Pet Sematary (2019)

pet-semataryStephen King’s Pet Sematary has now had two whacks at film adaptation — one in 1989 and one this year (well, three if you count the sequel to the ’89 film). It may be that, through no fault of the respective filmmaking teams or the medium itself, King’s book is just one of those novels that resist translation. For me, it remains perhaps the closest thing in King’s catalog to a “serious work”; he approaches his greatest fear, that one of his children will die, in a sidewise manner that recalls the way Kurt Vonnegut took the traumatic material of his own World War II experience and made it easier to engage with as an author by way of genre tropes (in Vonnegut’s case, the nonlinear story and space-alien digressions of Slaughterhouse-Five).

King’s story is animated by dread and grief — the kind of powerful, deranging grief that will drive a mourning parent to do anything, anything, to make the agony stop. That sort of impact is nearly impossible to replicate in a film that also has to make room for plot and character detail and Saturday-night seat-jump scares for teenagers. Pet Sematary exists most effectively on the page, where it can enter the mind, the bloodstream, the soul with minimal interference. There are just too many factors, mostly having to do with maintaining an extremely demanding tonal balance, that make any attempt to realize it in another medium little more than a riff, a brief visit to a house of horrors instead of moving in and living with them.

I can say that Pet Sematary ’19 is better-acted than its predecessor thirty years ago. Fred Gwynne was fine and avuncular as old Jud Crandall, the son of Maine who introduces our protagonists to the Monkey’s Paw terror of the true “pet sematary,” but most of the other cast members were instantly forgettable. Here we have Jason Clarke as Dr. Louis Creed, Amy Seimetz as his death-haunted wife Rachel, and a terrific young actress named Jeté Laurence as their nine-year-old daughter Ellie. These three do as well as they can in the somewhat degraded context of a mass-market horror movie, and then there’s John Lithgow, sometimes seeming off in his own film, as the new Jud, sickened and aged by decades of guilt and grief.

The new directors (Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer) and screenwriter (Jeff Buhler) don’t hesitate to alter King’s original story to make it work as a movie. I applaud this: Many of the best films based on King (including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) take large liberties with the source. So I won’t get into a book-movie comparison of events, except to note that the new film avoids the ’89 film’s biggest tonal blooper, the visual of a toddler happily walking around waving a scalpel. The workaround here is far more plausible and facilitates some chilling “came back wrong” acting. The problem is that the newly imagined climax goes back to the well, so to speak, once too often. (The original scripted ending is much subtler and sadder; it can be seen on DVD and streaming.)

I’ll also say that the new film gives a bit more time to King’s conception of the pet sematary beyond the deadfall as a sour-soiled, godforsaken place ruled by the Wendigo, which feeds on people’s grief and compels them to feed it their dead. But at one hour and forty-one minutes it can only do so much. As in 1989, Rachel’s fearful memories of her stricken sister Zelda amount only to red meat thrown (in the worst bad taste, too) at the grumbling, impatient carnivores the film studio assumes the horror audience is. Pet Sematary ’19 has left me with a strong urge to revisit the novel, with all its hints of ghastly afterlife and irrational fear: “He realized he was afraid, simply, stupidly afraid, the way you are afraid when a cloud suddenly sails across the sun and somewhere you hear a ticking sound you can’t account for.” What’s missing from any film version is that ticking sound, the dread and terror of strangeness invading a bright afternoon for a moment, and then disappearing but taking something near and dear along with it. What’s missing is the poetry of nightmare.

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