I am a child of the 80s, and just like whichever decade your teen years were set, that is the era that defined me. Part of that period in my life was where my affinity for the horror genre evolved, with the books of Stephen King maybe the largest single element. Throughout that decade, with no internet to make things easy, I devoured not just his books, but also news of his books. Each time I went into a book shop with the intent of picking up his newest release, I left in a hurry to get home to crack open the cover. I remember calling the US telephone operator from my bedroom in Scotland around 1987 or so and actually getting the number of King’s Bangor mansion, but there was never an answer each time I called. All this is to tell you that I was a big fan of King, to preface the review of 2019’s Pet Sematary.
I didn’t read Pet Sematary on its original publication in the UK. I discovered King originally via the excellent TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot, age 13, and set out to read his work in order, so I didn’t actually get to Pet Sematary until 1986. And it blew me away, frankly. I had already become a horror fan by then, through the work of H.P. Lovecraft and a steady diet of classic horror and sci-fi, but reading Pet Sematary was a seismic shift in the tectonics of the genre, and it remains, for me, not only King’s best book but one of the greatest books in horror fiction.
It’s also one of the few books to genuinely unsettle me – though just in one scene. I remember very clearly reading the section at night, alone in the house, where Louis and Jud venture beyond the deadfall for the first time and make their way through the Maine woods, through Little God Swamp, to the sour earth of the Micmac burial grounds. The close encounter with the Wendigo (never seen) is a defining moment in my own personal history of horror. As well as this, it’s also King’s best book in terms of character, and one of the few books in which he lets the story unfold without much of his trademark, overpowering style. I’ve read it twice since then, and in the spring of 2018, I listened to the audiobook version, read by Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall, right before I made my own trip to actually visit King’s mansion in Bangor, and drive back to Boston via those same Maine woods.
I was NOT a fan of the 1992 movie adaptation of Pet Sematary. It just didn’t work for me, despite it sticking very close to the plot of the book, and the performances being very watchable. Although I wasn’t writing movie reviews back then, I had been looking at movies critically for a while, and when I tried to figure out why the movie didn’t appeal to me, it was two key elements. First, the movie looked and felt cheap. It’s not a story that requires much in the way of effects, but the direction was completely uninspired and the lighting and photography was very TV-movie, and that’s all the fault of the lack of talent behind the camera. A more skilled production crew, with the same equipment, would have produced something that felt cinematic. The main reason it didn’t work is the simple visual threat that an evil toddler fails to muster on screen. I accepted Gage Creed’s resurrection in the book just fine, because the book is not about an evil toddler, it’s about the tragedy of death within a close family and the effects it has. But when you commit that image to the screen, that horror is replaced by a child with a scalpel. A child that pretty much anyone could defend themselves from fairly easily. It just did not work for me, at all.
In the 2019 remake, the major change to the story (and not the only change) is that the resurrected child is now 9 year old Ellie, not 1 year old Gage, which makes a lot more sense cinematically. Unfortunately, while this version’s 3rd act doesn’t suffer the same problems as the original, the changes made throughout the movie have a cumulative effect on the plot, so that when the movie draws to its climax, the story deteriorates badly.
While the Ellie/Gage plot change is big, it’s not the biggest, and not the first. Early in the movie, the relationship between Louis and neighbour Jud Crandall, the keystone on which the entire plot is based, is gutted badly. At no time in the movie did I feel that there was ever a true friendship between these men, so Jud’s deep motivation for showing Louis the true burial ground beyond the deadfall is more of a plot contrivance in this version, a means to get from point A to B with as few details as possible. So too Rachel Creed’s deep-seated guilt over the neglect of her sister Zelda is reduced in the movie to scenes which seem literally hallucinatory, despite there being no reason for them to be filmed like this: the house is not haunted, and Rachel is not shown to be mentally unstable to the point of seeing things; it’s just bad filmmaking, a means of shorthand to cheat the audience. About the only thing this Cliff Notes version of the story has going for it is Jason Clarke, an actor I think is always worth watching in any movie not named Terminator: Genisys (Everest is one). Despite a script lacking depth, Clarke imbued Louis with a sense of character and duty. Even times when the movie sags badly, I still appreciated his presence in certain scenes. I fault the script too for not giving John Lithgow much of anything to do; he’s simply a plot facilitator here. In the book his history is linked so closely with the plot and theme so much that he is a major character – his only importance to the plot of the movie is to show Louis the secret burial ground, and that’s it. When he finally meets his end, I felt nothing for him, because the plot had made me feel nothing for him throughout the movie.
The bigger changes come after the midpoint of Act 2, first with making Ellie the resurrected child, then, even bigger, in Act 3, when changes to the nature of her post-resurrected character, completely derailed the movie for me. Suffice it to say that I’m not going to tell you how the movie ends – but if you’ve read the book and watched the first movie, I can tell you that the ending is VASTLY different, and it absolutely does not work at all in terms of being an adaptation. I grudgingly admit that if you can disassociate this ending with that of the book, what happens right at the end is pretty horrific and more nihilistic (but way less subtle) than the original ending. On a more shallow note, I didn’t care for the young actress who played Ellie, though I can’t explain why. Her wooden delivery in the first two acts doesn’t show enough contrast to her post-resurrection lack of humanity – then again, she’s not served well by either the plot, script, or direction.
All in all, I wasn’t impressed with this. Along with the poor story choices, the direction is banal and mediocre, and the pacing suffers badly. Even though I attended a 9:30am showing, there were at least two times when I could have drifted off. Unforgivable in a horror movie. I’ll end by mentioning the biggest flaw in the story for me, one that actually goes back to King’s book. The inciting incident of the story is not actually the truck that kills the child, it’s the fact that trucks can speed down the road outside the Creed place with such reckless abandon. I’ve driven through enough small towns in the US to know that when you’re getting closer to town, the speed limits go down quickly to around 30 – 35mph from highway speeds. There is just no way that a two-lane road THAT close to houses (literally, the Creed front door is about 30 or 40 feet from it, with no fence, no crosswalk, no lights, no stop sign, and completely obscured by foliage) is going to have no posted speed limit. King claimed that his book was inspired by seeing trucks hurtle down the road past the home he lived in at the time, in North Orrington, just down the highway from Brewer and Bangor, but I drove past that house, and I can tell you, it’s a long way from the front door to that highway. The lack of logic in transportation safety didn’t bother me when I was 19, but it became a problem every time I went back to that story.
© 2019, Andrew Hope
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