Sometimes they come back again, but they don’t come back the same.
The possibility of a remake of Pet Sematary first emerged (from the grave?) in February 2011. Every year or two since then, there would be new and different names attached to the project. Each time, it seemed like it was just about to happen. Any day now! I greeted these reports with a shrug. Why remake such an effective film?
Once the remake finally took off, although I appreciated the casting (John Lithgow is generally good news), my lack of enthusiasm about the remake persisted until the recent release of a trailer that revealed a major change in the plot. Not only did the trailer indicate high production values and a firm grasp of the novel’s concept, this change suddenly gave me a reason to care about the new version. Made me perk up a little. And then when news emerged from SXSW a few weeks ago that we only thought we knew things about the remake, I was definitely intrigued.
The filmmakers went on the record before the film was released to explain why they made such a dramatic change, and it made sense. Only read this interview if you don’t mind finding out about the change that has been revealed in trailers but which I will avoid stating here.
The novel, of course, has a famous history (which I explore at length here), and King was directly involved in the first film adaptation, writing the screenplay, insisting that it be filmed in Maine, and appearing in a cameo role. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly‘s Anthony Breznican, King revisits the novel and the original film adaptation, and he also expresses his opinion about the new version (tl;dr version: “It’s f—ing great! It’s a really good movie. It’s a grown-up, adult kind of movie.”)
Although the novel Pet Sematary was essentially dumped on Doubleday, with King doing nothing to promote it, it quickly gained a reputation as one of his best and most disturbing works. I remember reading it when it came out and being so disturbed by the story and where it seemed to be headed that I had to put it down from time to time. The 1989 adaptation is just as disturbing. Breznican, the man with all the in-depth features pertaining to this project, interviewed original director Mary Lambert about her experience making the film, and also her idea for a sequel.
So, after all this preamble, what is Pet Sematary like on the screen thirty years later? And should one approach it as an adaptation, a remake or as simply a film to be viewed purely on its own merits?
The movie opens with one of those taken-from-above drone camera shots that are all the rage these days. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen something similar in the past few months. Here, we are shown the end of the film—a burning house, streaks of blood—a somewhat heavy-handed piece of foreshadowing.
Then we meet the Creed family, moving from Boston to Ludlow, ME for reasons. Apparently things have been difficult in the big city (although we never learn how or why) so they’re relocating to a rural area where Louis, a physician, can be in a lower-stress environment. They should have done a little more research. They seem to have purchased a new home without ever being there before: the fact that transports speed past on a regular basis comes as a surprise, and the Creeds have no idea that their property includes a pet cemetery and a ruined native region known as Little God Swamp.
The cast is uniformly strong, although Lithgow is a standout as Jud Crandall, a lonely widower who enjoys the company of 8-going-on-9-year-old Ellie but who bears a terrible secret that he can’t wait to share. Lithgow wisely eschews a Maine accent and settles for being charming and neighborly. Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz are the parental units and Jeté Laurence is Ellie, who has a lot more to do in this version of the story than in the 1989 adaptation.
Early on, the film relies heavily on jump scares, most of them provided by the sudden appearance of horn-blaring transports or by Church, that darned cat, who seems to be everywhere once he makes his return appearance from the burial ground. Despite its hateful disposition, Louis can’t bring himself to euthanize the creature, so he abandons it far from home. Naturally it comes back…that’s what this movie is all about. Things coming back.
The directors didn’t hold anything back with Victor Pascow’s injuries, either. That’s easily the grossest part of the movie. People around me in the theater were noticeably disturbed by those shots. There are moments of light humor (“Good thing you’re not a fucking vet,” Rachel tells her physician husband after he apparently misdiagnoses the cat’s condition), but only a few.
Louis and Jud’s first trip to the burial ground is appropriately creepy, and the filmmakers spend a lot of time creating the atmosphere. So much time, in fact, that I found myself wondering why the hell Louis would follow an old man, a total stranger, through the woods in the dark. At some point, wouldn’t he say “enough”? The subsequent waking-dream sequence is neat, especially the way Louis goes through a non-existent doorway to get into the woods.
Rachel’s backstory is nicely revealed, and Zelda is a horror show all on her own. There’s also a satisfying pay-off to the scene where Rachel reveals that Zelda cursed her, wishing the same affliction she suffers on her sister. And, oh, that dumb-waiter scene. Nice!
The third act is non-stop violent action, including many incidents that do not originate from the novel or the first adaptation. But, as King says in the EW interview I mentioned earlier, “You can take Route 301 and go to Tampa, or you could take Route 17 and go to Tampa. But both times, you’re gonna come out at Tampa!” The end result is somewhat the same.
Despite its strengths, I had some issues with this film. It clocks in at 1 hour 43 minutes, which is a decent length for a horror movie, but it didn’t use all of that time wisely. Important things from the novel were omitted. The tension between Louis and Rachel’s parents doesn’t exist in this version, something I found vital to their situation. The best part of the Rachel and Louis’s character development here is their conflict over how they each relate to the concept of death. It’s clearly a pressure point in their relationship, a wound that keeps opening.
Sure, I regretted that Jud didn’t get to tell the Timmy Baterman story—or that we didn’t get to see that creepy vignette re-enacted—but that’s not one of the main things that were lost.
The movie’s main shortcoming is the short shrift paid to the Creeds’ loss and Louis’s anguish during his harrowing experiences in the aftermath of a parent’s worst nightmare. From horrific accident to funeral (without a wake or all of those other preparatory steps that made the situation even more terrible) to body snatching to re-interment, these things happen like cogs in a wheel, proceeding from one incident to the next without much sense that it is an actual ordeal for Louis. He should be devastated.
I wanted to feel Louis and Rachel’s grief more acutely. It wouldn’t have taken a lot of screen time to focus on events between the accident and the funeral, but that time would have paid huge dividends. We see a little of their grief in the aftermath, but not enough to resonate. Then Rachel suddenly states “I can’t be here now,” conveniently getting her out of the picture so Louis can do what he needs to do, but I didn’t feel the emotion that drove either of them.
It’s as if the filmmakers were relying too much on the audience’s knowledge of the story to fill in the parts they didn’t take the time to explore. That shortchanges people who’ve never read the book or seen the earlier adaptation. I understood Louis’s grief and torment, but only because I have a long history with the novel.
It’s not a bad movie, but it squanders some of the potential the filmmakers could have drawn from the major plot change they developed. The hits come fast and furious during the final twenty or thirty minutes, most of them unanticipated, surprising and effective, but without that emotional depth things don’t seem to matter as much.
I’m not much one for giving letter grades or stars. Never quite know how to quantify things that way. I guess I’d put this one somewhere in the B range if I had to. My main reaction to it was: interesting change but if you’re going to remake a movie that worked fairly well in the first place, you should dig a little deeper.
Bonus points, though, for the creepiest use of the sound effect for the chirping of a car lock disengaging.
The filmmakers resisted the prevailing temptation to infuse the movie with scads of Easter Eggs. The only one I noticed was a road sign announcing the location of Derry.