Stephen King has seen a bit of a cinematic renaissance of late that has no signs of slowing down. After the mega success that the second adaptation of It (2017) received, it seemed logical that another past adaptation of his work would get the update treatment. With 2019 being the 30th anniversary of director Mary Lambert’s take on his iconic novel Pet Sematary, the stars had aligned to bring the story to a new generation of audiences with relative unknowns, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, sharing directing duties.
Unlike the 2019 version, the 1989 film was written by King himself which produced a script that was incredibly faithful to his novel. Despite closely following the beats of the story, the 1989 film failed in delivering the complex emotions and horror found in the novel. The 2019 film takes a similar approach but goes down a different road to get there. It plays more with its source material which may lead many cinema goers to question, “What’s the point?”, which brings up a hard truth to film adaptations that is a hard pill to swallow for some. It is not written in stone that an adaptation must adhere to the minute-to-minute details of its source material. They are allowed to be more than the sum of their individual parts. Diverting from the original story is not only allowed, but often encouraged and essential to properly bring the source material to the big screen. This is often done because a direct 100% adaptation of a lengthy novel can lead to pacing and structural issues within the story itself.
This is how a film such as Watchmen (2009), which sometimes stuck so close to the comic that the images and text from the actual comic panels were famously used instead of the produced screenplay, can meet a polarizing reception while another adaptation, such as Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (2009), can be praised while removing various subplots and story lines . It can be easy to forget just how different cinema and literature are as mediums. They each have their own advantages when telling a story, and as such things that work in one may not work in the other. What’s important, however, when adapting a story across different mediums is capturing the essence of it. For Pet Sematary that essence is grief. This is the ultimate form of horror, the kind of grief that is so intense that it will bring a person to the point of madness where they perform actions so desperate that there is no ceiling to the level of compromising themselves. What would they do to bring back the ones they loved and have lost forever?
Like the 1989 film, the 2019 version of Pet Sematary is a film that also wants to explore this theme, but it ends up not being much more than a collection of macabre moments haphazardly thrown on screen with no real sense of purpose. It moves at a breakneck pace, which in itself is not a bad thing, but its priorities are in the wrong place. The concern is placed more fattening up the plot by injecting too many subplots or attempting to stir up tension, but there is no time for the characters to grow in an organic way. The friendly neighbor, Judd, loves little Ellie Creed like a granddaughter. The audience has to be told this though dialogue instead of being demonstrated within the film properly. Without this essential connection, the grief is not felt.
Even though the film fails as an adaptation of its source material, it is not completely fair to judge it on that basis alone. Instead of judging it on what it could be, it is important to let it stand of its own volition. Unfortunately, on that front, it falters as well and it’s only those moments of the macabre that manage to hold it together on any level. Along the course of its runtime it struggles to find itself. Without being able to connect emotionally it has to rely on its scares to entice the audience. This plays like a haunted house ride, stringing the participant along until the next big jump, which are loud and sometimes effective. Much of it feels for naught, as the movie injects so much forced creepiness into itself that it undercuts the intensity of the scene. It all moves way too fast, as if there are specific timestamps in which certain beats of the script need to appear. There is no sense of dread or foreboding because of this frantic pacing and the lack of an emotional connection between the characters. The horror delivered is the “horror of the moment” instead of the “horror that stays in the mind of the viewer”. When the big scares happen the viewer will most probably jump, but will soon have that feeling of unease disappear as they become desensitized to the film’s method of producing these scares.
A recent trend within cinema, especially with legacy franchise sequels/reboots, has been to subvert the expectations of the viewer. Two films that have been successful at using this technique are Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) and the recent Halloween (2018) reboot. In these cases, the filmmakers have assumed that audiences will be knowledgeable of previous films in the franchise, enough to where they will recognize certain lines of dialogue/instances of framing/scenarios from those previous films. These diversion contained served more of a purpose than to just throw the viewer off, as they were crucial to the development of the themes, plot, and characters. Pet Sematary seems to have been made, outside of financial reasons, for this exact purpose. It assumes the viewer has either read/seen the novel and/or 1989 film. In an attempt to not seem redundant, many moments from those iterations are flipped on their head. Although these attempts at diverting are admirable, they end up being nothing more than a means to an end. The journey takes a slightly different route but ends at the same exact place. In contrast to the previous films mentioned on this subject, most of the attempts at subverting expectations here do not serve any purpose other than to shock the viewer. A character might not die in the same exact spot they did in previous versions of Pet Sematary, but they will die ten seconds later in the same manner. The diversions mainly feel empty and not very well thought out as a result.
The 1989 film had the cinematic prowess of a made-for-television Lifetime movie, and thankfully, the new film fares a bit better in that regard. Although the directing is generally flat, there are some memorable shots and the cinematography is much more adventurous than Lambert’s take thirty years prior. Some set pieces go over the top and would fit more in a Final Destination film, which is unnecessary for the tone that is trying to be conveyed and where restraint would be more welcome. This doesn’t exactly translate well to atmosphere which was already being hamstrung by the pacing. The score comes out bearing most modern horror trends, but the main theme resounds with a wave of nostalgia and melancholy. It sounds as if it comes from a classic era of horror with the emphasis on minimalist piano and melody. It’s too bad that this approach was mostly limited to the opening of the picture, as the piece instills a glimpse of what could be, and unfortunately wasn’t followed through. The acting is competent from the leads, with standouts belonging to Jete Laurence as little Ellie Creed and a slew of cats in the memorable role of Church. John Lithgow, despite his credibility as an actor, was most likely not going to live up to Fred Gwynne as Judd in the minds of many, but his performance does add a hint of credibility that was needed for the role.
Pet Sematary has always been an interest in the minds of movie goers, regardless of which iteration is the subject of discussion. Despite the failings of King’s notorious novel’s adaptations, the potential for a great movie has always been there. It’s a shame that fans may have to wait decades more until the next attempt comes along and does right to fulfill that potential. 2019’s interpretation should be commended for attempting to keep things fresh, but it doesn’t present itself for any single cohesive purpose. Instead, it’s a bunch of moments stitched together. Sometimes these moments deliver, but often they are meager. Leading to a conclusion that elicits a shrug instead of the shock it desires. There are some fun horror bits to be found within, and while that may be satisfying enough for some, the soil of this film buff’s heart is stonier.