If 12-year-old Owen in the sweetly horrific vampire movie “Let Me In” could travel forward through time three decades to 2011 and meet his own self at 42, what would he say? “Let Me In” is set in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was U.S. President, Russia was the Soviet Union and the Western world lived in fear of communism or nuclear annihilation, whichever came first.
Owen (played by the excellent, other-worldly Kodi Smit-McPhee of “The Road”) is in the sixth grade, living in New Mexico in a drab suburban apartment complex with his divorced, preoccupied mom. Bullied in school for being introverted and “different,” Owen’s best friends are a little transistor radio and a Rubik’s Cube. Too young to cruise the mall, too old for childish games in the playground and a quarter of a century too early to lose himself in Facebook updates, Owen — without being aware of it — leads a dense existence mired in intense, untranslatable thoughts and sensations.
To say that Owen is lonely would be a gross understatement, but to describe him as unhappy would be to cheapen him. Thirty years down the line, he could be a suited businessman saddled with car payments and a hefty mortgage, checking Twitter as he crunches miles on the running machine at his local gym. In 1983, however, Owen is beautifully and delicately suspended in an ethereal world of misery and innocence.
It seems like a case of particularly vengeful poetic justice when the androgynous and lovely Abby (Chloe Moretz) moves in next door with a man (Richard Jenkins) — supposedly her father, though he is strangely old and deflated. Hopeful that she could be enrolling into his school and thereby alleviate his utter solitude, Owen tries to befriend Abby, before realizing that this pale, blonde girl with the glacial stare is much more “different” than he could ever be.
Abby has no idea what candy bars taste like, doesn’t watch TV and walks barefoot in the snow. She’s also never around during the day, and only deigns to come out long after dusk. All of this is intriguing to Owen, who senses a kindred spirit, and at one point he asks Abby to go steady.
“I can’t,” she says. “I’m not a girl. I’m nothing.”
“Let Me In” is a remake of the 2008 Swedish sleeper hit “Let the Right One In,” and director Matt Reeves (of “Cloverfield” fame) is respectful of the original version (and the novel that spawned it) while modifying the story to appeal to a wider American audience. The end result is a vampire love story ensconced in the socio-political framework of the era. And we are reminded of a time when children seemed much more vulnerable than they are today: less supervised, less protected and somehow mysterious. Children during the 1980s probably enjoyed the kind of physical freedom that kids today are denied, but at the same time they were at greater risk. Back then, the U.S. news was full of stories about missing children, who were victims of rape and ritual killings, stalked by pedophiles or, in many cases, disappeared forever.
One of the dominant emotions in “Let Me In” is gut-wrenching fear, and at first the viewer may suspect that Owen’s new neighbor is a phantom figure, an imaginary friend he has created to protect himself from the hostility and violence (visible and otherwise) swirling around and choking him like a sandstorm.
One of the very first things Abby tells Owen is that he must “fight back” against the bullies, and shows herself willing to do just that. In Abby’s case, though, she’ll resort to real, hair-raising gore whether she’s provoked or not.
In fact, it’s immediately after Abby and her “dad” move in that a series of brutal murders occur around the neighborhood, and the police assume they’re part of a ritual killing spree. This is where Reeves makes a brief but distinct departure from the original Swedish version: The story gets cluttered with police procedures and the earnest investigations of the local cop (Elias Koteas) who radars in on the Abby duo, though he is unable to come up with enough evidence to prove his theory.
And this theory is too bizarre for the hard-nosed cop to admit. After all, he’s a firm believer in modern technology, modern police methods and microwaved takeout pizza. Abby defies and transcends every one of his beliefs. That she and Owen both turn their backs on a world that hurls itself with great speed toward a new century that we now know is fraught with as much tragedy and disappointment as the previous one is instructive to say the least. The world changes, and nothing remains the same. But as “Let Me In” shows, vampires are forever.