Films like E.T., Explorers, and The Goonies helped make the 1980s into a golden age of tween sci-fi and adventure. While Netflix’s Stranger Things and Project Power reach back to that era of science fiction, the last few decades haven’t seen many ’80s-style tales of precocious, science-loving kids going on adventures or communicating with aliens. Let Us In, directed and co-written by Craig Moss (The Charnel House, Bad Ass), tries to re-introduce the subgenre to a new generation of kids while adding a pure horror spin, through its intrepid heroine Emily (The Unicorn’s Makenzie Moss) and some monsters based on the urban legend of The Black-Eyed Children. Though Moss’ performance is impressive, it isn’t enough to make this awkward film the next cult classic.
Let Us In’s lead, Emily, is a 12-year-old girl who lives in a small town where kids have been disappearing without a trace. She’s an outcast after a mysterious incident where her best friend Rachel died. Now she gets bullied by the popular girls and spends her free time building an extraterrestrial communicator with her friend Christopher (O’Neill Monahan). One night, while home alone, she’s visited by strange people with completely black eyes, who ask her to let them in.
The legend of the Black-Eyed Children says that on Halloween or other spooky nights, kids between the ages of 8 and 16 will come up to someone’s house or car, knock on the door, and insist on being let inside. These kids will seem completely normal, except for their completely black eyes and the overwhelming sense of dread that comes over anyone who encounters them. A piece of advice if the Black-Eyed Children come to your door: Don’t let them in.
Emily is Let Us In’s bright spot. Moss gives a natural, mature performance, and in spite of all the film’s faults, it’s a great star vehicle for her. Director Craig Moss is her dad, so the role may have been designed for her, but she lives up to it, single-handedly propelling the movie along when the plot falters. In addition to her great performance, the film plays up the “town outcast who’s only friends with other outcasts” trope to the point where it’s impossible not to side with Emily and her allies.
Unfortunately, besides Emily and to some extent her friend Christopher, the rest of the characters are one-dimensional. That could be a plus for a kid-centric story, given the mandate to get the adults out of the picture so the kids can adventure. But Let Us In makes the adults oblivious to the point of ignorance, and doesn’t give the film’s other kids any more depth. Sadie Stanley (Kim Possible) and Siena Agudong (No Good Nick), playing Christoper’s older sister and the local queen bee, respectively, are good enough to overcome the lack of characterization, but they only appear in two or three scenes apiece.
It also doesn’t help that the characters don’t speak like today’s preteens. Emily and Christopher sound natural enough when they’re speaking like pure precocious nerds, but all the other kids sound like Urban Dictionary Mad Libs. In the first scene, a kid says, “We’re gonna skirt,” and the moment’s cringey enough to distract from the rising tension. Same goes for a scene when Emily tells her grandmother that the cookies they made are “so on fleek.” Christopher is the only kid who doesn’t lapse into slang, instead sounding like a classic precocious kid. It’s a reasonable question whether the entire film would have worked better without trying to make the kids sound so Gen-Z.
Let Us In also does remarkably little with its source material. The Black-Eyed Kids aren’t as central to the plot as they should be in what initially appears to be a horror film. They’re a B-plot for at least half of the film, pushed aside except for scenes where they attack kids. The violence is blood-free but surprisingly visceral, with the monsters breaking one child’s leg and punching another in the face. These sequences are both the most entertaining parts of Let Us In, and possibly too intense for the film’s intended young audience. Also, while the legend of the Black-Eyed Children has them varying in age, in the film they all look like teenagers, which feels less menacing than an 8-year-old with blacked-out eyes standing silently on your porch.
The film’s odd characterization and tonal choices are summed up by its use of actor Tobin Bell of the Saw franchise. Bell plays Mr. Munch, the prototypical creepy neighbor who lives in the old Victorian house where kids dare each other to ding-dong-ditch. His role hinges on his creepy vibe and gravitas, so Craig Moss got half the job done by casting Jigsaw. But the other half of the job falls to the character’s place in the story, and Bell’s one speaking scene reads like an underdeveloped exposition dump. It diminishes a fearful legend that Emily, Jack, and the children of the town created. The scene, and to an extent the whole movie, could have used one or two more drafts.
While Let Us In has a promising horror sci-fi premise, it squanders its potential by never finding any depth, nuance, or resonance in a legend kids actually find authentically creepy. There are reasons legends like Slenderman, Bloody Mary, and the Black-Eyed Children come to dominate children’s personal mythologies, as they bond over the fear they feel in spinning out these tales and sharing them with others. Controlling these peer-to-peer superstitions and stories lets kids help build their own worlds, and shape the demons that haunt them. But Let Us In doesn’t explore any of that fear, and it’s as clumsy about its monsters — both their Black-Eyed Children and Mr. Munch — as it is about the adults that remain oblivious to them. The worst thing about it is that it takes advantage of a creepy urban legend, but it just isn’t that scary.
Let Us In releases on digital and On Demand streaming services on July 2.