Better Off Dead: “Pet Sematary” (2019)

Better Off Dead: “Pet Sematary” (2019) April 9, 2019

I have been looking forward for a very long time to this adaptation of the scariest (and saddest) Stephen King novel I’ve ever read. The moment I saw the trailer, with the creepy procession of kids in animal masks and the huge smash cut to the truck roaring by, I thought, This might be good. And the new movie is good, in the exact way the old one (1989) was not good. Is that good enough?

This adaptation, and especially Jason Clarke’s performance as Dr. Louis Creed, made me realize for the first time something which maybe should’ve been obvious: Pet Sematary has essentially the same plotline as The Shining. A family with subterranean troubles arrives in an isolated location where, under pressure both emotional and supernatural, the father is taken over by–and gives himself willingly to–something which will destroy everyone he loves. (This movie plays up the haunted-house element, the way the house itself seems to evoke visions and nightmares, making the Shining parallel clearer.) The moment when Louis drugs the drink, and you can see in his eyes that something inside him has tipped over–that’s chilling. That’s the good stuff. And because in this story the role of alcohol is played by grief, it’s that much more harrowing and heartbreaking to watch Louis succumb to addiction.

(This might be as good a place as any to say that there’s a ton of violence against and threats to children in this movie, so don’t see it if you don’t want that.)

The novel’s major flaw from my pov is that it relied on the Wendigo to get characters to do things they otherwise would know too much or love too well to do. Here, supernatural forces do play a role, but the Wendigo is more like Grady in the Overlook, a tempter who calls forth something desperate within. Whatever lives in the burial ground–behind the pet cemetery, over the deadfall, through the mist and the creek full of bones, and up the narrow stone steps–relies on purely human hungers to entice its victims. The script gets a tad bit heavyhanded about the way all the adults in this film hunger for dishonest happiness over hard truths; they’d rather have the facsimile of love and family than the reality of loss.

Pet Sematary is relentlessly grim; it’s unrelieved until the surpassingly creepy, vicious little final sound effect. (Such a nice twist on the 1989 version, and on the novel. Lots of the deviations from those versions are really smart here; and the final moment is also a good example of how well the film integrates 2019 technology into a story penned in the Reagan era.) When the credits roll you’ll get a fun cover of the Ramones’ “Pet Sematary.” That’s basically the only note of humor so I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

The movie looks nice and spooky–I could’ve used even more of the creepy kids’ procession, but the trip from the pet cemetery to the stony burial ground is great. Church the cat is all he should be, in both his incarnations. Church hiding in the cabinet is a lot scarier than I would’ve thought it could be. The racial implications of the “ancient Indian burial ground” trope come even more to the fore, though without lecturing, by making Pascow a young black student while Judd is still a grizzled white man. (We get a glimpse of a news clipping about unresolved Indian land claims, and the idea that the Creed family owns the burial ground is important I think, but the film trusts its audience enough to let us reach the Ravenous “who should you have listened to?” point on its own.) There might be some way to present the Zelda backstory visually in a way that doesn’t dehumanize people with disabilities but this film once again failed to find it. Horror flicks that try to evoke disgust at normal human weaknesses will never be all right with me. But with that built-in exception, so much of this movie is what I wanted it to be. I gasped. I cringed. I cried!

And yet… something felt lacking here, something that could take the movie from solid adaptation to minor classic: Kathy Bates in Misery, or the asylum setting in Session 9. This isn’t about the movie’s actual flaws (the pointless villain monologue about Zelda and Hell during the climactic mayhem, for example). I don’t know, maybe I am demanding too much because I loved the book so much. Maybe I should be grateful that this isn’t risible like the earlier attempt (“The growwwnd… is sow-wah!”). If you see it, let me know what you thought.

Unrelated spooky cat picture via Wikimedia Commons.


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