Sometimes Dead Is Better: A Review of Pet Semetary (2019)

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Over the years, Stephen King has retold the story of writing Pet Semetary and wanting to bury the manuscript because he felt like it was the bleakest novel he had written. Indeed, it is a depressing story that deals with the heaviness of grief and a family who suffers one loss after another, all within the span of a few short days. The new film, directed by Kevin Kolsh and Dennis Widmyer, is especially faithful to the novel in terms of tone, subject matter, and theme, despite two drastic changes to the story. The film’s major flaw, if it could be considered a flaw, is just how  grim and humorless it is, especially the final act.

The basic premise of the film is the same as King’s novel and Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaption. Doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) relocates from Boston to Ludlow, Maine with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two children, Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (Hugh and Lucas Lavoie), so he can take a job at a local university. Soon after relocating, the family befriends Jud (John Lithgow), who tells them about the “Pet Semetary” on their property and eventually introduces Louis to land just beyond the cemetery that has the power to reanimate the dead. At its core, the new film, like its predecessors, is a rumination on grief and loss.  One of the most powerful scenes occurs when Ellie first questions her parents about the process of death and asks why animals, including her precious tomcat Church, don’t live as long as humans. Louis tries to answer her in a rational, scientific manner, while Rachel offers a more faith-based opinion. This short scene illustrates Louis and Rachel’s different parenting styles and their contrasting views on death, while also adapting one of the most poignant scenes of the novel, the moment that a child starts to process what it means to die.

The film’s heaviness doesn’t relent, as Louis fails to save a student, Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed), who is hit by a car on campus and returns in Louis’ dreams to warn him that the barrier “shouldn’t be broken.” The Pascow of this version lacks the heart of Brad Greenquist’s performance in Lambert’s adaptation. Greenquist’s Pascow at least smiled every now and then, even with half of his skull busted open and bleeding. Ahmed’s ghastly version  matches the somber, gray tones of the film and the fog-heavy shots of the cemetery. Ahmed’s role is only to provide dire warnings to Louis, staring at him with red eyes, speaking to him as blood leaks from his skull.

Not long after Pascow’s introduction, Church is hit by a roaring semi and Jud helps Louis bury him in supernatural soil. Of course, he returns, but different. He hisses, growls, and stinks so bad that Ellie doesn’t want  him anywhere near her bedroom.

The trailer already spoiled one of the main story changes. It’s Ellie who is hit by a truck and dies, not Gage. Her death is especially effective because the first half of the film gives her plenty of screen time and develops the close-knit relationship that she has with her family. She becomes quite an evil presence in the last act, her face marked with black veins, her voice a growl. She delivers some of the curses and diabolical lines that a reanimated Gage says in the novel, but it’s more realistic coming from a nine-year-old compared to a two-year-old.

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Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Louis (Jason Clarke)

Kolsh and Widmyer also succeeded in showing the impact of grief on the characters. By the film’s last 30 minutes, Louis is so tormented by all of the death that he becomes red-eyed and ragged. Rachel, meanwhile, is haunted by memories of her sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levin), who died young from spinal meningitis. Zelda plays as large of a role in this film as she does in the novel, and she’s a terrifying presence, heard in the walls of the new house, a manifestation of Rachel’s trauma.

The second major change comes within the final minutes, and it’s a drastic departure from the novel and Lambert’s adaption. It punctuates the film with an utterly glum tone, while King’s final pages are more ambiguous. It’s likely that this ending will be polarizing for fans of the original film and King’s book, but the ending makes Kolsh and Widmyer’s film distinct and is consistent with the overall atmosphere, performances, and story of their remake.

Overall, Pet Semetary is a layered meditation on death and grief. With the huge resurgence of all things Stephen King, it’s likely that the film will do well at the box office, but its main flaw is that it doesn’t have many, if any, lighter moments, and it will undoubtedly be compared to Lambert’s 1989 film, which has amassed a cult following in the horror community over the years. Still, Kolsh and Widmyer managed to maintain the core of King’s novel, while making some changes  that are well-suited for the film that they wanted to make.

 

 

 

 

Retro Review: Pet Semetary (1989)

With the release of the new Pet Semetary about to drop, now is a good time to revisit director Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most well-known novels. Since King wrote the screenplay and oversaw production, the original Pet Semetary doesn’t deviate much from the novel, and after 30 years, much of it still holds up well, specifically the gore and special effects. The novel’s key themes of grief and loss are handled well by Lambert, especially a child’s questioning of death’s process and the cycle of life.

Pet Semetary follows the story of a young doctor, Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff), who moves with his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) and their children, Gage (Mike Hughes) and Ellie (Blaze Berdahl), to a small, rural town in Maine. Their new home is only feet from a busy highway, where semis roar down the road at all hours of the day. Soon after the move, the family befriends a white-haired, wizened Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), who shows Louis a “Pet Semetary” near their property. There are crocked wooden crosses in memorial to cats, dogs, and even a goldfish. When the Creed family’s cherished tomcat Church is killed, Louis takes Jud’s advice and buries the cat in an ancient mystical burial ground, imbued with reanimating powers. The cat doesn’t come back the same. It hisses, growls, and has glaring yellow eyes (one of the few special effects that hasn’t aged well). When Gage is killed by a semi, a grief-stricken Louis buries him in the pet semetary, and of course, he doesn’t come back the same. The scalpel-wielding, sneering Gage is one of the scariest parts of the film, especially his wicked laughter and dialogue, “Will you play with me, Daddy?” Furthermore, Louis’ realization that he’ll have to confront and kill his son and go through the grieving process all over again is a gut-wrenching scene.

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A re-animated Gage (Mike Hughes) out for blood

Lambert’s film has two key strengths: its handling of grief and its special effects. The most powerful scenes, years later, are how a family deals with heavy loss, first with Church and then with Gage. Early into the film, Ellie starts to question what, exactly, it means to die. She tells her parents that Church will eventually die before lashing out at the notion that “God” would ever take her pet from her, stating that Church isn’t God’s pet to take. In the introduction to the novel, King mentions that this dialogue was taken word for word after a conversation he had with one of his children about death. While some of the film’s dialogue and acting is  a bit hammy years later, Ellie’s questioning of death  is surprisingly powerful and realistic. Dealing with one loss after another, it’s not surprising that Louis takes Jud’s advice and buries the cat and then his son. He does what he feels is right to lessen his family’s pain.

The special effects work of Dave and Lance Anderson and John Blake enhance the film’s most terrifying scenes,  especially the moment when jogger turned spiritual guide Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist) is shown with half of his brain visible and leaking blood, or the few scenes when Rachel’s ghostly sister, Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek), returns from the dead to torment her. The make-up and effects of Pascow and Zelda are one of the film’s real highlights 30 years later. No CGI needed to make these characters ghoulish and memorable.

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Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist)

Overall, Lambert’s Pet Semetary is one off the better adaptations of King’s work, especially in how it deals with the novel’s key themes- death and grief. While some of the dialogue and acting is a bit dated (Gwynn’s take on Jud irked me, for instance), the practical effects have aged surprisingly well.

The recent King renaissance will continue this spring when the latest take on Pet Semetary is released, directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer. Unlike Lambert’s film, King didn’t write the screenplay or oversee production, so it will be interesting to see how the new film deviates from the novel. The trailer already spoiled one major change- it’s Ellie who dies and is brought back, not Gage. Why the trailer would spoil such a major change is anyone’s guess, but that alone may create a different take on King’s novel.

The trailer for the new Pet Semetary:

 

With that said, the new film has earned positive reviews from Blood-Disgusting and other horror sites after its screening at SxSw in March.  King also tweeted a few months ago, “This is a scary movie. Be warned.” So the new film has his seal of approval. It hits  theaters on April 5.