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In Theaters: PET SEMATARY (2019)

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PET SEMATARY
(US - 2019)

Directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer. Written by Jeff Buhler. Cast: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jete Laurence, Hugo Lavoie, Lucas Lavoie, Obssa Ahmed, Alyssa Levine, Frank Schorpion, Sonia Maria Chirila, Suzi Stingl. (R, 101 mins)

Stephen King has long considered his 1983 novel Pet Sematary his scariest work. It was certainly his darkest to that point, so much so that he sat on it for a few years, feeling he'd "gone too far this time." A hit movie version arrived in 1989 after several years in development, including a period where George A. Romero was attached to direct. It was ultimately helmed by music video vet Mary Lambert (best known for several of Madonna's most popular videos of the era), with King writing the screenplay himself and being an on-set presence to ensure that it was being done properly. Of course, King took liberties in streamlining the transition from page to screen, and while it had some flaws and it's certainly no CARRIE, THE SHINING, MISERY, or THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, it remains on the side of the better King adaptations, especially when held up against the likes of, say, 1990's GRAVEYARD SHIFT, 1995's THE MANGLER, 2016's CELL, or 2017's THE DARK TOWER. King adaptations never really stopped being a thing, but the blockbuster success of 2017's IT seems to have kickstarted a resurgence in their major studio viability, which has led to another go at PET SEMATARY. King didn't have anything to do with this new version, which was scripted by Jeff Buhler (THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, THE PRODIGY), who rewrote an initial treatment by Matt Greenberg, who had some experience adapting King in the past, having written 2008's 1408 and 2014's straight-to-DVD MERCY, based on King's short story "Gramma." It's directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, the team behind 2014's STARRY EYES, one of many wildly overpraised indie horror films deemed "an instant classic" until something else came out the next week.






Having revisited it in preparation for this remake, PET SEMATARY '89 has aged better than expected, and it still has some chillingly effective moments throughout, though there was undoubtedly room for improvement. To its credit, PET SEMATARY '19 does address a few of those issues, starting with Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz being better actors than Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby, and the long-brewing discord between the main character and his disapproving father-in-law is conveyed by a few seething, silent glares rather than the hysterically overwrought, corpse-tumbling-out-the casket funeral brawl in the 1989 film, which is straight from the book but didn't really work on the screen. PET SEMATARY '19 maintains the same core premise as the novel and the original film, with Dr. Louis Creed (Clarke) and his family--wife Rachel (Seimetz), eight-year-old daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence), toddler Gage (played by twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), and cat Church--moving to the rural Maine town of Ludlow when Louis gets a position in the ER at the University of Maine. Behind their property is, as the misspelled sign states, a "Pet Sematary," where generations of Ludlow children have laid their beloved cats and dogs to rest. Their elderly neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) tells them all about it and forms a grandfatherly bond with Ellie. It's Jud who finds Church dead on the side of the road, struck by one of the many speeding semis that barrel past the house. Despite insisting to a hesitant Rachel that they need to be truthful with Ellie about the nature of death, Louis opts to tell Ellie that the cat simply ran away. Jud accompanies Louis to bury Church in the Pet Sematary but insists they go further, to the blocked-off land beyond it. The next day, Church is back, but he's not the same. He's disheveled, smelly, covered in caked blood, and is violent toward the family. Jud informs Louis that the area beyond the Pet Sematary is a tribal Wendigo burial ground of the native Indians who once inhabited the area, and there's something about the land that brings back the dead.





If you've seen PET SEMATARY, you know what happens next (the ghostly Victor Pascow character, played by Obssa Ahmed, is pretty much an afterthought that the movie seems to forget about), but this new version switches it up quite a bit in ways that the trailer completely spoiled. It's Ellie--not Gage--who gets mowed down by a truck. When a grieving Rachel, whose traumatic memories and suppressed guilt over her spinal meningitis-afflicted older sister Zelda (Alyssa Levine) come back to haunt her in the new house in Ludlow, takes Gage to visit her parents in Boston, Louis is left alone at the house with plenty of time to exhume Ellie's body and bury it beyond the Pet Sematary. And of course, she returns, and she's...different. Earlier on, Lithgow's Jud invokes the signature line "Sometimes dead is better," and sometimes leaving well enough alone is as well. I was with PET SEMATARY '19 to a point, and the idea of Ellie getting killed instead of Gage isn't a dealbreaker, but there needs to be a good reason for it. And the best reason I can surmise is that the idea of a murderous, scalpel-wielding undead toddler is a bridge too far in these more sensitive and easily-triggered times. Young Laurence is fine as the living and dead Ellie, and it's not her fault that Ellie returning from the dead with a droopy eye and having long conversations with her dad comes off as ludicrous when, even when brought to "life" by an animatronic puppet that didn't look quite real in 1989, the undead, killer Gage is far more unsettling than a loquacious near-tween with a "#whatever" sneer.





Poster for the 1989 version
The chain of events that unfold once Ellie returns from the Pet Sematary ultimately takes PET SEMATARY '19 from loose adaptation to straight-up Stephen King fan fiction, so much so that it starts to resemble a modern reimagining of the "Wurdalak" segment from Mario Bava's 1964 classic BLACK SABBATH more than anything else. While Clarke and Seimetz are a step up in thespian ability over Midkiff and Crosby, this version is sorely missing the sense of folksy camaraderie that the great Fred Gwynne brought to the 1989 film. His Jud was just as readers pictured (ayuh), even though both the 1989 and 2019 films dump Jud's wife Norma from the narrative aside from establishing that Jud is a widower (she's in the book, where Louis even saves her from a heart attack at one point). Lithgow brings a certain level of wisdom and gravitas to Jud, but that's due more to his being a seasoned pro who can make something out of nothing, as Jud is just on hand for reams of exposition and nothing else. There's no real friendship with Louis, which was key to both King's book and the 1989 film, and his decision to even bring up burying Church beyond the Pet Sematary seems both unnecessarily sinister and completely boneheaded (and a throwaway line even implies that Jud had something to do with Norma's death). Lithgow is one of our finest actors, but he's just collecting a paycheck here. PET SEMATARY '19 is a film that cuts corners on the assumption that you're already familiar with the material and it's working from a checklist of things it knows test audiences and genre fans enjoy. You got kids in creepy masks, Blumhouse-inspired jump scares, shout-outs to other movies (including the 1989 PET SEMATARY), a shitty new cover of the Ramones' closing credits song "Pet Sematary," and why the hell is Jud invoking the Wendigo other than to pander for cult horror nerd cred and to make Larry Fessenden hard? Again, it's not like PET SEMATARY '89 was an untouchable classic, but while PET SEMATARY '19 offers a precious few improvements, they aren't nearly enough to justify its existence.








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