Pet Sematary 2019: What went wrong?

By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues

True Evil is when parents can no longer sing their children to sleep in the comforting cradle of a lullaby leaving cold fearful silence in its place.

Remakes are ten to a penny. Some you roll your eyes at while others intrigue us. When I heard that they were planning a remake of Stephen King’s Pet Semetary it was one where I wondered how could they do something different with such a simple story. The whole point of a remake is to improve on the original story and bring something new without losing any of the core essence of the story that people loved the first time round. So what they could possibly do with Pet Semetary? Once I saw the movie I knew exactly what they brought to it to expand the original.

Nothing.

What a screw up of a story if ever I saw one. John Carpenter brilliantly improved on the Thing From Another World while Gus Van Sant did nothing for Norman Bates in Psycho. Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and written by Jeff Buhler his movie adaption of the horror story left a lot to be desired. One critic said the movie felt like it had been exhumed rather than a revival which I have to agree with. When you exhume something parts of it are no longer there which made the original complete and this applies perfectly to the Pet Semetary remake.

The original movie was not perfect but at least it grabbed the essence of the book and ran with it.

The Creed family consisting of Louis, Rachel, Ellie and two year old Gage are shattered when Gage is killed by a lorry on the road near to their new house. Grief rips them apart. Young Ellie has visions which terrify her and it is all linked to the mysterious Pet Semetary, an ancient burial site that has a habit of bringing the dead back to life. Their elderly neighbour Jud Crandall tells Louis about it when Ellie’s pet cat, Church, is killed on the same road that would later claim Gage’s life. To spare his daughter any more grief Jud brings Louis to bury the cat. It isn’t long before Church returns but it is clear he’s not the loving cat he once was. Once Gage is killed then Louis decides that the Pet Semetary can bring him back too. Despite Jud’s warning of what happened the last time someone tried to bring a human back, Louis does it anyway.

What made it so horrific for me was the revived toddler Gage is truly terrifying. The very notion of one of our kids being possessed and twisted from the perfect picture of innocence scares every parent under the sun. All we want is a happy childhood but most parents spend their time trying to do that. Those shots of Gage running in the shadows wielding a scalpel are horrific. This was long before Chucky did the same thing and the impact remains. His deft slicing the back of Jud Crandall’s heels from the dark make us wince even to this day. Add to that his demonic expression as the killing spree begins are a credit to director Mary Lambert for capturing it on film. When Gage switches from monster to innocent little toddler calling for his mummy it triggers something in us as parents making the horror more tangible and sickening to us. Even when dad Louis Creed (played by Dale Midkiff) is forced to inject Gage with drugs to kill him walk the line between horror and parental concern. Gage’s cries when Louis injects him as good memories of his short life flash before his dad’s eyes. The toddler’s look of absolute shocked hurt thrown at his father before walking off muttering ‘No fair’ is beautiful. Gage walking down the corridor stumbling, slumping against the wall before slipping away in that little toddler voice are gut wrenching. We as an audience see Gage is once again a little kid who doesn’t understand why his dad has hurt him as he slumps against the wall to die. It rips us up as parents who are torn between the horror of knowing this is not a little toddler but a demon and the urge to grab him in our arms and love him just as we would if it were our own child. Those scenes are the essence of the book and the true horror of it all. Tied with the real grief tearing a family apart which we have all experienced, this is what Pet Semetary is all about. True horror is when evil takes normality and all we love and turns it into everything that turns normality into something sick and twisted. Evil is when parents can no longer sing their children to sleep in the comforting cradle of a lullaby leaving cold fearful silence in its place.

But what we get in the 2019 version is the opposite. This time they kill Ellie rather than Gage which fundamentally changes the tone of the story and horror dynamic. While the actors give it their all, the pacing and hook is not there anymore. So much of the horror is diluted because the writer wants to retain the homage to the original but put his own stamp on it. Sadly it doesn’t work like the dancing children in animal masks. Well, that’s not exactly true; the death and return of Church still works.

Copyright Paramount Pictures

In the original movie Jud’s tale of the death and resurrection of Timmy Baterman is a beautifully shot and atmospheric scene between Jud and Louis. It foreshadows what is to come. The Munsters Fred Gwynne who played Jud in the original is hypnotic. You can see his story through his words but this is largely ignored in the remake. This tale is central to Louis’ decision to bring his baby boy back from the dead. Jud’s description of how Timmy was brought back by his father and how his son was nothing more than vessel for a demon is chilling. Interestingly Timmy was more of a tell your dark secrets demon rather than a killer but given the Pet Semetary is some sort of focal point for a Wendigo, could it be the Wendigo is a conglomerate of different demons?

While this dilution was bad enough, the portrayal of back from the dead Ellie is nothing more than clichéd and pedestrian. Plus the fact Ellie is older and more articulate does not intensify the horror but weakens it. There is a special relationship between most fathers and their daughters which may be what the writer was thinking could be a god angle but it falls flat on its face.

When Ellie comes back from the dead it is clear she is not herself at all. There is no surprise or tension in that. What would have been better would have been when Ellie came back she acted completely normal. For me she would have embraced her dad just as she did when she was alive with no seeming obvious difference in her personality at all. This would have lured us as an audience just as it would Louis and Rachel into a false sense of security where the Timmy Baterman story was probably a one off. It would only be when Rachel had her doubts about her daughter that the demon that now inhabited Ellie would be revealed. What we get instead is a freaky deadpanning Ellie so cliched it’s no surprise when she kills.

In the bath scene where Louis cleans her once she has been resurrected should have been the moment the difference became clear. The staples in her head are a harsh reminder of the accident that took her life but Louis chooses to ignore them. If Ellie had been acting normally before this point the staple scene would have had more of an impact on the audience’s hearts as parents. Instead there’s nothing; just a countdown to see how they are going to finish this movie. Even when she has gotten dressed the image reminds me of the girls from The Shining or the Ring. She is clearly just a little girl inhabited by something dead. There’s no attempt to trick the audience or keep them guessing. Given the audience already knows the story the assumption seems to be exactly that; the audience already know what Ellie now is so why make an effort to inject some tension.

The destruction of the entire family as they are absorbed into Pet Semetary is new but seems flat. Some of Stephen King’s endings are less than stellar to say the least (Cell, Thinner, The Stand and It come to mind) but credit has to be given for at least attempting something new. Ultimately the execution doesn’t work which is a pity because this could have been something quite stellar.

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