Let the Right One In/Let Me In (2008/2010): The Alpha and Omega of Preteen Gender Roles

These two films take the term “remake” to a level not seen since that Sarah Michelle Gellar bomb, The Grudge, was adapted from a Japanese film (does anyone really like or respect Sarah Michelle? It’s a sad case, really). It’s not so much a remake as an adaptation—and the differences are slight, leaving you to wonder: why re-make this film at all? Let the Right One In’s Swedish setting of Stockholm is transposed to Let Me In’s northern New Mexico, but really, the two films are mostly the same. If you’ve been following along, however, you’ll know that it’s the differences, however small, that really concern me. J

Obviously, the first thing that viewers of both films will encounter is the difference in title. Linguistically, Let the Right One In implies there are “wrong ones” out there implausibly knocking on high-rise windows just as vampiric 12-yer-old Eli knocks on Oskar’s, though we never see any evidence of other vampires in the film. Also, because his relationship with Eli gives Oskar the wherewithal to confront the cruel bullies that have been tormenting him, she could be said to be the “right one;” the one who encourages Oskar when he needs it most. But—let’s just get it out there—Eli is also a vampire, and sets about wreaking havoc on the tiny high-rise community she and her “father” move into at the start of the film. So how “right” can she be?

Let Me In, as a title, is much more personal, and this is the first clue we get to the shifted emphasis of this film from Let the Right One In. There is more focus here on Abby, as Eli has been re-named, and slightly more explanation of her relationship with her guardian/father figure. Let Me In is also linguistically more directive—at the same time it instructs Owen to let Abby into his room and his life, it instructs the viewer to let Abby into their heart—though it may be an oxy moron in this context, Let Me In humanizes Abby a bit more than its Swedish predecessor. For the record, I think that this was a strength of the first film. Eli is “not a girl” as she repeatedly tells Oskar; instead she is an animalistic vampire killer. While Abby makes this same statement to Owen in Let Me In, there are certain aspects of the gender concerns of both films that are addressed both more and less explicitly in the Hollywood version.

Both films make a point of emphasizing that Oskar/Owen is a slight, marginally wimpy kid who is tormented by bullies because of his perceived weakness. The furor with which he practices stabbing a tree that stands in for his aggressors betrays the boiling resentment he feels inside his prepubescent body. And while the subtitled state under which I viewed Let the Right One In might have something to do with it, Let Me In seemed to make Owen’s androgeny more of a sticking point with the bullies that harass him. They repeatedly refer to Owen as a “little girl,” pointing out his lack of traditionally male markers: height, strength, overt aggression. This characterization of Owen as a “little girl” also makes his fascination with Abby, who appears to be a little girl but really is not, all the more fraught with gendered implications. However, while each film contains a brief scene of highly-wrought sexual tension, each deals with it in different—and surprisingly incongruent—ways.

In both films, the scene begins with the central conceit: that Oskar/Owen has to invite Eli/Abby into his home. If you’re familiar at all with vampire lore, you’ll know this is a traditional trope (it’s also an interesting wrinkle in Fright Night, when Charlie’s mother invites vampire Jerry into their home for a drink—though the pun is lost on her). In both films, Oskar/Owen refuses, daring Eli/Abby to enter on her own, without invitation. When she does so, she begins to shake and bleed until the boy relents and tells her she is welcome. Because her clothes are now a mess, she showers off in his bathroom, and he offers her one of his mother’s old dresses to wear.

Let the Right One In builds on the preteen sexual tension (a sexual tension removed from the adult concerns about “sexiness” and more related to the fragile and budding attraction between two young people in “like”). As Eli dresses in his mother’s bedroom (I won’t even get into those Freudian implications), Oskar sneaks a peek at Eli as she emerges from the shower. Actually, this happens in both films. The difference is this: in Let the Right One In, there is a brief but, I believe, hugely significant shot of Eli’s genital area, which shows the viewer…she really isn’t a girl. What we see is a seemingly androgenous area marked with a Frankensteinian diagonal scar. What is the scar from? Where are her labia? Let the Right One In doesn’t answer those questions, but rather only supports Eli’s earlier statement that she isn’t a girl. As if becoming a vampire has changed her in more ways than just by making her a night-stalking blood-guzzler—as if it is its own classification altogether. Though it’s clear that Oskar sees what the camera sees in that moment, his reaction isn’t one of astonishment or disgust. In fact, one might say he goes on as if Eli’s questionable genitalia makes no difference to him at all.

I viewed Let the Right One In first in the pair, so I was interested to see what Let Me In would make of this shot. As the film progressed, and I perceived a definite foregrounding of gender-blurring with Owen and his bullies, I hoped for something innovative, or at least that a Hollywood version of this film would have enough balls (I totally meant that) to do something similarly progressive. No such luck. Let Me In omitted the shot altogether, showing only Owen peeping at Abby from outside his mother’s room, giving the viewer no idea what he saw, but implying he saw only a naked, perpetually twelve-year old female vampire. In this film, his lack of a reaction to what he sees implies what he sees is completely normal, which means he sees exactly what he expects to see. Boo, Hollywood. So boring. Way to support traditional heteronormative roles, even in a vampire movie about kids. Let Me In does this further by setting Owen and Abby’s prepubescent romance against his reading of Romeo and Juliet in school. Bah. Leave it to the Swedes to show us that love and romance has nothing to do with gender or sex, but only with people. Or, in this case, vampires. Leave it to Hollywood to screw that up.

So Let Me In’s more explicit treatment of Abby’s relationship with her guardian becomes another nail in the coffin of interesting ideas about gender difference—a series of photographs show her now aging keeper as a young boy, clearly infatuated with Abby, as Owen is. It’s no surprise then, when Abby slaughters Owen’s bullies in the final scenes, that he takes up the expired guardian’s role, creating a new, romantic chapter in Abby’s long life that—weirdly—will end with Owen aging into a father figure (shudder). Maybe I should have gone into that whole Freudian thing after all….

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