Published on April 5th, 2019 | by Craig Silliphant2
It’s inevitable that we would compare the new Pet Sematary movie to the 1989 version. Does it manage to top the original Mary Lambert film?
I don’t know if I realized it before this week, but from what I can see, Pet Sematary gets a lot of derision. I’ve seen a lot of bashing of the original Mary Lambert version. And while the book was successful, author Stephen King didn’t exactly love the novel, nor did his family and friends, because it was too dark. It was only published because he needed to submit a book to Doubleday due to contractual obligations. Heck, even the new film seems to have its share of detractors.
I don’t get any of this. The book is one of my favourite King novels, precisely because of how dark it is; the “Big Mac of writers,” as he has called himself, gets as close to a human truth as he ever did with Pet Sematary. And it’s surely one of his most frightening works (which even King has acknowledged). Sure, the 1989 film version has its problems, like wooden acting, a somewhat deliberate pace, and sinking into unintentional camp at some points. But it’s a fun ride, and a genuinely scary horror film.
Do I just love the book and the ’89 film because nostalgia? I was probably in grade five or six when I first read the book; I got into King early because my Dad had the books around the house. I would have been in grade nine when I saw the movie — the perfect age to soak up something visceral like that while glossing over some of the film’s issues.
But I think it’s more that. I love Pet Sematary’s grief porn and darkness, that it goes to places that some would fear to tread. I love that it’s a horror movie that really looks at death, instead of just racking up a body count. I love the idea of a genre of ‘sad horror.’ And you know what? I do love the campiness of the movie, because it makes it that much weirder of a film, especially when it blends with the absolute horror of the Zelda scenes or the death of a toddler (which hits harder now that I have small children of my own).
The new version, directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, has also been seeing its fair share of disrespect, though some people are defending it. I would say that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. You know, because the soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis.
The setup is pretty much the same; Dr. Louis Creed and his wife Rachel move to a country house in Maine with their two children, Ellie and Gage, to escape the grind. They discover a pet cemetery (misspelled by children as sematary) in their backyard. When Ellie’s cat, Church, is hit by one of those damn Orinco trucks, their neighbour Jud shows Louis the true power of the Pet Sematary — bringing back the dead.
2K19 Pet Sematary moves a lot faster than the book or the ’89 version, which sometimes works to its benefit and sometimes not. The movie is a tight hour and 41 minutes, which I love, but (and you almost never hear me say this these days) they could have taken their time with a few things. It moves so fast that there’s not a lot of time for certain plot points to sink in. A character like the unfortunate Massive Head Wound Harry student, Pascow, ends up feeling a bit tacked on and useless, which affects the strength of Rachel’s motivation later in the movie. We also mostly lose the story of Timmy Baterman, which is not only a chance for a good scare, but it also adds to the stakes of what happens when you bury a human.
The movie doesn’t sit with the Creed’s grief for long; there’s no fistfight at the funeral scene, nor even much mention of Rachel’s parents. I can see why they’d eject this for time, but it was an important piece of the puzzle; it deepens the grief, stress, and anxiety of Gage’s death.
They also muck about with some sort of Windigo lore, but it’s not really clear how important that is to what’s happening. And if I missed something, that just makes my point for me — it was flying by so fast that it was hard for anything to stick.
That said, they do go out of their way to make a few things make more sense than they did in the original. We definitely get a better sense of why Jud helps Louis bring back Church, which was a bit of spotty logic originally (it’s been a while since I read the book, so I can’t remember how well this worked there). I appreciated the smoothing over of those things.
In terms of scares, I think it does a decent job. It’s not something that’s going to sit with me for any length of time, but they tried to make it atmospheric. There were a couple of good cringe moments, like a gory update on Pascow’s head wound. And there was the right amount of jump scares (too many and you’re just being cheap and manipulative). Heck, I’ll even give them the ole’ cat jumping out cliché, because Church is a major part of the story. I will also say that while the stiff cadaver thespians of the original have a certain charm, especially Fred Gwynne playing against type and rocking that New England accent, the new version gets an upgrade in the acting department.
Now, I have to wander beyond the barrier that was not meant to be broken, into spoiler territory. So, you’ve been warned.
Speaking of spoilers, I call shenanigans on the trailers for this movie. I’ve even seen the filmmakers try to defend the marketing choice, which they’re probably forced to do, because anyone with a brain would think this is a travesty. And it ruins the greatest chance the movie has to surprise you.
I’m referring, of course, to the fact that in this version, it’s Ellie that gets hit by the Orinco truck, not little Gage. The movie is even constructed to play off your knowledge of the material. It looks like Gage is about to get hit and Louis grabs him at the last second, sealing Ellie’s fate.
Idiotic trailer aside, I have mixed feelings about this change. On one hand, I love that they take a chance and do something different. Parts of this change work and parts don’t. It oscillates between being clever and stupid. Some of Ellie’s fights are almost as goofy as Gage’s bits in ’89, but it’s very cool that she knows she died and there’s some interplay with Rachel once Rachel is disgusted by the abomination. And I would say that the last shot makes up for anything that doesn’t work. As a side note, the scene where Jud kicks the bed over instead of getting his Achilles tendon cut was brilliant subversion of expectations.
Through both the rocket pacing and the changes in the story, I believe you lose some of the grief of the material. Sure, it’s still about that, though sometimes it’s dialogue inserted, telling instead of showing (the dialogue is handled well). But the older versions have Louis in a hell of his own making, and the faster he digs to get out, the more graves he ends up digging. The new version loses the depths of Louis’ utter despondency and how low he ultimately sinks, in such a loop that he buries Rachel even knowing what the result will be but hoping against all hope that she might work out because she was a fresher kill. This Louis doesn’t descend into that madness, though to be fair, they do explore a different, interesting side to him when Ellie returns.
By dropping the story with Rachel’s parents, you also lose some of the drama of Zelda (and I suppose they did a good job with Zelda here — it would be hard to beat the original). I even think that it’s sadder that Gage dies instead of Ellie, because he’s so little. An 8-year-old dying is horrifying, but a toddler is even worse. And even Ellie is in pain when Gage dies, adding to the mountain of loss the Creed family experiences. Though, Ellie’s bath, when her face sags from reconstruction make up and Louis finds the place where her head was sewn back together, was unsettling in the best ways.
In the end, it may not be fair to compare new Pet Sematary to both the book and especially the last version, but it’s inevitable, for me anyway. If there had been no previous versions, I would have probably thought it was a better movie, so take that for what you will. I do think there is something here for moviegoers and horror fans alike, so I am definitely not dismissing the film. But to me, it doesn’t top the 1989 version. Like I said, maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I do think that the mix of camp and effective horror in the original, matched with such a deep look at death and grief, makes it a unique experience.
2K19 PS might be a tighter movie, and I can appreciate that as well, but it’s not necessarily better for it. Some of the drama that’s been combed away is important to the story. This is more than a horror story about the dead coming back to life. It’s about the Creed family and their horrible downfall; regular people experiencing death. The new Pet Sematary has those themes of grief, but it doesn’t sit and wallow with that pain and loss, which is what grief is; a weight on your chest that you can’t shake, driving you to untold madness.