When Let Me In — the film which dares an Americanized do-over of 2008 Swedish import Let the Right One In — was first announced, fans of the original film let rip synchronized screeches of "Whyyyyy?", shortly followed by angry, ten-point arguments as to why Hollywood is really sucking balls lately. Consensus was that Let the Right One In, which picked up armloads of festival and critical awards (including the San Francisco Film Critics' Circle's Best Foreign Language Film honors), was not a film that deserved to be put through the remake machine. Sure, it only made a couple of million bucks stateside, but maybe it wasn't the kind of film (unlike 2008's similarly vampire-themed Twilight) that the masses were supposed to gobble up. After all, it had subtitles. Such a drag.
Matt Reeves, he of Cloverfield (2008) and Felicity fame, is aware of the fanboy-hater contingent that awaits his latest release. His Let Me In is a largely faithful retread, with some recognizable kid actors — Kodi Smit-McPhee (stronger here than he was in last year's The Road) and tween It Girl Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick Ass) — and the lure of legendary British horror house Hammer (back in the producing biz after decades) helping him attract audiences. I suspect many people who'll go see Let Me In may not have seen Let the Right One In — either because the original's release wasn't wide or lengthy enough, or because of that whole foreign-film bias. (Also, diehard fans of the first film may boycott the new version, just on principle. Hey, I did it with the recent A Nightmare on Elm Street, which in my mind NEVER HAPPENED).
Gotta say, though, Let Me In could have been worse than "faithful," which is way better than "redundant" or "totally offensive." Reeves, who penned the script from John Ajvide Lingqvist's novel (Lindqvist himself wrote the script for the 2008 film) stays true to the material, shifting the action to the snowy New Mexico mountains and injecting some Cold War and new wave flair into the 80s setting. I spoke with him recently, just after the film's screening at Austin, TX's Fantastic Fest — coincidentally the very festival where Let the Right One In won the Jury Prize for Best Horror Feature in 2008. He kindly put up with my many remake-themed queries.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: How was Fantastic Fest?
Matt Reeves: It was great. It's been fantastic (laughs). It's really cool that they chose Let Me In to open the festival, because this is one of the places that Let the Right One In was incredibly well-received. I knew that there'd be a passionate audience for Lindqvist's story here, and that also we'd have to past the test of being watched by people who really have a passionate love for Tomas Alfredson's  film. I thought, if we're embraced here, and if we pass that test, then that will be a really big hurdle, and the screening went really, really well. It was very exciting.
SFBG: I didn't realize until I was watching the movie that it was a Hammer Films production. How'd you get hooked up with them?
MR: Well, they got the rights to the film. I think that the Swedish producers met with lots of different places, and I think maybe they were drawn to the idea of being the first Hammer vampire film in over 30 years. But they were the ones who got the rights, is the answer. It's interesting because I think a lot of people, in terms of their concern about this movie being a remake — there's a lot of question about it being, "Oh, well, Hollywood comes in with a lot of money and ups the effects, and does all this stuff," but Hammer is an independent company. And we didn't have a lot of resources. It was a pretty small film, actually. It was definitely a labor of love, and one that we made in this kind of passionate way.
I think it's pretty cool to be part of the relaunching of Hammer, especially since as a kid these are the kind of movies that terrified me (laughs). All of the Christopher Lee vampire films, I watched. But I was so afraid of them that my biggest memory of Hammer is actually watching them from behind a chair, late at night on local television. They'd show these Hammer films, and I'd come across them, and there'd be some kind of garish blood or lurid scene. I found them very disturbing! And there's something ironic about the idea that, after they invaded my nightmares, now I'm somehow part of the relaunching. It's cool but also kind of ironic.
SFBG: Why do you think vampires are such a consistently popular film subject, especially today?
MR: In the best genre films, you're able to smuggle in something under the surface that you exploit through the metaphor. In this case, I think Lindqvist was really telling a story about the pain of adolescence and coming of age. But I think it really says something about the vampire myth that all of these vampire stories are so different: True Blood is different from Twilight, which is different from Let Me In. And it really does say something about what an incredibly durable myth that is, that you can translate it into so many different contexts. It can be about so many different things, even though on the surface they seem like they're about the same subject. I don't think those three versions of the story could be any more different, and that is very interesting, I think.
It's always about what you use that metaphor for, and I think what attracted me to this one was that it was such a different way of presenting actually a very realistic story. It seems kind of contradictory to say, but it isn't. He's using this horror story, this vampire story, to describe how growing up, being bullied and having that difficulty, essentially feels like a horror story. It's talking specifically about that kind of trauma, of growing up in that way and it feeling like a nightmare.
SFBG: You mentioned that the audience in Austin embraced the movie, but I feel like there's been a lot of people, especially on the internet, who've been horrified by the idea of remaking Let the Right One In. What's your response to that reaction?
MR: When I first got involved, it was almost a year before the movie was even released, and nobody had ever heard of it. When they showed it to me — I was trying to get a passion project of mine made, and they felt that it didn't have an overt genre to it. It was more of kind of an independent character piece. And they said, "You know, right now it's a challenging time to make this. We really love the writing, but we're not going to make this. But we'd love to work with you, and we want to remake this film. We're trying to get the rights to it." After I watched it, I literally called them up the next day and said, "I don't know if you should remake this movie. It's great." And they said, "Yeah, but we think there's a way to bring it to an audience that won't necessarily see a subtitled film, and we love this story. Think about it."
The thing about it is, I so connected to that coming-of-age story, and then I found out it was based on a book. So I read Lindqvist's book, and he had actually written the screenplay for Alfredson's film. He did a very faithful adaptation of his book. And I kind of fell in love with the story even more. I ended up writing to Lindqvist, because I kind of saw this opportunity to take that story and translate it into an American context. He grew up in the 80s, I'm about his age, and he's talking about this coming-of-age in Sweden. And I started thinking about that kind of story in the 80s America that I remember, the Reagan era. I thought that might be very interesting, and would be a film that essentially would be another interpretation of this story, as opposed to being anything that is trying to step on the toes of this beautiful film.
I entered it with that in mind: I wanted to find a way to do something that was personal and yet still faithful to this story. The level at which I was daunted at that point was just that I felt a responsibility that it had to be done in this way that was very personal, because I didn't want in any way to seem to be, I don't know, dissing that movie. I thought it was remarkable. And then when the movie came out, it earned such acclaim. I wasn't surprised, because I thought, "Well, the movie's a masterpiece. So of course it's gonna get that kind of reaction." But then I was sort of like, "Uh-oh. What did I do?" Because by that point I'd already written the screenplay and I was deeply committed to it. I thought, "Wow, I wonder if people will even give this film a chance."
On the outside, I totally get it, because most remakes are horrendous, and they're usually one of two approaches: there's the soulless retread, where somebody goes through the motions but none of the passions or emotions come through, or the kind of run-roughshod bastardization version of the story, where you kind of use some piece of the story, but you kill all original intentions. I think those are both very dispiriting approaches, and they're what people are used to from a lot of Hollywood remakes. When people were having that response, I couldn't even say that I was like, "What's the matter with them?" I put myself in their shoes and thought, "You know, I would think the same thing." But I knew I was making it really as a labor of love, and it was a story I cared about. And I thought, well, we'll see what happens. I know that I'm a fan. So if I'm a fan I feel, not the responsibility to the fans, I feel the responsibility as a fan. And so I was just trying to do as personal and committed version of the film as I could, and I knew the rest would have to take care of itself.
SFBG: Why do you think horror is the genre that's been remade the most?
MR: That's a good point. I think because the stories are incredibly visual, and people see a chance to take that kind of story —
SFBG: And make it 3D.
MR: I don't know about making it 3D. It'll be interesting to see if there's more of that. Although now, I see that there is this feeling that adding 3D to something as a magic formula does not necessarily work either. I think [remakes happen] because horror movies are very cinematic, visual storytelling that works at a universal level, but there's still this sense that, to reach a wider, English-speaking audience, that they could be [remade] in English. [Like the Japanese Ring movies, for example.] I think that people who see those movies, producers and studios, they see how that translation might work, because they see a visual medium, and they see those stories being told, and they think, "Oh, well we know that story works, and it's not just about language." I'm gonna guess that's why, but to be honest with you, I have no idea.
SFBG: Do you think all of the horror ideas are used up? Why can't people come up with original scripts?
MR: Oh, people can come up with original scripts. We should throw in the towel now if somebody can't come up with an original script that isn't a remake.
SFBG: Are there more remakes than there used to be?
MR: There have been remakes always in the history of Hollywood. But I will say, at the same time that there are probably just as many remakes, there are also fewer movies that were ever made than there were in the past. I think, percentage-wise, the amount of remakes is much higher. And it is dispiriting because you do want to see original ideas coming through. Part of me thinks and hopes that it's cyclical. I know there will always be remakes, but I think that there are some great ones: I love John Carpenter's The Thing. There are lots of remakes that I think are tremendous.
It comes down to, you understand why a studio or a producer is interested in remaking. You hope that they fall in love with the story first, but they certainly see an opportunity to sell a story to another audience. But it comes down to the intention of the filmmakers and their personal commitment, and if they are connected in a way that you can see their passion, and that there's something expressed there that's worthwhile, then that's totally valid. I think that movies like that are great. And obviously that's what I tried to do. But I'm totally with you: it'd be horrible if the only thing that happened was that we only saw things that were being remade. The thing is, though, if you're not seeing a remake, you're still oftentimes seeing movies are the same movie [as one that came before], with a different title, but the same story, the same plot. It is dispiriting. You want to see some vitality and risk-taking.
As ironic as it sounds, that was what I loved about this story: yes, it's a remake, but it's a very risky story. It's a story on the shoulders of two 12-year olds. It's an adult story with mixtures of tones. It's got tremendously dark, adult things with really, really tender childlike stuff. That juxtaposition is quite powerful, and it's certainly not an easy sell by any means. Who knows how we'll even do. But I loved Lindqvist's story, and I connected to it on a personal level. My druthers in life is not to go out and [do remakes]. In fact, I resisted even this one when it was first presented to me. But it was an opportunity to do something, ironically, that felt personal to me.
Let Me In opens Fri/1 in Bay Area theaters.