Like a vampire impervious to exposure, “Let the Right One In” is one of very few stories to not just survive multiple adaptations, but thrive with each new iteration. The book that started it all, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel, became a bestseller before the author worked with Tomas Alfredson to create what Roger Ebert later called “the best modern vampire movie.” Then Matt Reeves came along with the inevitable American remake, and even 2010’s “Let Me In” earned rave reviews. Yes, some cited redundancies between the two horror films, but seeing an eerie tale of loneliness reach a wider audience — without the original’s core complexities dumbed down or cheapened — proved more significant than any overlap.
Still, after three recitations of a tender friendship between one bullied 12-year-old and his vampire neighbor who only looks like an adolescent, further retellings demanded significant change — and Showtime’s new series of the same name, “Let the Right One In,” makes plenty of changes. For one, the oft-enigmatic father figure of previous entries is given sharp definition, as Demián Bichir fills his character’s ample spotlight. Accordingly, the “kids'” friendship is but one of many relationships developed in showrunner Andrew Hinderaker’s series, which gives greater prominence to the parent-child dynamic through six initial episodes.
Such expansions make sense for an ongoing TV show, and even a clunky C-plot about a big pharma family’s attempts to cure vampirism manages to stay on theme. At times, “Let the Right One In” conforms too closely to the prestige TV playbook (a standalone episode later in the season fails to grasp what makes similar entries so powerful), but it still explores the shades of gray between good and evil, as well as the loneliness that can afflict unusual children and career-minded adults. Better still, it’s an elegant production, which cleverly juxtaposes the intimacy of its personal relationships with particularly vicious, visceral vampire attacks. Horror fans should be as happy as those only familiar with the franchise, especially if the first season ends with bold choices predicated by past editions.
Mark Kane (Bichir) is finally returning home. After 10 years bopping from place to place, the once-coveted chef is moving back to the Big Apple with a trunk of his most cherished belongings — well, one cherished belonging. When Mark tosses his arm over the dark chest and taps his fingers along the side, something from within taps back. Later, after dragging the storage bin into his new apartment, where he blacks out the windows and refuses moving help from a kindly neighbor, he opens the trunk to reveal: his daughter, Ellie (Madison Taylor Baez).
Ellie, as you may have already guessed, is a vampire. Her eyes glow in dark. She can climb just about anything and moves at a rapid clip. And yes, she drinks blood — human blood, which her dad provides from his own arm as soon as she climbs out of her makeshift travel coffin. Mark and Ellie have been on the run for a decade in order to keep them both safe: Ellie can’t be discovered (for obvious reasons), and the methods Mark takes in order to feed her means he can’t be discovered either. But New York has been plagued by a slew of murders. Penn Station is all but abandoned, as tourists choose to avoid America’s top destination, for fear they may never return home. But a city’s pain is Mark and Ellie’s gain, as the resourceful father thinks he can keep his daughter well-nourished without arousing too much suspicion by pinning his kills on the unknown serial killer.
But what Mark doesn’t realize is that his nice new neighbor is also a homicide detective in the NYPD. Not only is Naomi (Anika Noni Rose) investigating the slew of deaths, but she’s also got a young son, Isaiah (Ian Foreman), who appears to be the same age as Ellie. Soon, the two kids form a friendship out of empathy and necessity; Isaiah has a natural buoyancy to him — the sweet energy of a little boy who just wants to show off his magic tricks. But that same nerdy good nature makes him a bit of a social outcast and the target of bullies, and (like in past versions of “Let the Right One In”) that’s where Ellie steps in — as a loyal friend and ferocious defender.
Despite its wider focus and a proliferation of characters, “Let the Right One In” is still invested in how circumstances can create various forms of loneliness, and how they’re all overcome through the kindness of others. In this and every other regard, casting Bichir is a brilliant move. The Mexican actor exudes competence and compassion in equal measure. You believe he’s capable of killing without getting caught, just as you feel the pain it brings him to take a life in order to preserve his daughter’s. Hinderaker’s scripts don’t skimp on the practical difficulties of getting away with murder or the emotional toll it takes on Mark either, as each only builds more walls around a man who’s already living in an apartment without windows.
Ellie, Isaiah, and Naomi deal with similar forms of self- and social isolation, and the series advances each of its relationships — father/daughter, mother/son, brother/sister, new and old friends — by emphasizing the importance and singularity of these shared bonds. (It’s amazing how quickly Bichir and Kevin Carroll — of “The Leftovers” fame — create a camaraderie strong enough to endure the unimaginable hardships involved in protecting a vampire child.) But “Let the Right One In” isn’t a horror show without frights. The opening scene sees a vampire burst into flames (in a bit of an homage to multiple scenes in the original film). Blood pours out of eyes, ears, and hair follicles. Bodies are drained into buckets, and necks aren’t just punctured, but chewed. Life may rely on relationships, but in this world, it’s also sustained by feral, frequently uncontrollable violence.
Director Seith Mann captures much of the action through similar contradictions. Still conversations are broken up by rapid movement. Imposing shadows are split by pale yellow lights. Rather than use black and white to represent good and evil, the color palette favors the fitting contrast of night and day. One telling confrontation is framed in an ultra wide shot, where the two tussling subjects are centered within a swirling mix of what can be seen under streetlamps and what’s hidden in obscurity — you’re not sure who “should” win, just as you’re not sure whether it’s best to move toward the light or further into darkness. (Yellows are shrewdly placed throughout the series, such as in Ellie’s bedroom — aka, a windowless bathroom lined with sunshiny tiles.)
“Let the Right One In” doesn’t capture as distinct an atmosphere as Alfredson’s film, nor has it illustrated its ruthless depths or ardent heights. Hinderaker has a tendency to provide explicit answers where the story may be better served by fans’ subjective interpretations, and not every member of the ensemble can match Bichir and Carroll’s command. But with three episodes left in the first season, the ending is primed to push things to welcome extremes, and the set up, while at times too neat, is confident and compelling. (For what it’s worth, I breezed through six episodes.) Showtime’s series isn’t going to convince anyone it’s the best adaptation to date, but there’s enough reason yet again to welcome Ellie into your home.
“Let the Right One In” premieres Sunday, October 9 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime. New episodes will be released weekly, and the first is available for free.