There are monsters who wander the halls of our schools, selecting victims, destroying lives.
We call them bullies. And they're the real beasts of director Matt Reeves' Let Me In, his bloody, almost note-for-note remake of the Swedish vampire hit Let the Right One In. Whatever horrors the bloodsucker unleashes on 1983 Los Alamos, N.M., they're not as immediate as the no-holds-barred brutality of a gang of middle schoolers who torment poor Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road).
Owen is an odd 12-year-old, a sad, sensitive loner who steals from his mom's purse so he can buy candy, the sort of skinny kid who doesn't join in most sports and who earns daily assaults and atomic wedgies for it.
But Owen has a new neighbor. She's his age. Yes, it's winter and no, she often doesn't wear shoes out into the snow. Her "dad" (the peerless Richard Jenkins) is secretive and strange. But Owen could use a friend.
"Just so you know, I can't be your friend," are pretty much the first words out of her mouth. "That's just the way it is."
He is smitten, understandable since Abby is played by the beguiling Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass, Diary of a Wimpy Kid). And eventually, she relents on the whole "friend" thing. All he has to do is invite her in.
Reeves resets this story in the Reagan era, and makes Owen's mom religious, bitter over her impending divorce and always watching religious programming (including Ronald Reagan's speeches). The Cloverfield director also tells chunks of the story in flashback, following a cop (Elias Koteas) who is trying to figure out whether a "Satanic cult" is behind the rash of ritual murders that now rivet the town.
Smit-McPhee suggests an innocent creepiness, a child who peeks in on his sexy neighbors through his telescope, who practices face-offs with his school tormentors with a newly bought pocket knife. His Owen seems childish but capable of terrible things.
Moretz is fast staking out the title "next Jodie Foster." Her performances are always good, but in her past two films, directors have sexualized her — given her Lolita lighting and wardrobe. Like the original Swedish film, there's a touch of the kinky, if not just the inappropriate, to this.
And Dylan Minnette, as Kenny, is every amoral 12-year-old villain you've ever read about: a sociopath in a Justin Bieber bowl cut. Minnette's bullying menace reminded me of Matt Dillon's early teen-thug performances.
The digitally augmented vampire attacks are marginally more convincing than the ones in the Twilight films, and Moretz's Abby is a poster child for how messy "real" vampires would be — the opposite of Twilight's kabuki Cullens of Forks, Wash.
It's not quite as chilling and offers only a couple of real jolts in the fright department. But in casting Jenkins as Abby's tormented "dad," in illustrating how bullies are made (it's passed down) and in maintaining, through every blue or amber winterscape, a genuine sense of disquiet, Reeves has Americanized a very good foreign film without defanging it.