Let the Right One In (film) suffers from a lack of character depth for pretty much every actor outside of Eli and Oskar due to the streamlining of the story. The bullying is hilariously "cinema bullying" that lacks much of the visceral terror in the novel, the helplessness and fear. I always start laughing when Conny is on-screen, the kid is just so adorable trying to seem intimidating.
The use of leitmotif throughout the film is a touch too strong; sometimes it seems like the only track you hear is a portion of the complete Let the Right One In main theme. It's beautiful, transcendent, but if Star Wars only ever used variations of Duel of the Fates or The Godfather repeated the Immigrant Theme every twelve minutes for 2/3rds of every film's runtime it would quickly lose its novelty.
Kare and Lena are real treasures, it's a tragedy neither of them appear to be active in any silver screen projects. They have an on-screen presence that few actors can match, and they positively crackle when they share the light. The differing portrayals of their respective characters also make them memorable; Kare's Oskar is a little dorkier and warmer than Oskar of the book, removed of some of his darker elements which make him easier to empathize with. Lena's gotten endless praise in these circles so I don't think I need to lay out the reasons why she elevates the film.
There's also something to be said for the relatively light gore and the visual storytelling, the choices of scenery and backdrop. It lends a strong surrealist vibe to the film that makes it easy to suspend disbelief and accept the reality of vampires before your eyes. It's like a fairy tale. Yet it also means that the moments when you must feel the weight of violence before you (pick any death sequence), it falls too lightly. Nothing feels real enough, events slip to the side like the oddities you might notice while dreaming but dismiss during the experience.
The film boasts a powerful ease at compelling emotion from its audience via the score and the lead actors, but the problem is that the emotions aren't backed up by a contrasting weight of character and actions in the parts outside of the romance. The inclusion of the subplots such as Virginia and Lacke only weaken the film because they do not share the strength of the core narrative in acting or power; they distract the palette with merely serviceable portions instead of something just as bold and flavorful. So we're left with a mixture made from three parts great, one part silly, one part mediocre, and a missing spoonful of gravity.
Let Me In oddly inverts the formula I've just laid out. There's certainly a sense of gravity to the story, the violence, and everything that entails. It's downright oppressive - the intro is the aftermath of Tomas' experiment with pore cleanser, and the first two thirds of the film are told in restrospect. It sets a sense of doom on even the bonding between Owen and Abby, because the audience knows that something ugly will come in the future.
Wisely, Reeves knew that there simply wouldn't be enough runtime to tell the core story and subplots without them hindering one another. The film blitzes past and pays only the barest mind to its supporting cast in favor of putting a microscope on Owen, Abby, and - most engagingly - Tomas, Kenny, his tag-along bullies and his brother.
Excising the other storylines means the core story is not diluted by their presence, but it also serves another purpose because the film is very concerned with the nature of violence, and the interplay violence has with human emotion. Love, in particular, but also hate and the varying shades between. Owen's first act of retaliation against his oppressors comes from the emotional support offered by Abby, who gives him validation by telling him to strike back, that his suffering is unjust and undeserved. The very next scene they have is him going to Abby to excitedly tell her about the experience, what he did (on the surface for himself, but implicitly for her approval), and she rewards him with a kiss.
Tomas' devotion is also a form of love, one hat has been worn out by time and trials into something painfully recognizable. Domestic, even. Two people who merely care for each other, tolerate and resent at worst, but still have the barest connections to remain a pair. He kills for Abby out of love, even in the absence of any visible return of that devotion. The consequences of his love for Abby are what put the film in motion, with his botched attempts at securing her the blood she needs to live.
The bullies are humanized far more than the film (though less than the novel) through the single inclusion of Kenny's volatile relationship with his brother. It becomes immediately clear that the elder brother's example and bullying attitude is the mountain from which the waters of pain flow down, all the way to Owen. You have to wonder if Kenny's behavior is, in some way, a way to emulate and thus earn the love of his brother. There's always a root somewhere for a person's evil, says Let Me In. Nobody is born awful; Tomas was once a smiling kid in a photo booth, Abby kills only to live, and Kenny is merely a shadow of his brother's example. It's only through love that they are twisted: Tomas becomes a serial killer, Kenny becomes Owen's personal nightmare, and Abby commits the only murders on screen that cannot be justified by self preservation or sacrifice when she slaughters the bullies to save Owen.
"I'm burning, I'm burning for you..." says the radio as Tomas is in the car struggling with his final victim, shortly about to be burning in a more literal sense and having spent a good part of his life burning himself spiritually through the deeds of murder. Love is a fire that warms but also consumes, and whatever good is in you can be swallowed by the hunger of passion if you let it. And when you burn, chances are that fire will spread to someone else. Owen's love toward Abby leads him to propose a blood pact; Abby's love for him lets her resist her instincts and run away, deflecting them onto the Virginia-stand in who shortly thereafter burns in a tornado of flames. Owen was spared the fire because it was set on another; that's an implicit consequence of any relationship with Abby (and Eli, like it or not). Tossing the heat of your love on strangers so that you can continue to enjoy its light.
Let the Right One In is a story of love, yes, but also all the costs that come with it. The price of violence, the roots of violence, the ripple effects your actions have on others. The original adaptation captures the beauty of love, but it's only Let Me In that captures not only the sweet but the bitter of it all. It's common to prefer sweetness, even at the expense of narrative. Certainly that phenomena has been witnessed at play here in the troves of saccharine fanfiction, and the reaction to Let Me In strikes me as similar to the initial reaction to "Oskar at 40" among the forum. Too dark, too bitter, too far from the happy fantasy where only Oskar and Eli matter and their actions can never hurt their "pure" love or their "innocent" spirits.
Let Me In, like the novel, says that transcendent love is possible. But it has a price, and nothing can be obtained without consequence. It's really just too bad that Reeves seemed afraid to be too different, because we're left with a film that is frankly reasonably well made and has strengths, but is nowhere near the potential it could've had. It needed to create its own unique moments to underline its focus, the way Alfredson's film did. Eli vomiting out the candy and subsequently being hugged by Oskar is incredibly sweet and fairy-tale esque, befitting the focus of that narrative. Let Me In couldn't possibly capture the magic of that moment because Let Me In isn't about the same things that its opposite number is. The photo strip, Kenny being bullied by his brother, Tomas' relationship with Abby, those are all shining pieces of a greater narrative that sadly never entirely floriuishes. It's like stripping off pieces of one excellent piece of art and taping them over another: individually and whole they are both compelling and striking. But when it's just patched together you get disappointment because neither of those art pieces are whole, neither of them realize their entire potential.
Looking at Let the Old Dreams Die really helps me see why JAL approved of Let Me In as worthy in its own right. Because those little flashes in there of something original, the change in tone and focus, a lot of it is weird and different the way that LtODD was weird and different. Let Me In isn't entirely a retread of things we've seen before (though in some ways it is, to its detriment) and for many that seems a damnable offense. It's got strong lead actors, a unique take on the Oskar/Eli forumla via the sadder and less "pure" love between Owen and Abby, it has several excellent moments. But it isn't greater than the sum of its parts the way that Alfredson's take was, despite being competently made.
A crippling element is that Let Me In's soundtrack is just plain dull. It's painfully generic, soap-opera esque, to the point it undermines otherwise good scenes. I complain about the overuse of leitmotif in the original adaptation, but repeating a single transcendant track, while a little irksome, is still a step above just having an array of mediocre ones. If the composer had been different, Brain Reitzell being my premiere choice, oh how Let Me In might've shined.
When it's all said and done, the novel remains my favorite telling of the tale. But Let Me In is my favorite adaptation, because it does some elements differently and overall offers a different taste. Alfredson's fairy tale (and I do not use that term derogatively) is worthy, but it shows me little that I haven't already experienced in a deeper context in the novel.
"The dark is patient, and it always wins. But its weakness lies in its strength: a single candle is enough to hold it at bay. Love is more than a candle. Love can ignite the stars." - Matthew Stover