I have seen the original Swedish film that this was based on, although I never ended up writing a review of it, mostly because I just didn't love it--or really think much of anything about it--as much as everyone else seemed to. So now we have this "sure-fire" American remake, which virtually replicates the tone, look and rhythm of the original film--and it flops hard at the box office. So although it seems to me that almost everything interesting in discussing about this film are the issues it raises outside the film itself [the usefulness of virtul replica films, why serious horror films can't succeed in America, etc.], I suppose we first have to discuss the film.
The movie opens with a burned man being brought to a hospital, a cop coming in after him, a call from downstairs about the man's daughter, and next thing you know the burned man has jumped out the window. This was moved up from the middle of the original film because it is conventional wisdom that Americans do not have attention spans and must have some sort of "bang" up front. By the way, it's New Mexico of 1983 and Reagan is on TV to provide the real-world political allegory every serious horror film is incomplete without. Then we go back to two weeks earlier and meet Owen, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, the kid from The Road. He has a knife and mask and pretends to be attacking someone, saying "Are you scared, little girl?" He also spies on everyone in the courtyard of his apartment complex, a la Rear Window. He sees a girl his age and a man move into the apartment next to him. The next day we see that he is bullied by three kids at school, who refer to him as "little girl." Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we are once more in the presence of the Cycle of Violence [or CoV].
The next night Owen meets Abby, the girl next door, who walks around in the snow with no shoes. Then we see a guy go out, kills a fellow and drain him of blood. But he's a little dropsy, and ends up spilling it all. He turns out to be Abby's caretaker, and when he tells her he's got nothing for her, she goes out and viciously kills someone in the complex. This is when we find out that she's a vampire.
SPOILERS > > >
Her friendship and eventual romance with Owen continue. She encourages him to hit back against the bullies. They learn morse code so that they can communicate through the walls of their bedrooms. Eventually Abby's caretaker is caught in one of his murders [in a very good little crime-gone-awry scene] and ends up in the hospital, like at the beginning. Now Abby's all alone. Owen hits the main bully with a pole and hurts him badly.
Murders in the apartment complex mount up, since Abby doesn't have the discretion her caretaker did. Eventually she realizes she has to go away. The bullies virtually vanish and seem to be taken care of--but make a sudden return at the very end, with the help of the main bully's older brother. By the way, the old CoV makes itself known again when we see that the older brother bullies the younger one, calling him "little girl." I am wringing my hands right now, I'll tell you that much. Anyway, the bullies are holding Owen uderwater in the pool, when suddenly we hear a lot of noises and see that Abby has come back and dismembered them all. That's the kind of playground revenge we all wished for! Finally we see that Owen and Abby are running away together, we don't know where. The end.
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Okay, so now THAT’S over, we can talk about the various issues it raises. The first has to do with making an American remake at all. I’m not going to get involved in whether we should or not, but I’m curious that most of the praise heaped on this film comes from the fact that it largely retains the somber tone, much of the same scenes and dialogue, and dark color scheme of the original—it is, in fact, virtually the same film, but set in America. The New York Times calls it a “worthy and honorable” remake. Oh, really? So what makes this worthy and honorable and Gus Van Sant’s much-reviled remake of Psycho not? Why is it not only okay, but AWESOME for this film to be a carbon copy of its original, but not Psycho? Is it because Psycho is a classic and cannot be touched by anyone? Why is replicating this piece of art that has come before to be VALUED for how close it is to the original, instead of considered a fool’s errand for a director who has brought nothing new to the table? The answer, I think, is that most foreign horror that gets remade for US audiences fails in largely the same ways: it is altered to be about teenagers, the sex and violence and jump scares are amped up, any conceptual content is flattened out or eliminated, and it usually sucks—but often makes money. So I think what critics are applauding about this movie is that it DOESN’T fall into those traps, makes an effort to retain its integrity, and doesn’t flat-out ruin what was good about the original. Okay, granted. I would still argue, however, that it doesn’t necessarily mean this movie has any more reason to exist than any other remake. In fact, one could criticize it for its lack of imagination and lack of effort to really make this story work in an American context. I won’t—but one could.
And one has to face the fact that the makers [and/or the marketers] of this film failed to find an audience with it—it was a fairly huge flop [$5M opening weekend, 2,100 screens]. The main impression I had coming out was that America simply doesn’t have a category for this film to fall into. Horror in America is something [anything] to take a date to on Friday night and jump and laugh and scream and then go to Dave and Buster’s and never think about again. It’s a fun house ride. Look at a quality, serious horror film like Splice—and how it failed. For the most part, Americans do not want to see horror films that aren’t about teens, require some mental effort, and don’t have a lot of jumps. Look at it that way, and this film has a number of challenges: It’s horror, but it’s about kids. It’s horror, but the tone is mostly sad and psychological, and there are very few scenes of stalking and terror. And looking at the trailers, you can see that they tried to sell this thing to the typical thrill-seeking horror crowd, when they should have been aiming it at the Twilight crowd of mopey goth teens and hip adults. I suppose there could and should be an essay on why Americans can’t embrace serious horror, but not here.
So as a movie? It’s the same as the other movie, and if it were up to me, I’d watch the Swedish one. Although I must admit that context plays a large role here. I think one is much more open to embracing an unusual tone and opening oneself to more possibilities when one is watching a foreign film. Also, I am much more prepared to believe in this film’s pervasive darkness and the loneliness and alienation of its settings when we’re talking about Sweden. Maybe that’s just my prejudice. Here, I didn’t feel that, Reagan footage and 80’s pop songs notwithstanding, this story was particularly adapted to America in a way that really sat comfortably. Although both child actors were fantastic and perfectly cast, I didn’t sense Owen’s loneliness and alienation from his environment the way a bullied American kid can be, or how delighted both kids are to find each other. Then again, I was just watching a recreation of a film I had already seen, so it’s hard to judge how I would have experienced the story by watching this first. To me, the ending, which in the original had a wonderfully charged ambiguity—a happy, heart-touching reunion as bodies are being ripped apart—here just sort of happened and seemed a bit rushed. But again, it’s difficult to judge as new something one has already seen.
If you’ve seen the original, you don’t need to see this. If you haven’t seen either, and you’ve read this far, you are capable of reading subtitles, and should get the original. If you’re an American fan of teen horror, this is the wrong movie for you anyway. And there we are.
See final paragraph above.