Stephen’s take is HERE and is worth reading. Of course right now I’m here with you, so pay attention to me. Also this is SPOILER HEAVY. You’ve been warned, but if you’ve seen the poster or trailer then a lot has already been spoiled for you.
There were four or five ways I intended to start this review. I wanted to talk remakes, I wanted to talk about remakes of Stephen King films, I wanted to talk about child actors, I wanted to talk about IT in comparison to Pet Sematary 2019. After having a night to sleep on it I decided the best place to start was the end credits.
The end credits of Sematary ’89 had the Ramones blasting out an original song, a punk song, about not wanting to be buried in a Pet Sematary. The Ramones were a cheeky but serious band who made fun, bouncy music and you NEVER doubted Joey Ramone believed everything he sang. In 2019, we have Starcrawler doing a cover and it feels more serious, more polished, slower, and just not fun (foreshadowing?).
So, if you’ve read the book, seen the ’89 movie, its sequel, or have spoken with a horror fan, you know the premise: a family moves to a house with a burial ground that can bring the dead back to life. The thing that always perturbed me about the premise is that the pet cemetery (see what I did there?) is a MacGuffin and of little consequence, there only to act as a mood enhancer, as opposed to something like Mrs. Dash which is a flavor enhancer (by the by, I’m hungry). Beyond that, it is a story about the power of grief and the sway it has over us, how we want to be lied to, and how much we want to believe the lie. Oh, and of course, middle aged, affluent, white men making bad choices. I’ll give 2019 Pet Sematary this: they tried to explain why people would make these bad choices over and over again – that it’s the very power they are engaging that is causing them to go further into the madness of grief, not that they’re poorly conceived or written.
For those of you who haven’t seen the film, here is a summary. Doctor’s daughter’s cat gets killed, helpful neighbor shows Doctor where to bury it, cat comes back to life, people die, doctor buries them, they come back, more people die, etc. However, if you are a fan of the 1989 movie, Pet Sematary 2019 was made to screw with you specifically. All the beats in 2019 are made to subvert those expectations. Indulge me in a spoiler example.
To me the death of Jud in the 89’ film is a near perfect kill in the grand pantheon of horror movies. To recap the beats of that scene, the resurrected Gage sneaks into Jud’s house, brandishing a scalpel belonging to his doctor father, Louis. He hides under the bed, cuts Jud’s Achilles tendon dropping him to the ground, and then killing him. The death of Jud (played by John Lithgow, who gives a problematic performance; more later) in the 2019 film is made to subvert those expectations. The resurrected Ellie (Jeté Laurence) goes to Jud’s house. Jud enters his bedroom in bare feet. He looks at the bed (and you’re waiting for the cut) and then kicks it out of the way revealing nothing under it. He then sees undead (and funky smelling) Church the cat, backs away to the staircase, Ellie cuts his Achilles tendon, he tumbles down the stairs, then Ellie kills him after some banter.
This happens several times throughout the course of the film. You’ve seen the ’89 film. Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer know you’ve seen the 89’ film. They play with you. In retrospect, this adds value to the movie but not necessarily quality. I will applaud them for making sure that fans of the franchise won’t get exactly what they expected, which does make for a more tense film viewing experience. Also, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer as well as writers Jeff Buhler and Matt Greenberg are not afraid to play with the story, whether it’s expanding on the theme of long held grief and guilt (Rachel Creed’s death over Zelda is a much bigger part of the narrative) or bringing in the wendigo from the book (and then ignoring it)…hell, even the ending isn’t safe. And it’s not a bad ending either, it’s just in a messy movie that has a better second half than the first.
One delicious ingredient that was added were the dream sequences (Louis entering the swamp, Rachel and Zelda, as well as Jud momentarily seeing his dead wife). It gave more weight to the overall character studies of each of the leads. However, this is a film filled with ideas in various levels of incarnations from fully fleshed out to merely a passing thought and every degree between. So, much like that awesome slow cooker dish you wanted to make so you could eat for the entire week was basically ruined when your roommate started adding things that didn’t belong (sorry, Teresa, I shouldn’t have added a whole brick of Velveeta to the brisket), this movie is so eager to ask all the questions, it doesn’t get to meditate on the essential ones.
Everything up to the death of the first Creed child is a slog and a bother to get through. The performances of our leads seems like a family of crazed individuals just waiting to blow up in as horrible a way as possible. Jason Clarke’s Louis is a doctor with no time for stories about Heaven and Hell. Nope, you’re going in the ground and that’s where you stay. Amy Seimetz’s Rachel, while better conceived than her counterparts in the book or previous film, seems like she is barely there. And the kids…Jeté Laurence as Ellie Creed and Hugo & Lucas Lavoie as Gage…I mean, they’re kids and I don’t want to rip them a new one but it’s not until the second half that a good child actor appears. And John Lithgow…why did you have to go and make Jud creepy? Like, this is not a good guy, not because he’s a bad person, but because he is lonely, hurt, and afraid to open his heart…so he starts showing off his one magic trick: bringing the dead back to life. Mostly he’s a not at all charming weird old guy lacking a New England accent. Now, that’s the first half and it’s bad until the performances in the second half of the film start clicking.
How did this happen? How is the second half of this movie miles away better than the first half? Answer: the filmmakers start asking some of those very unique questions I mentioned earlier. The sequence where Louis is getting ready for the return of Ellie, bathing her, and putting her to bed is one of the creepiest things I’ve seen in a while. In terms of tone, the movie starts feeling like a really good episode of the excellent French series Les Revenants aka the Returned. Basically, you can’t lie to the dead and the dead will always want answers. The thing that puts this sequence over the top are the questions Ellie asks her father. Where did I come back from? Where’s Mommy and Gage? I’m dead, aren’t I? What are you going to tell her? It is for a bright shining moment that Pet Sematary 2019 becomes something special. It becomes a conversation with the dead about death. Philosophy becomes a real thing. Not to mention that Jason Clarke’s need to walk around the truth, to embrace the lie, quickly becomes the center of his character. He is a corruption of a doctor at this point…trying to cure everything but causing the cancer to spread.
I can’t reiterate how the performances from the entire cast jumps up a notch in the second half. Jeté Laurence’s Ellie is a tale of two acts. I couldn’t stand her as a living girl. Then she dies and became interesting…then started quipping (and with a dry cool wit like that, she should have become an action star). The filmmakers mostly stick the landing in the new ending in a thematic sense, if not in execution. Actually, the ending is a little silly up until the last shot. Then you don’t know to be scared, to laugh, or be confused.
Then it cuts to black and you have Starcrawler singing their cover of Pet Sematary.
This is a film in desperate need of fun. Before you get up in arms I would like to point out that another Stephen King remake/adaptation, IT, was fun…that film was so, so, so much fun and it was about a child murdering clown retconned into a weird multi-dimensional space demon thing. Not to mention, it had Six Different Ways by the Cure…who are right up there with the Ramones as far as awesome bands go.
I wish you only could see the second half of this movie. Or maybe get a prorated movie ticket. The first half of this film is as pointless as trying to close a door when there is no door. The second half of this film…I wish it could have been there in the first act, but it wasn’t.
The ground this remake was built on isn’t sour but, just as sometimes dead is better, sometimes remakes are better left in the producer’s desk. This one had a lot of possibilities but we will have to wait to see if there is a sequel…to the remake….of the original… which was adapted from the book…to see if the lessons were learned.
Images via YouTube
Writer. Wrestling mark. Dog parent. Halloween enthusiast. Always wondering about the me on Earth 616 and what he/she/it’s up to. Currently residing in Los Angeles.