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Showtime’s Let the Right One In Expands on a Horror Classic

Horror remakes are a tough proposition, especially if the story has already been re-told once. And even more so, when said new remake idea is a series expansion. But showrunner Andrew Hinderaker’s soulful and compelling “Let the Right One In” beats the odds, and is the kind of ambitious project that does well with its precious material. It expands on the recognizable themes and storylines we know from the Swedish “Let the Right One In” film and its American remake by writer/director Matt Reeves, creating a larger world colored by these ideas. Hinderaker and his team thoughtfully elaborate on the human aspect of this story about families and vampires, letting its creepy elements round it off as a piece of meaty dramatic horror. 

As it adds characters with its uniformly strong ensemble and builds upon these stories, this “Let the Right One In” accomplishes a great deal with tone in particular. Sometimes the show runs cold, sweet, or a little freaky throughout its gradual pacing. It’s telling how of place both its disturbing vampire violence can be next to scenes of a young kid performing magic. We learn it's a type of distraction from the greater pains in wait for him, which are themselves part of a citywide vampire problem. 

The most recognizable storyline belongs to that of Demián Bichir’s Mark as he cares for his daughter Eleanor (Madison Taylor Baez), who has had the vampiric affliction for years. The two live on the move, with Eleanor’s mother Elizabeth (Fernanda Andrade) only an inspiration for soft-lit flashbacks of less intense times. Mark kills other people so that she can drink their blood from a gallon jug, and they travel to wherever they hear about strange massacres—maybe someone is also a vampire there, or can lead them closer to a cure. It's a constant losing game, but it brings them back to New York City, where they once lived, and where gruesome corpses (the visual effects in this show are vividly nasty) indicate a possible vampire.

Baez's character is not put into the confines of being an ominous, creepy kid, which makes this performance stand out from previous iterations. It's more humanized, like how Eleanor has a loyalty to her father that collides with a 12-year-old's stubbornness; she has so many rules to follow, with her autonomy completely lost. Baez creates a strong sense of innocence in the character, who wants to live as normal a life as she can. The tragedy that she can't still hurts.

Even though this storyline has been told before, it has a wildly different feeling thanks to the tenderness of Bichir, who has to be one of the gentlest actors working today. He captures a deep regret and isolation that comes from the murderous lifestyle he lives nonetheless to help his daughter; it becomes all the more effective when we see him light up when he gets back into a restaurant’s kitchen, taking on a passion he had silenced for years. He has a friend in Zeke (Kevin Carroll), the restaurant owner who is also Eleanor’s godfather, and aware of the family secret. Zeke becomes more and more interesting with each episode. His moral compass comes into clarity as Mark gets progressively desperate. The friendship between Zeke and Mark is always heartening, given the years of isolation we can see on Bichir's face.  

Next door to Mark and Eleanor is another parent and child, Naomi and Isaiah. The aforementioned budding magician, Isaiah (Ian Foreman) is near Eleanor’s age and has a long list of bullies. His father Frank (Ato Essandoh) has become absent, though he has previously made clunky efforts to pull himself together and be more present. But his mother Naomi (Anika Noni Rose) is trying to hold it all together, which includes supporting Isaiah's love for magic even though she worries about the other kids picking on him. She finds a shred of relief when Isaiah makes a new friend in Eleanor. 

Naomi is a homicide detective investigating a series of gruesome murders in the New York underground, which may be connected to some type of new pill that puts lights in people's eyes. That Naomi's path becomes intertwined with Mark’s night hunting might seem like too convenient, but it works within the show's intimate scale. “Let the Right One In” is more or less a series of interconnected New York Stories, in which everything and everyone is held close to the chest. 

A new storyline is added in the form of Grace Gummer’s Claire Logan, begrudgingly taking on the work of her father Arthur (Zeljko Ivanek). Now on his deathbed, Arthur too has been looking for a cure, for Claire’s vampire brother, who nearly burns alive in the show’s opening sequence after standing out in the sun. Claire is disgusted by her father’s history as a painkiller manufacturer which make him a Sackler stand-in, but she also wants to ease her brother's suffering. With the help of an enigmatic assistant played by Nick Stahl, Claire takes over her father’s business and the illegal operations that come with it. 

This third is easily the slowest, basing many of its big beats on emotional outbursts, exposition dumps, and failed science experiments with CGI chimpanzees. But it works as a chorus for this show's different ideas of predator and prey while affirming how characters are rarely distinctly bad or good in this world. “Let the Right One In” does not allow ease in what decisions people make that then change the lives of others. 

Bouncing back and forth between these people, the series also stays true to its most engaging facet: the emotional stakes of these relationships. Everyone, even most of the vampires, is vulnerable, lonely, and fighting for their sense of self. This “Let the Right One In” feels bigger than the long-lasting menace of bloodsuckers; it’s a story of three different households trying to navigate the pain that threatens to define them. These New Yorkers are desperately looking for a cure but find something equally as formidable in the compassion of others. 

Five episodes were screened for review. "Let the Right One In" premieres on Showtime on October 7th.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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