First of all, I sincerely hope that everyone is having a wonderful Easter weekend, regardless of the method or reasons you celebrate, or whether you celebrate at all. I just hope you had a good weekend. I certainly did–hence my extreme lack of posting the past couple days.
I’m actually pretty glad these posts got delayed because it means I get to write this review. I just went to see the film with my mom yesterday, so, obviously, I would have been unable to write this post on the day it was actually due.
Before I launch into the actual review, I feel a bit of background is necessary. I am a huge Stephen King fan. Every year I do a count, and at this point, out of King’s massive repertoire, there are only 10 or 11 of his major works (including both novels and short story collections) that I have yet to read, meaning I’ve read roughly 85% of the man’s body of work. Pet Sematary was the very first I ever picked up, so needless to say it has a very special place in my heart, and because of that I tend to be very protective of the source material. Let this serve as a disclaimer that, despite my best efforts to take the movie as its own entity rather than solely basing my opinions on how well it follows the book, this may not 100% be the case. In other words, as a constant reader, it’s significantly likely that my opinion will be biased. (Do also note, however, that is has been a significant amount of time since I read the book, so I apologize it I misremember some things)
That being said, despite being a King fan, I don’t always agree with his personal opinions, especially when ti comes to film. Anyone who has watched his solitary foray into directing, Maximum Overdrive (an adaptation of one of his own short stories), can understand why. King himself lauded the new Pet Sematary film as a modern masterpiece, but I can’t say that I agree. Overall, I found the film to be painfully mediocre, with some aspects I loved and wish had been incorporated into the original 1989 adaptation, and still more that went careening out of control as devastatingly as the driver of that fateful semi-truck.
Oh, yeah, this review contains spoilers.
My rating: 6.5
In case you happen to be unfamiliar with the basic plot line of the story, here goes: Louis Creed is a big city doctor who moves from a large city to the Maine town of Ludlow, after accepting a job offer that will allow him to spend more time with his wife and two young children. The Creeds’ new home sits near a busy road that serves as a busy thoroughfare for semis passing through. The family befriends and elderly man and lifetime Ludlow native named Jud Crandall, who shows Louis and his daughter Ellie the pet cemetery (the word misspelled as “sematary” on the handmade sign), where the local children have buried their pets for several generations.
Soon after, Louis has a traumatic experience at his work when a young man is fatally struck by a vehicle. This man, Victor Pascow, addresses Louis with his last words and later appears to Louis in a dream, leading him beyond the deadfall located behind the pet cemetery and on to the Native American burial grounds that exist beyond. He warns Louis that he must never go there, even if he feels he must. Upon waking, Louis initially brushes the occurrence off as a very lucid dream until he discovers his feet are caked with mud.
Then the family cat, Church, meets his end by the side of the road. Jud accompanies Louis to the pet cemetery, but he ends up unexpectedly leading Louis to the burial grounds where they bury Church’s body. A few days later, Church returns, but the cat is different somehow. Once friendly and playful, Church is now hateful, violent, and smells strongly of the dirt in which he was buried.
Naturally, Louis is shocked and confused by these developments, but soon thing fall more or less back into their normal routine. Some time later, one of the Creed children (2-year-old Gage in the novel and first adaptation, 8-year-old Ellie in the new film) is struck in the road by a speeding freight driver. Distraught, Louis’s wife, Rachel, seeks solace by taking her remaining child with her to her parents’ house, while Louis stays behind, claiming he has work to finish up before he joins them.
As it turns out, Louis does, indeed, have business to finish, and that business just so happens to include exhuming the remains of his deceased child and burying them beyond the pet cemetery. The plot reaches its climax when the resurrected child comes back, seemingly possessed by some force from beyond the grave, and kills both Jud and Rachel, who, driven by a deep instinct to return home. The dramatic ending…differs pretty largely from version to version and will be discussed later in this review.
Now for the actual review. I’m generally a pretty obsessive person, and though I do enjoy analyzing things from several different angles, I tend to focus on the positive. In most cases, I can find something to enjoy in even the biggest garbage fires of films. I would argue that this film, despite its flaws, is nowhere near being that terrible, and there’s, honestly, a lot to like, so that’s where I’ll start. First off, the sound engineering in this film is incredible. . The thumps and thuds pertaining to Rachel’s flashbacks about her sister are on point, and I actually liked how much the lined up with the sounds Jud hears shortly before meeting his demise. All of the forest sounds, especially the implied wendigo sounds are phenomenally eerie.
And since we’re now on the topic of the wendigo, I’m so glad we actually got a nod to that in this film, as well as a small nod to Timmy Baterman in the from of a newspaper article Louis comes across while researching the burial grounds. These are things that were largely absent in the original adaptation. Honestly, I can understand why. Horror movies tend to be rather short and these inclusions would have driven the film more toward a slow burn than a constant tension ride. Also, I understand the intended effect of leaving why the resurrected individuals come back so twisted and evil, especially when you consider Louis’ earlier quote about the possibility that everyone gets the afterlife that they expect. In terms of the souls of those resurrected, everyone viewing the film is open to believe as they wish. Being a fan of the novel, I enjoyed the nods. For one thing, wendigos are just one of those folklore beasties that absolutely terrify me to my core. Honestly, I have difficulty sleeping anywhere that’s even close to a significant spate of woods, I will hear a damn coyote howl and be up all night. I am honestly unsure if it’s the cannibalism or the distorted form that creeps me out the most. It may be a combination of the two. Wendigos are often depicted with deer skulls for heads, and there is something about herbivorous animals committing carnivorous acts that triggers some deep, ancestral fear in the pit of my gut. More on that later (I’m reviewing The Ritual for my “R” entry). I’m honestly getting freaked out just writing about it, so I would very much like to move on. I really enjoy the nod to Timmy Baterman, not only because it feels special to those who read the book. Timmy Baterman’s story closely mirrors the story of the Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, of which King initially intended Pet Sematary to be a retelling. It also closely mirrors the closing events of the novel. Timmy Baterman was brought back by his father after dying in World War II. Of course, he came back changed and was eventually killed by his father, who then set the family farm on fire. After Jud is killed, Louis sets the Crandall farm on fire before carrying Rachel’s body to the burial ground.
As a fan of the novel, one may think that the new film’s farthest divergence from the source material would be something I found rather irksome. In this case you would be wrong. I actually thought it was a smart decision to change the child who got killed from Gage to Ellie. Not only did add something new for those who already knew the story, thus eliciting a stronger reaction and probably answer a long held “what if?” for fans of the book and original film, I also think is added some depth to later events of the story. Though it may have seemed counter-intuitive at first, as Gage is the younger child and by default the more likely death to earn the most sympathy, Ellie is much more deeply woven into the plot. Church is her cat; she has a stronger connection to the pet cemetery; she seems to have a stronger relationship with Jud (at the very least, they both share the fact that their pets were brought back to life through whatever entity is said to dwell near the burial grounds). Honestly, it just makes sense to explore where the path leads if Ellie is the child who perishes, despite the fact that Louis is implied to favor Gage in the novel. I also believe the film did a pretty good job displaying this as well, with the two glaring (to me, anyway) exceptions of the highly unnecessary creepy bunny mask and the film’s conclusion (more on both of those later).
While the film has many merits, its flaws are also numerous, and where it fails, it fails hard. Probably the most consistent issue is the woodenness of the actors (even John Lithgow, which was pretty disappointing). It makes it rather difficult to enjoy the film when the characters are not portrayed in a believable manner. Jason Clarke plays Louis as this kind of detached asshole, which to be fair, is pretty accurate to how he’s portrayed in the book. You know, the whole “soil of a man’s heart is stonier” thing, but Clarke takes to the point that I can no longer believe Louis’s mannerisms are those of an actual human being. Rachel is just plain whiny and needy. Yes, in the original film she was worrisome and haunted by her sister’s illness and death, but it just felt to me more like original Rachel was headed back home because she sensed (or was supernaturally warned, whatevs) something was wrong and intended to do something about it, while 2019 Rachel basically just felt she needed Louis’s presence to assuage her own hysteria. Typically, the child actors in films are the ones who break my suspension of disbelief (which I cut them major slack for, as they’re obviously very young), but in this case I would say they do a better job than the adults.
My second complaint is that the film fell into some very obvious horror movie tropes. The whole procession thing with the kids in the creepy masks and the later use of the mask upon Ellie’s return from the grave were simply unnecessary and appealed more toward cliche than having any actual effect on the film. I also found the film too dependent on jump scares. The novel and the first film seemed to possess a somewhat more subtle sort of creeping dread. With the 2019 film it felt like there was a jump scare every few minutes. Some of them were well-timed and some of them weren’t, but, of course, after so many cheap scares, timing loses it’s importance and you end up just sitting there, constantly waiting for the shoe to drop. Though the film wasn’t too gory in comparison to various other films in the genre, I also believe it relied much more heavily on strong images and shock value than on actual character development and storytelling. Also, someone clearly got a little too excited with the smoke machine.
Finally, we arrive at my biggest complaint: the ending. This is what I had in mind at the beginning of this review when I said some responses I had would probably be biased. I should probably begin by detailing the concluding events of the novel and the first film, which are pretty similar, and this new 2019 version, which differs wildly from the source material. The original ending sees Louis sitting in the shambles of his family home playing solitaire and waiting for the return of his wife. Church and Gage have both been dispatched a second time and buried somewhere where they won’t return and Ellie is still away at Rachel’s parents’ house. Louis, mad with grief, is convinced that things will be different this time, that he waited too long to bury Gage and that’s why he came back mad. Eventually, the door to the Creed home creeks open and a cold hand reaches out to touch Louis’s should before a raspy “Darling” escapes from her lips. Cut to black. The end. It’s the kind of open ending that King seems to love writing, and many of his reader, myself included, enjoy reading. It leaves an uneasy feeling in your gut, but it also leaves you free to draw your own conclusions, to spends countless nights lying awake, ruminating over the fates of beloved characters. The ending to the new film…not as much.
This version ends with Louis attempting and failing to kill Ellie for good. He fails and is knocked unconscious as Ellie drags Rachel’s body toward the pet cemetery and what lies beyond. He awakes to see Rachel resurrected. Ellie and her mother approach Louis, presumably with the same intentions for him and we cut to an overhead scene of the Creed home ablaze (the same as the opening scene of the film, which served as an unnecessary and ineffective in medias re introduction), and young Gage waking up in the front seat of the family car, where his father had left him earlier in order to keep him safe). We see the resurrected Creeds approaching, Louis carrying a gas can. Gage, at first, looks excited to see his family, but his expression quickly changes as he notices that something is wrong. Churches jumps on to the hood of the vehicle and licks his lips as the rest of the Creed family advance menacingly toward the car.
I hate this ending so much for so many reasons. Really, it feels like Gage is (presumably) being killed off just for shock value. Not even the gut punch that’s delivered by a lot of classic King endings, but just a single moment of “Oh, no! The babyyy!” I felt legitimately cheated by this ending. I saw it coming when Rachel decided to bring Gage back with her in the first place, but I still ended up feeling cheated. Having Gage die at the end defeats the entire purpose of switching who got killed by the truck in the first place. It almost robs me of the poignancy that that change of events provides.Not only is the whole bad-guys-slowly-approach-and-close-in-on-our-final-living-protagonist ending a total cliche, it completely negates any and all character development or attachment we’ve formed with the characters. None of it matters because they’re all going to end up twisted/possessed/whatever at the end anyway.
That’s not even my biggest complaint about the ending. What really bugs me is the fact that it’s Ellie, not Louis, who buries Rachel beyond the pet cemetery. One of the most important themes of the story is lost this way. Pet Sematary is the story of a man who has always faced death rationally, being forced to face it irrationally, being forced to believe in things that don’t make any logical sense; it’s about a man making impossible decisions when positive outcomes don’t exist; and it’s about the very definition of insanity: making the same poor decision over and over again and expecting different results. Most importantly, it’s about a man who is selfish and whose selfish actions produce increasingly undesirable consequences for which he eventually has to accept accountability. When it’s Ellie who buries Rachel in the burial ground, the full impact of Louis’s selfishness is stripped away. It HAS to be Louis who makes the decision. HE has to be the one to decide because he has to be the one to reap the consequences of that decision. LOUIS has to decide, in spite of all that he’s seen, in spite of knowing what will happen to his wife, that he is selfish to attempt bringing her back because he doesn’t want to face the consequences of the horrible decisions he’s already made up to this point. Rachel’s return at the end of the novel and Louis’s presumed death (sans resurrection) symbolizes his selfish decisions finally catching up to him. By having Louis resurrected in the ending of the 2019 movie, he’s not himself anymore. He doesn’t have the capacity to tend what he’s sown in the soils of his own selfish heart.
So, there you have it. Basically, I felt the 2019 Pet Sematary had some good ideas, but overall it tried too hard to pander toward audiences who were looking for scares rather than actually attempting to present a compelling story. This is just my personal opinion. If you disagree feel free to share your own. I’m always interested to hear things from a different perspective. Thank you all for reading!