The vampire trend got a transfusion a couple of years ago with the tender, brutal, unforgettable exploration of innocence and evil in Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In
. It attracted a passionate cult of fans undaunted by subtitles who recoiled when they learned that Hollywood was going to "Americanize" it in a remake. Fear not. Far from the travesty some expected, this is one of the best movies of the year. Reeves has retained all the uncanny pathos of Alfredson's original, and he's added a layer of domestic angst and despair, as well as overtones of genuine tragedy.
Tragedy as in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, a school assignment for delicate, troubled 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Totally isolated, he's an easy target for a trio of bullies, and his only recourse is to fantasize about killing them, Travis Bickle style, while staring at his reflection in a mirror. But Owen glimpses potential companionship when Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz) moves into the apartment next door with her sinister-looking father (Richard Jenkins). She's as much an outcast as Owen is, and an unlikely Juliet. Although it's the middle of winter, she doesn't wear shoes, and she comes out only at night. Plus, she smells funny.
What follows is a pair of performances the equal of any this year, a pas de deux of two dismal souls limping toward a redeeming intimacy. Moretz and McPhee evoke the sexual anxiety and ambiguity that torment and tantalize kids on the cusp of adolescence. Moretz's character, moreover, has a lengthy and rather unusual backstory, which she suggests with a gesture, a pause, or a halting word. The portrayal is impressive, and, abetted by Reeves's knack for the telling detail, Abby takes her place in the horror pantheon.
Details also help establish a setting heavy with anomie and fear: Los Alamos in the '80s, a winter landscape of lower-class kitsch and tepid yellow light that looks like a hellish snow globe, where Ronald Reagan pontificates about evil on TV screens and teenagers hang out listening to Blue Öyster Cult on car radios. The place is a diabolical inverse of the world of Spielberg's E.T. When horror strikes here, whether in the form of a bloodsucking monster or a banal car crash, it is abrupt, chaotic, and often off-screen, conveyed not by graphic images but by hideously suggestive sounds that invite your imagination to fill in the blanks. Even if you've seen Anderson's version, the suspense here still terrifies.
Which is the more remarkable given that at times Reeves's film seems almost a shot-by-shot remake. The similar scenes, however, bring skewed, subtle differences, and they intensify rather than disrupt your belief in his creation. Neither are the references to other movies a distraction. When Reeves evokes Hitchcock's Rear Window, with Owen spying on neighbors in adjacent apartments with a telescope, the allusion is integral to the film's themes of voyeurism and repressed sexuality. The latter aspect might be the most unsettling element in the movie. Children may not be innocent in Let Me In, but some have a purity that is incorruptible.