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Pet Sematary (2019)

Posted on the 19 April 2020 by Christopher Saunders
Pet Sematary (2019)With Stephen King adaptations in vogue again, a new version of Pet Sematary was probably inevitable. Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer's 2019 version is respectful, if not entirely faithful to King's novel, but sacrifices the book's power for familiar frights.
Doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and two kids, Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) move from Boston to rural Maine. What initially seems an idyllic existence rapidly sours; the Creeds discover a local pet cemetery on their property, which provides the gateway to an even scarier phenomenon. After family cat Church is killed, crusty neighbor Jud Hammond (John Lithgow) convinces Louis to bury it in the dead woods, without explanation. Church comes back to life, but clearly changed, surly and hostile. When Louis faces an even more traumatic accident, he makes an even more gruesome decision - with far worse consequences.
Few would consider Stephen King's oeuvre great literature, but his best work skillfully translates everyday human fears into horror. Thus with Pet Sematary, arguably King's best novel. Its power lies less in supernatural scares than King's potent, painful exploration of grief, loss and psychological torment. How do you explain death to a child, when adults struggle to grapple with it? What happens when you lose a family member? It's the sort of story that works best in one's mind space, where a person's imagination and repressed terrors expand King's ideas into a waking nightmare. It's also the kind of story that, adapted to the more literal medium of film, rarely works.
Mary Lambert's 1989 film is a workmanlike adaptation that goes through the novel's paces without really capturing its spirit. It's best-remembered for a catchy theme song by The Ramones than its quality: Lambert's competent direction is undercut by a mediocre cast (Fred Gwynne's avuncular portrayal of Jud notwithstanding) and silly effects work. Kolsch and Widmyer had ample room to improve, and I hoped from the spooky trailers and excellent cast that they might do Sematary justice. Unfortunately, they're only fitfully successful, in a movie that seems determined to be generic.
Pet Sematary (2019)The new Pet Sematary is certainly well-made, with moody cinematography by Laurie Rose and a creepy Christopher Young score; the atmosphere, at least, feels right. Yet the directors and screenwriter Jeff Buhler make a number of changes to the source material that lead to festering unease. There's no particular reason why Jud is a widower in this version when his wife dies halfway through the novel; Louis lets Rachel know about Church's death, which doesn't fit his secretive nature. In and of themselves these alterations are marginal, but they don't add anything to the story. As the movie unspools the changes grow more drastic, until unraveling completely in the third act.
Pet Sematary also fails its characters, despite the efforts of a game cast. Jason Clarke turns in a dependable performance, but Louis is underwritten so that his torment feels shallow. We don't see any of his feud with Rachel's family, which drives much of his actions and attitude in the novel, and his transition from rational doctor to wannabe shaman feels abrupt in its place. Amy Seimetz's Rachel hallucinates her dead sister (Alyssa Brooke Levine) and experiences body horror to literalize her torment. John Lithgow is well-cast, but the movie reduces Jud to a dispenser of gnomic epigrams. There's none of the father-son camaraderie that underpins their relationship in the book, or even the older movie. He's just the creepy neighbor who makes things worse.
The biggest twist, of course, is making Ellie the victim of a car accident rather than Gage. This makes sense on paper, since Ellie's old enough to question death and have some idea of what happened to her. The movie offers a few uncanny moments when she first comes back, but pretty soon she's slicing up her parents in a climax that turns Pet Sematary into a routine slasher movie. Turning Jete Laurence's endearing Ellie into another evil girl-wraith from The Ring sacrifices any credibility Sematary had. And that's not to mention the comically blunt, unscary finale.
I wanted to like Pet Sematary, but it's hard to appreciate it as an adaptation of King, harder still to like on its own terms. It offers some creepy images and moments of humanity, but it lacks the richness of the novel and the fright of a successful horror movie. But then, not all novels (even best-selling ones) are cut out to be films. Sometimes, print is better.

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