‘Let Us In’: Urban Legends Lose Their Street Cred in Tween Sci-Fi Comedy

The strangest thing has been happening since Netflix introduced “Stranger Things.” Filmmakers are revisiting the teenaged-led, light suspense films which were very popular in the ‘80s. Eleven would have fit right in on films like “E.T.,” “The Goonies,” or even the first half of Stephen King’s “It.” It might seem Emily (Makenzie Moss), the heroine of “Let Us In,” might also be invited to that retro party. She’s smart, resourceful, and damaged. Emily’s best friend died while she was recording her performing an internet challenge. She gets bullied in school for it, but is a closet genius about to blow the laws of physics with an interstellar sound system. From the moment we meet Emily, we are rooting for the Black-Eyed Children. 

Directed and co-written by Craig Moss, “Let Us In” begins with a winning premise. He plumbed CreepyPasta for an urban legend, but instead of stumbling on a Slender Man, he found a Mickey Mouse short Disney wouldn’t release.  This might be the reason all we see of the Black-Eyed Children is the darkness behind the sockets. They are actually rolling their eyes at the movie. There may be intelligent life out there in the wilderness of space, but Emily and young Christopher (O’Neill Monahan) haven’t tuned in.

The actual Black Eyed Kids are fairly frightening, in that “Children of the Corn” way. The stories began in 1996, when journalist Brian Bethel reported an encounter with black-eyed, alabaster-skinned children in Abilene, Texas.  The kids in this movie are actually best described in the movie. They’re “emo kids,” but in a candy pop world. They aren’t even fashionable enough to be goth. Wearing simple black jeans and t-shirts, they are the least frightening extraterrestrials to gate crash a portal into science fiction since “The Emoji Movie.” 

The dialogue sounds like it was written by AI and texted into screenplay format. Every millennial phrase which disappeared a decade ago magically reappears. At one point Emily tells her nana that “on fleek” is the new “groovy.” And she says it without irony. There is no cursing in the film, people actually say “AF.” Mr. Munch, played by Tobin Bell of the “Saw” franchise, sums it succinctly when he asks if Christopher is “on the spectrum.” “Let Us In” comes off like an after-school special for special needs millennials. Amish kids wouldn’t be afraid of this film.

The lead is a 12-year-old outcast building an extraterrestrial communicator to win a trip to NASA. They promise her a car. You would think, if a twelve- and eight-year-old team of science geeks actually contacted aliens, they would at least spring for a Nvidia RTX 3090. Judy Gleeson, who’s been playing teenagers since “To Sir, with Love,” plays Emily’s grandmother, and their bonding scenes are as awkward as watching her dance with Sidney Poitier in that 1967 film. Sadie Stanley plays Christopher’s older sister, who get abducted because she won’t serve a frosted latte. Siena Agudong plays the mean girl who won’t give Emily a break. Neither character has many lines, nor does a professionally reckless reporter from “The Times,” who starts all the trouble, and always seems a step away from being a predator.

The film is loaded with clichés. It opens with shy teenagers making out in the woods, which leads to the most violent scene in the movie. The creepy black-eyed teens break into the lead character’s house, she makes frantic phone calls, and survives in last minute escapes. The authorities don’t believe the ostensible hero because she’s a teenager, a theme which goes all the way back to the 1957 teen horror flick “The Blob,” which has a more viscerally frightening monster. The teens in this movie take matters into their own hands. 

The only other survivor of such an attack has one of those corkboard evidence altars, with newspaper clippings, maps, and CreepyPasta-like drawings. Mean Mr. Munch apparently bought the old Victorian house where the Addams family used to live, but he’s cleaned it up a bit, and replaced the harpsichord with a grand piano. He even took a lesson, though if he doesn’t want to always be known as “Mean” Mr. Munch, he might learn a new song.

The movie feels like it’s always played on fast forward. We encounter grief, kidnapping, science fairs and a high school too clean for Nickelodeon. Emily is in therapy for one scene. The alien takedown has no peril to it. Why don’t the Black Eyed Kids have their sunglasses at the ready, if it’s so easy to blind them? And, the final reveal is something the audience knew all along.

As “Let Us In” explains in its opening frame, ink-black-eyed children are supernatural beings who have been documented hitchhiking, panhandling, and standing on doorsteps. They vary in age, from eight to sixteen, but the ones in the film are all older teenagers. A black-eyed 8-year-old is much more frightening than a 17-year-old one, who can get those black eyes in contact lens form at Hot Topic. Urban legends are frightening because they are a shared experience of authentic unease. Children bond over peer-to-peer superstitions, giving these stories exquisitely dark lives of their own with a personal touch. “Let Us In” could have ended at the opening frame. It is the most frightening part of the movie.

Let Us In” releases July 2 on VOD.