If I were to pick a Stephen King film that needed to be remade, it would not be ‘Pet Sematary’; after all, the 1989 film is still effective, still scary, still sad, it still works. The films that I would pick would likely be the ones that were failed miniseries such as ‘The Langoliers’, ‘The Tommyknockers’ or ‘The Stand’. However the powers that be determined that ‘Pet Sematery’ was due for a remake and so a remake was made.
First the basic plot – Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) wife Rachael (Amy Seimetz) and their two children Ellie (Jeté Laurence – good) and Gage (Hugo/Lucas Lavoie) move to a small country town away from the hustle and bustle of the big city; the plan being that Louis could spend more time with his family as a university based doctor. Their cat Church is along for the ride and is Ellie’s pride and joy when tragedy befalls the much-loved feline. The friendly next door neighbour Jud Crandall (John Lithgow in this iteration) decides to show Louis the ancient Mic-Mac burial-ground that’s situated just beyond the child-named Pet Sematery. Of course Church comes back from his burial there as that is the basis of this tale, but Church does not come back as the lovable cat Louis remembers and Ellie now no longer wants to spend time with him. When tragedy again befalls the Creed family Louis makes a decision that has terrible and far-reaching consequences for all of them.
Obviously if you seen the original film or read the amazingly dark and devastating book then you know what happens and what decisions are made, however thinking back it becomes clear that filmmakers Kevin Kölch and Dennis Widmyer of Starry Eyes decided to depart from the source material basically from the moment Church wanders into the road. It’s a different film, a different story and a whole different emotional ball game. What’s missing here from the book is that deep sense of dread, the feeling that things are going wrong and things will always go wrong, decisions compounded by even more bad decisions because Louis is so lost in his grief and embracing ideas that should never have been entertained in the first place. If you’ve seen the original film expertly directed by Mary Lambert there are certain moments that have stayed with you such as Zelda, such as Timmy Baterman, such as Jud’s dog, such as the heartbreaking inexorable ending; and their absence or lack of attention here damages the films chances of being anywhere near as memorable as the original.
The changes that directors Kölsch and Widmyer make here do not benefit the story at all, they cut the darkness, shortens the characterisations and creates a forgettable film. The most regrettable loss is the changed ending.
This story and it’s underlying theme that sometimes dead is better is completely undermined by the finale of this film; I don’t understand how the filmmakers could so completely misunderstand the point of the story and clearly the things that reverberated the deepest with the people who enjoyed the original and with the people who enjoyed the book made little impact on the decisions made about this film. Equally, lines that had resonance and meaning such as “A man’s heart is stonier” and yes “Sometimes dead is better” are almost thrown away and lost. Jud’s character lacks depth (and Lithgow who is usually so powerful seems lost and meek here, he doesn’t hold a candle to 1989’s Fred Gwynne); and his connection with Louis that was so clearly felt in the first film is lacking – they seem like disparate strangers in this one. Jud’s guilt is not explored satisfactorily here either. Church is less a frightening returned animal and more just a grumpy cat – scratches and hisses? He behaves just like a regular cat, nothing scary there (though the cat is gorgeous to look at).
The idea that a soulless body can come back and be a murderous empty vessel is not expressed in any kind of meaningful way here with the friend I saw this with (a novice when it comes to Pet Sematary) believing that they had come back possessed by a demon as that is the direction that the narrative seem to point you in. The children in masks holding a funeral procession for their deceased pets was a wonderfully filmic vision, but did not make sense within the narrative of the movie.
But perhaps the worse crime this film commits is in its treatment of grief; preferring instead to go for jump scares and creepy looks, the grief is not felt as fully as it is in the original and certainly nowhere near as deeply as it is felt in the book. It’s a great shame as therein lies its centre.
There is a sense of quiet power in the book and yes even in the first film that is severely lacking in this one; perhaps if I hadn’t had the previous film and book to compare this to I would have liked it more; after all it wasn’t a bad film, it just wasn’t a good one, and the ending made me mad.
This is not the way to make a memorable film; the changes did not benefit the story and in fact cost the film its point.
What was this film missing that the original had? Characterisation, iconography, purpose, actual scares, and above all, heart.
Move along folks, there’s nothing to see here.