Pet Sematary (2019)

*. Stick around long enough and every trend comes back in fashion. Stephen King’s hey-day was in the 1980s when it seemed like every other horror movie coming out was based on one of his novels or stories. It was also the period when he was doing his best work. But that was thirty years ago and so Hollywood decided to put the old wine in some new bottles for a younger generation that hadn’t grown up with his stuff. Hence the two-part It, The Dark Tower, and this new version of Pet Sematary.
*. I wasn’t a huge fan of the 1989 Pet Sematary, directed by Mary Lambert and written by King himself, but watching it again a few years ago I thought it held up pretty well. Plus there was a lot of it that I still remembered, which is something I can’t say for most of the movies I saw in the ’80s.
*. I don’t think this version will last with as long. That’s not to say it’s a poor remake. In some ways it’s quite effective. But for me at least it seems like a film that sets itself up nicely to land some heavy emotional punches but then misses on most.
*. Critics were divided, I think mainly for a couple of reasons. In the first place, it’s an even more unpleasant movie than the first, which was disturbing enough. Basically they double-down here on the sister with the spinal deformity and then throw in an older daughter who is then used to introduce a queezy incest angle.
*. Second, the book is changed drastically, giving us a completely different ending that is, again, even bleaker than the original. Though it has the saving grace of also being ridiculous. They wanted Ellie to be a nine-year-old to make her physical exertions more credible, but more credible in this case still doesn’t mean credible. And what exactly are the Munsters going to do once they’ve reconstituted as a family? Start a local zombie apocalypse?
*. The other thing that bothered me about the ending was finding out that it was picked by test audiences. Apparently they shot several endings, including one that followed the book, and they went with the one that tested the best. According to producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura. “A lot of times with endings, you kind of just let the audience tell you what they’re feeling. We got to screen both of them to people and it just seemed like audiences really responded to that one.” With all due respect, this is no way to make a movie. I realize it’s how things are sometimes done, but I think a movie should have enough integrity in its story that the ending should be the natural conclusion, not just a selection picked from a drop-down menu of choices.
*. I don’t mind most of the changes they made, but as I’ve said, they don’t pay off the way they should. The scene where Ellie kills her mom is the worst example. That should have been a dramatic highlight but it plays as just depressing. Meanwhile, the way Louis ironically destroys his family by trying to save it is given a nice emphasis, but it results in that silly ending that is just too much.
*. The cast is solid, with Jason Clarke as Louis, Amy Seimetz as Rachel, and Jeté Laurence as Ellie standing out. The big let down is John Lithgow, who I thought well cast but who just suffers for being no Fred Gwynne. As with any remake there’s no avoiding comparisons to the original, and Gwynne did that part so well that Lithgow ends up seeming like a poor imitation.
*. Another thing that’s changed is that now we have CGI. This, alas, only leads to a really dumb (and not at all realistic looking) roadkill scene and a vision of the forest beyond the barrier that makes it look like Skull Island. Such is the siren song of CGI: always luring filmmakers on to go big only to trip them up so that they fall on their face.
*. There’s an attempt made to flesh out the nature of the evil forces a bit more. To no good end. I liked the original better, where the dead come back just kind of ornery in a nasty animal sort of way. Here they have some kind of demonic intelligence and there are hints of their being in hell. They also seem to have special powers to affect the minds of others and super strength. I could have lived without this.
*. Overall I’d rate it as a middling effort. Some of it works. If I had to make a comparative judgment I’d rate the original better. Despite taking some chances along the way, this movie isn’t nearly as memorable. Put another way, I’m pretty sure I’ll be watching Pet Sematary again sometime, but it won’t be this version.

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