Cinema Dispatch: Pet Sematary

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Pet Sematary and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures

Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer

I don’t know about this one.  I mean I liked the original Pet Sematary and Stephen King adaptations in general, but the trailers are just not doing it for me.  For the most part I think I’m turned off by JUST how big of a tonal shift it is from a bright and colorful yet creepy tale of magic and grief into something that looks to be aping Hereditary which is doubly worrying considering the ONE BIG similarity between the two.  I have a certain limit when it comes to horror (mainly when you replace creepiness and suspense with misery and suffering), and I am not prepared to see a beloved classic from the eighties go down that same route just to chase a trend.  Still, even if the LOOK of the thing may be drastically different there’s still the original story which is quite well thought of for a reason, and I could just be looking at the original through rose tinted glasses.  I remember the movie in the broad strokes, but a lot of the nuance for me has been lost to time (it’s had to of been a decade at least since I saw it) and perhaps this one will do a great job of recreating all that I’ve forgotten about the original!  Wishful thinking perhaps, but there’s only one way to find out!!

The Creed family has just moved to a little out of the way country town in the middle of Maine (because nothing spooky ever happens THERE!) so that the father Louis (Jason Clarke) could take a less demanding job at a University hospital which will allow him to spend more time with his kids Ellie and Gage (Jeté Laurence and Hugo Lavoie/Lucas Lavoie) as well as his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) who’s already getting some bad vibes from this place right off the bat.  Eh, maybe it’s just nerves from her TRAGIC BACKSTORY that I’m sure will come into play later in the movie!  Anyway, Ellie learns about a place in the woods behind their house called the Pet Sematary where children (who don’t know how to spell) bury their dead pets in some sort of local ritual.  This is all well-known and expanded upon by the Creed family’s neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) who’s lived here all his life and may know even more about this place than he’s letting on.  Now as the family seems to finally be settling in, tragedy strikes as Ellie’s cat Churchill is hit by a truck on the road RIGHT outside the house (SEEMS A LITTLE BIT DANGEROUS IF YOU ASK ME!) and now Louis has to break the bad news to her which is not going to be pleasant, but Jud has an idea on maybe fixing this problem which may be more than just him being neighborly.  What kind secrets does this little town have that Jud can show Louis, and what will it end up costing the both of them in the process?  Will Louis be able to live with the knowledge that Jed is about to reveal, and what will happen in his own life to temp him to abuse this mysterious power?  Seriously, is that cat gonna get its own spinoff!?  The filmmakers are just in LOVE with that thing!

 

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“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. HIIIIISSSSSSS!!”

 

 

Well what do you know!  It’s actually pretty good!  I might have come in with far too low expectations which in turn means I might be hyping this up a bit, but this is a really solid remake and I enjoyed a lot of what it did differently from the original!  Is it better though?  Well that’s hard to say.   Again, I only remember the first one in broad strokes and basically any movie made before 2000 is considered a classic to SOMEONE, but I think there’s maybe a bit TOO much going on here for it to truly work as well as the first one which leaned much more into the absurdity of it all rather than try to explain everything.  It definitely feels like a remake in that regard at least where there’s a lot more LORE and whatnot to fill in the cracks or what have you, but some of it does work and I think the areas where this swerves substantially from the original are pretty great!  Besides, how could you say no to John Lithgow?  JUST LOOK AT THAT FACE!

 

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“I am the high commander, and I order you to cease any and all supernatural activity!  PRETTY PLEASE!?”

 

 

This definitely feels like a “fix it” movie where they want to make the better version of what was made before and in a lot of ways this IS a solid approach since there’s plenty of room to improve on the original and update it for a modern audience.  The look of the film is a lot darker than the original yet it keeps enough brightness and saturation so as not to make it look utterly bleak and washed out which is frankly the look that the trailers and posters give off so I’m glad they didn’t take it that far for what is ultimately a rather simple and frankly childlike tale.  There are points where the new aesthetic looks a bit silly such as when we get to the burial ground beyond the Pet Sematary (complete with copious amounts of fog and lightening striking in the background), but I think it works in capturing what the backbone of this story is.  I mentioned it being a childlike tale and I think that’s apropos since its central conceit, i.e. the PET SEMATARY (spelled like a child would), is a story like so many others passed around in every small town in the world about the dangerous things just behind someone’s house or the place where you can see a ghost if you follow a certain ritual.  Okay, I’m not sure if kids are still doing that NOW as I think Creepypasta stuff has kind of taken over that kind of storytelling, but credit to Stephen King for his uncanny ability to capture the horror in the everyday stuff we overlook and credit to the filmmakers for understanding that when trying to adapt this story twenty years later.

 

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“The fog machines have been running for thirty years, and no one has ever refilled the juice.  Mist… finds a way…”

 

So it’s got a great modern look while also keeping the spirit of the original tale which frankly is half the battle in remaking a movie.  Now we have to get into the nuts and bolts scripting of the story, and while I still think they do a solid job here this is the point where things start to falter.  See, the biggest problem with this movie (particularly on a scripting level) is that it’s trying to differentiate itself from the original film; not necessary making a new movie from scratch, but giving you a reason to enjoy THIS version as its own thing separate to the original film.  This is where a lot of those “fix it” moments come in and some of them don’t work all that well.  The big one that comes to mind is Zelda who always felt extraneous to the original film because it’s the kind of subplot that works much better in a book where the pacing and structure can more suitable to such tertiary bits of character building.  Here, they decided that they wanted to fix that problem by giving it more screen time and even giving Rachel a lot of scenes from her point of view, but I don’t think it works because the perspective change doesn’t feel motivated within the film.  They don’t really connect to anything that Louis is up to and only seem to happen when he’s off doing something inconsequential which only furthers the feeling that these scenes with her are simply distractions instead of integral to the story itself, so in trying to “fix” a problem, they ended up just making it longer.  Almost in the opposite direction is Victor the ghost who was frankly one of my favorite parts of the original film, but this one feels almost embarrassed to have him around since it’s admittedly a rather out of nowhere addition to a story that isn’t really about ghosts, but if that’s the case they should have cut him out entirely!  Instead, he has much less screen time and personality which makes it a very forgettable part of the movie.  Now this is starting to sound way more negative than I intended, but the reason why is because I can’t really talk about the one big “fix” they have for the story which ABSOLUTELY sets it apart from its predecessor and even improves upon it in key ways.  It’s a HUGE spoiler and one that you’re PROBABLY not gonna see coming if you think you already know what to look for which is great and the kind of gutsy move you WANT from a remake!  BUT I CAN’T TALK ABOUT IT!  YOU JUST HAVE TO SEE THE MOVIE TO FIND OUT!!

 

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IT WAS A REMAKE OF DUEL THE WHOLE TIME!!

 

 

There’s a lot more I should get into regarding what’s good about this movie since I do think this is a very good remake overall, and while I find the issues to be interesting to talk about they aren’t the only things here.  John Lithgow is an inspired choice for Judd, and while I don’t recall the nuances of Fred Gwynne’s performance since it’s been so long, I think that Lithgow gives his role a lot of dimension and genuine heart which you should ALREADY expect from the guy considering how talented he is, but it’s always nice when a role that could be rather straightforward or even campy has an actor who can really mine the drama out of it.  Again, I’m sure this is PROBABLY the case with Fred Gwynne in the original too; I’m just pointing out how well it works here independent of that.  Overall the cast is really good with Jason Clarke doing a great job at being a crap dad, and Jeté Laurence as the young Ellie has A LOT to carry here and does it rather gracefully.  However, we do have to get to the third act at some point and I get the sense that this is where their vision was bigger than could be brought to the screen.  Not in a significant way that completely ruins the movie, but as we’re heading into the third act the spinning plates that were so impressively held aloft start to tumble and you begin asking questions that the original film didn’t really need to ask to work as well as it did.  The first movie barely goes into how the resurrection thing works because it’s focused on the characters decisions to do it more so than the mechanics.  This film brings it up and does some very interesting stuff with the ideas, and yet… nothing. It just kinda brings up how cool it’d be if we went into detail on these certain things, but then doesn’t know exactly what those details are which would be fine if the film itself didn’t bring them up!  The worst of all this has to be the ending which falls quite short of the original.  I won’t spoil it here, but the first film has a PERFECT ending for the story; almost Shakespearean in its tragic yet brilliant execution.  Here it felt like they ran out of steam and just cut the camera off once they hit the running time they needed to because there’s no… resolution to it I guess.  With any good horror movie, even ones with bad endings or last minute surprises, you want to get the sense that the story has come to some sort of end and that the characters have completed their arcs.  I just didn’t get that feeling as the film wrapped up on what almost feels like a cliffhanger which I REALLY hope is not the case and the studio knows to leave well enough alone.  I know what their thinking and sometimes… one film is better.

 

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“Did you SEE Pet Sematary 2?”     “There’s a Pet Sematary 2?”     “Exactly, now shut up and eat your peas.”

 

I don’t think this is some modern day classic of the genre or a particularly deep reinterpretation of the original, but it’s got some solid ideas and a lot of guts when it needs to which lets it stand on its own against the original.  Sure, I wish they could have gone a bit deeper with some of its good ideas and cut down on the extraneous stuff, but it’s still a heck of a lot better than Hereditary if nothing else.  What it’s not as good as though is Us which is probably still playing so I would definitely recommend seeing that first, but if you have and you’ve got a taste for horror films, this is worth checking out in theaters.  If you have to choose between the two, sometimes… Redbox is better.  I just want to point out how hard it was to restrain myself from only doing that joke more than twice in this review!  YOU’RE WELCOME!!

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