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Pet Sematary
★☆☆☆☆
First run Screening room

Thirty years after the first film version of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (directed by Mary Lambert from a screenplay by King himself) the directing team of Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Absence, Starry Eyes) attempt a new adaptation of the 1983 horror novel. The screenplay by Jeff Buhler, working from an earlier draft by Matt Greenberg as well as the original film and King’s book, changes a few key plot points and a few memorable scares to make their movie seem fresh on its surface. However, the filmmakers don’t fix the key problems with King’s story and fail to capitalize on the potential of their principal narrative deviation. Like far too many contemporary horror pictures aimed at a mainstream audience, the new movie only explores its inherently powerful themes in the most cursory way and ultimately ends up as little more than a collection of jump scares and recycled imagery that ceased to be scary decades ago. 

King’s tale follows a young doctor named Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) who moves his wife, nine-year-old daughter, and toddler son away from the hectic pace of the big city to rural Maine where he can spend more quality time with the family. However, the house is located on a road where huge trucks come racing past at all hours of the day—the perfect spot to raise small kids. Since Creed seems not to have explored the property or examine the deed before he purchased it, he’s surprised to discover a special cemetery on his land, created for all the animals killed by the trucks (and by natural causes). For decades, children have buried their pets there. But when he travels a little farther into the woods he discovers an ancient Indian burial ground with the dark power to resurrect the dead who are buried there.

All this exposition comes by way of the next-door neighbor, and old Mainer named Jud Crandall (portrayed memorably in the 1989 version by Fred Gwynn and blandly this time by an uncommitted John Lithgow—who doesn’t even attempt to do a Maine accent even though I’m sure he could do it perfectly if he cared to). When a truck kills the family cat, Crandall shows Dr. Creed how to bring the animal back so as to not burden Creed’s little girl with the pain of losing her beloved pet at such a young age; even though, up to this point, his whole motivation for showing her the pet cemetery has been to help her deal with the idea of death.  

The way the Crandall character is presented sums up the major differences in tone between this movie and the first version. Everything in Lambert and King’s film is played over the top—the performances, the dialogue, the backstories, the humor, the gore, the questionable Maine accents, and the commitment to shaky character motivations. Their movie is strained and illogical but it satisfies the viewer on some levels because of these campy factors. Each scene is contrived but they all have narrative arcs that unfold in compelling ways. The new film, on the other hand, attempts to be more realistic and atmospheric, but absolutely nothing about it succeeds.

For example, few scenes in the 2019 version have their own beginning, middle, and end; instead, the script is a string of info dumps and spooky set-pieces. The film looks utterly artificial (we never buy that the overly-art-directed pet cemetery set is actually in the woods of Maine). The fleshed out backstory meant to justify why the doctor’s wife is so reluctant to talk about death—which is also supposed to explain why this couple who have been married for at least a decade have never engaged in a serious conversation about religion or how they want to teach their young children the basic facts of life and death—is so laughably executed it literately involves a harrowing dumbwaiter accident!

The motivation for Jud Crandall’s decision to tell Dr. Creed about the secret power of the Indian burial ground beyond the pet cemetery—even though Crandall knows no good has ever come from that power—is explained here by a few lines the screenwriters give the old man about the “dark power of the place.” This rational for Crandall doing such an obviously bad thing is faithful to King’s novel, but watching it unfold on film we are baffled as to the old man’s purpose, which is never made clear to him or to us.

Any halfway decent adaptation of this material would address the key flaw in its plot. If the power of the burial ground could bring back the dead in a way that initially seemed to work without any unpleasant or scary downsides, it would enable some real, lasting horror and tap into the full power of the intrinsic themes of guilt, loss, and grief in the story. If the cat appeared to be perfectly normal when he first returns from the dead, there would be real motivation to employ the supernatural experiment with more precious loved-ones later on. Then, after a few key narrative beats, when Dr. Creed discovers that the cat he brought back from the dead is starting to behave like a demon from hell, we not only would experience some truly chilling, “what have I done?” moments, we’d fully invest in the central character’s plight instead of just dismissing his actions as the stupid choices only characters in bad horror movies make. This simple change would also render the book and films’ signature line, “Sometimes, dead is better,” delivered thrice by Gwynne in the ’89 version and once by Lithgow here, a truly spooky utterance rather than a patently obvious statement of fact.

The most significant change the 2019 version makes is one that could have fixed the week turn into the middle section of the story. As King envisioned it in his novel, and as happens in the ’89 film, all the individuals brought back from the dead during the majority of the tale are essentially non-verbal in that they can’t reflect on the experience of being undead. Such is not the case in this version.  For a few minutes, it seems like the 2019 picture has found a way to justify its existence. But all that potential is quickly dispensed with as soon as opportunities for more cheap scares and exhausted zombie tropes present themselves. The picture rapidly devolves into a generic climax of blood, gore, and Halloween make-up effects that's less comical than the ’89 film, but also far less inventive and interesting. Sometimes bad is better.

Twitter Capsule:
The original 1989 version of Steven King’s novel about a graveyard that can bring back what’s buried in its ground was hardly a good movie but, to paraphrase its tagline, “sometimes, bad is better.”

Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Mark Vahradian, and Steven Schneider

Screenplay by Jeff Buhler
Screen Story by Matt Greenberg
Based on the novel by Stephen King

With: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jeté Laurence, Hugo Lavoie, Lucas Lavoie, Obssa Ahmed, and Alyssa Brooke Levine

Cinematography: Laurie Rose
Editing: Sarah Broshar
Music: Christopher Young

Runtime: 101 min
Release Date: 05 April 2019
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
Color