Kevin Klsch and Dennis Widmyer's new adaptation of Stephen King's 1983 novel Pet Sematary gets it pretty much all wrong. It is a mediocre horror film-filled with visual clichs, lazy scare tactics, and hit-or-miss atmospherics-made decidedly worse by the way it completely dismisses the novel's dense emotional terrain, namely the horrific ways in which the void of abject grief can consume us to the point that we lose all rationality. King's novel is equally moving and disturbing in the way it uses the anguish of loss to structure the tragic downfall of its protagonist, something that is largely absent in the screenplay by Jeff Buhler (creator of the Syfy series Nightflyers and writer of the recent horror film The Prodigy), from a screen story by Matt Greenberg (who previously adapted King short stories into the 2007 film 1408 and the 2014 film Mercy). Much is being made about a major change from King's novel that happens about halfway through the film and radically alters everything that comes after, but that change is incidental to the film's primary flaw of not engaging the disturbing emotional undercurrent that makes the horror truly sting.
The story centers on the Creed family-father Louis (Jason Clarke), a physician; stay-at-home mom Rachel (Amy Seimetz); gregarious 9-year-old daughter Ellie (Jet Laurence); and tow-headed toddler Gage (Lucas Lavoie)-who we first meet as they are driving to their new house in the country just outside the small town of Ludlow where Louis has taken a job at a local university so he can spend more time with his family. The opening half of the film sticks fairly close to King's novel and the previous 1989 film adaptation by director Mary Lambert (which King adapted himself), with the Creeds meeting and befriending their elderly widower neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), who explains to them about the titular pet cemetery in the woods behind their house and, later, the existence of an ancient Native American burial ground where the earth has "gone sour" and brings back to life whatever is buried in it, albeit in a form that is changed for the worst. Louis learns this firsthand when Jud takes him there to bury Church, Ellie's beloved cat that is hit by one of the many 18-wheelers that come barreling down the two-lane country road in front of their new house.
The first clue to this version's cheapening of King's novel is the procession of children the Creeds witness taking a dead dog to the pet cemetery. Encased in creepy, homemade animal masks that evoke those unnerving turn-of-the-20th-century photos of Halloween costumes that make the social media rounds every fall to remind us how weird our forebears were, the children march into the woods like a somnolent cult, which provides a visually unsettling tableaux that nevertheless feels completely removed from the film's environment (and ultimately has no bearing on the plot). Had this been a flashback to something happening a century earlier it might have made sense, but here it plays as little more than a cheap excuse to introduce the archaic-looking masks and inject an early jolt of unease.
The second clue is the way Buhler's screenplay guts the relationship between Louis and Jud. The film treats Jud like little more than a convenient means of plot exposition, and Lithgow strangely plays him as more grouchy than homely, a far cry from the overalls-wearing, homily-espousing codger Fred Gwynne played so memorably in the 1989 film. In the book and in the earlier film, Jud and Louis develop a crucial surrogate father-son dynamic (the novel's opening line is "Louis Creed, who had lost his father at three and who had never known a grandfather, never expected to find a father as he entered his middle age, but that was exactly what happened ," and a few pages later it introduces Jud as "the man who should have been his father"). That relationship extends the family dynamic beyond just the Creeds and makes Jud's decision to introduce Louis to the burial grand not just a tragic mistake, but a kind of misguided fatherly betrayal. For inexplicable reasons, Louis and Jud are given virtually no relationship in this new version, which deflates the catastrophic impact of Jud's decision to bring Louis and his family into the supernatural world of resurrection.
(Warning! Major plot spoiler to follow!) Much attention has been paid to the big shift in the story, as the narrative's major pivot point is fundamentally changed by having Ellie killed by an 18-wheeler during her birthday party, rather than Gage. While many will grumble about fidelity to the source material, this change actually benefits the film, as it provides an impressive shock even to those who have read the novel and seen the previous film (anticipating Gage's horrific demise makes Ellie's all the more surprising, which aligns us with the Creeds as they witness the worst possible thing unfold right before their eyes). Unfortunately, the film then sinks into increasing banality as it follows Louis's terrible decision to bury Ellie in the ground behind the pet cemetery, hoping against all logic and reason that her return will somehow be anything less than utterly horrific. The film gets some decent mileage out of the unsettling image of a preadolescent child turned manifestly evil, but it lacks the all-important emotional dynamic of Louis's utter and complete desperation borne out of unimaginable grief. It doesn't help that the screenplay reimagines the climactic moments as a twisted version of familial reunification, with Louis and Rachel eventually joining Ellie in her twisted, resurrected state (the family that is undead together, stays together ). While certainly a horrifying idea, it eliminates what is without doubt the most powerful dramatic element of both the novel and the 1989 film, which is Louis having to kill his own child-doing in a very direct way the very thing that his earlier inaction brought to him and Rachel so much guilt and grief. For all its flaws, the 1989 film got this moment absolutely right, and here it is left out entirely.
The film's cast does the best they can with the material, although Jason Clarke (Mudbound, Chappaquiddick) is never able to get beneath Louis's skin and dig into his flawed humanity and inconsolable grief; he never feels entirely vulnerable, as he should. Mumblecore veteran Amy Seimetz (Alexander the Last, Autoerotic) is much better as Rachel, as she embodies her character's abject grief and long-buried guilt over the death of her older sister, Zelda (Alyssa Levine), who suffered from spinal meningitis. John Lithgow is given the unenviable task of playing a very different version of Jud Crandall, one that seems entirely ill-suited to the actor's fundamental approachability. He gets the signature line-"Sometimes dead is better"-but, lacking that crucial surrogate father-son relationship with Louis, it's just expositional filler, rather than genuine paternal advice that goes terribly unheeded. Directors Kevin Klsch and Dennis Widmyer, who previously collaborated on the indie films Absence (2009) and Starry Eyes (2014) and one part of the horror anthology Holidays (2016), have potential, but they're hobbled by both the screenplay's lack of emotional depth and their own over-reliance on horror clichs, rather than the kind of bone-deep dread that is the heart of a genuine horror-tragedy.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (2)
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