying her newly aroused blood lust. However the telling moment is her ability to distinguish between her chosen victims, demonstrating her loyalty to Owen. She is indeed a blood-sucking monster, but she is also a human being with a heart. She is both predator and victim.
The second pivotal sequence involves the second time that Abby appears at Owen’s apartment, where she again reminds him that he must ask her in so she can enter, according to vampire lore. For a moment he is horrified by what Abby has done and does not invite her in, but she enters the room anyway. Within seconds her body begins to quiver and blood begins to erupt from her scalp and cover her face. In shock Owen grabs and hugs his friend and states out loud that he invites her in. Within seconds Abby returns to normal and states that she knew Owen wouldn’t allow her to be harmed. She trusted in his good heart. In an earlier similar test of friendship, Owen offers Abby candy that she first refuses. However, for friendship’s sake she eats some, vomiting as soon as the two of them go outside the store. Abby knew eating the candy would make her deadly sick, but for the sake of her friend she consumes some.
Just like little Amy from CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, Owen is an outcast with his peers at school, but while the nasty actions of Amy’s school mates was minor in the Lewton film, here in LET ME IN Owen is tortured and tormented and almost killed by his bullies. He is bullied in the bathroom, given an almost castrating "wedgie," held under water in the school pool by a tormentor and carried almost naked by a gang of his peers and thrown into the pool. He is called a girl (he does have almost feminine features) and his tormentors want to see his penis as proof that he is indeed a male. And remember Owen is only 12 years old. In the climatic sequence, Abby returns to slaughter a pool filled with his tormentors while Owen is held underwater, glancing underwater to his side to see the decapitated head of one of the bullies float past. In the Lewton style, the carnage and bloodshed occurs above the water with screams and splashing bodies dragged to and fro as seen from below, but other than the floating head, the carnage is more suggested than shown.
When was the last time you saw a modern horror movie that truly got under your skin and made you think and feel about the characters who occupied that world? Owen and Abby are similar outcasts who fight back in order to survive. Abby tells Owen you must fight back and hit them hard, and when Kenny, the chief tormentor, threatens Owen one time too many, Owen uses a metal pole to whack Kenny hard in the side of the head, taking part of his ear off. He too must resort to violence in order to survive. But the evil that Kenny and the bullies evoke seems far more insidious than the survival killings of Abby. Ambivalent morality, deep questions about truly right and wrong acts seem watered down to simple blacks and whites in most horror movies (vampires are evil and vampire slayers are good, with no middle ground in between). LET ME IN features a quietly intense musical score, almost classical in sections, composed by Michael Giacchino, that truly benefits the movie’s atmosphere. Director Reeves allows long stretches of close-ups on faces and eyes. The camera studies the intensity of the eyes of Abby’s adult companion, who pretends to be her father, and who stalks victims and drains their blood into plastic jars. During such killings he wears a trash bag over his head and the camera focuses on his eyes as he lies in wait. The movie features long stretches of conversation, accented by stark visual backgrounds of malaise and despondency. Even Owen’s sexual awakening is illustrated as he sneaks a look, through a telescope, at other couples who live in his run-down apartment complex, one such couple preparing to make love, the woman’s one breast fully exposed. When the puberty-bound Owen befriends Abby, he probably has more than friendship on his mind. And it is this intense childhood relationship that propels the Hammer remake above and beyond the Swedish original.
At the end of the movie, Owen has left home and is aboard a train, a trunk with Abby hiding inside by his feet. The two communicate by Morse code, Owen tapping on the trunk and Abby responding. Whether Owen is bound to grow up and become the new “father” who acquires blood for Abby is never made clear. Right now we see two eccentric, lonely and alienated people bounding together to help one another survive. And at this point the morality meter is pointing toward the positive and not the negative, as the movie ends at the perfect moment.
While this new incarnation of Hammer horror forges new ground, it proudly remembers its proud legacy. What an outstanding movie to inaugurate the new rebirth of Hammer! And Matt Reeves plays homage, whether knowingly or not, to the best RKO Val Lewton productions of the 1940s. Stephen King calls LET ME IN the best horror movie of the past 20 years, and compared to all the others, he very well might be right. After too many years of Hollywood-produced horror movie product, catering to date night adolescents who only want a non-thinking roller coaster ride with plenty of horrific special effects, it is refreshing to experience an artistic horror movie geared to adults that wants us to think and feel. Isn’t it about time!