Pet Sematary – I Can’t Decide if Dead is Better

This story is very near and dear to me. The first time I came across Stephen King’s bleakest work I connected with it on a profound level. I’ve dealt with a lot of grief in my life, having lost many to death and disease that I was not ready to let go of. Letting go is one of the worst things a person can put themselves through, but it’s healthy. When offered another route, would you take it? This is the question posed by the novel, the original film by Mary Lambert, and the current release by Dennis Widmeyer and Kevin Kölsch. Each of these films asks us to stop and consider the idea that we can’t let go. As Jud Crandall says, “Sometimes dead is better.”

I don’t exactly know that I believe that statement here. I’m a fan of the original adaptation, but it’s a ham and cheese sandwich of epic proportions. Equally eerie and corny, the film bounces around tonally but it has a couple of excellent performances and a score to die for. This film drops the corn in favor of eerie imagery, blood, and new directions for the story that create a dreary atmosphere which somehow always seems in a hurry. Dead wasn’t better, because this is a solid horror film and interesting King adaptation, but I don’t know that it was wholly successful in what it wanted to accomplish.

I’m going to spoil the living hell out of this so if you don’t want to know what got changed in the plot…well…go away. Come back later.

screen-shot-2019-01-17-at-2.26.06-pmThis is very much a story about being a child and not fully understanding grief, change, and loss. Coupling that with the story of a parent trying to explain death to a child, all of its different avenues and possibilities, and this becomes a very unpleasant discussion. Dwelling on the lack of an afterlife or the chance at more is a hard discussion to have, and when your marriage is testy because you each believe different things it gets even more difficult. Louis Creed and his wife, Rachel, are dealing with this. Their children, Ellie and Gage, are a bit unnerved at having been uprooted from the busy city of Boston and moved to a quiet town in Maine. When Ellie discovers a graveyard in the woods after following a procession of children burying a dog, she encounters their neighbor Jud. He explains what makes a graveyard special, explains that it’s a place to mourn and remember lost loved ones like pets. In the first indicator of the plot deviations, he pulls a bee stinger from her leg and patches her up.

From here we get the standards for this story. The death of a jogger on campus who, in exchange for Louis’s attempts to save him, comes back as a ghost and makes an attempt to change the course of events is all here. The dead man, his brain leaking everywhere, is just as horrific and shocking as it needed to be. We’re still on course but as fast as things are moving it begins to feel rushed. I couldn’t figure out why at first.

psm-03614r.jpgWe still get the cat, run over in the road on a holiday, and in one of the most unnerving scenes in the film Jud walks Louis beyond the pet cemetery and to the real graveyard beyond. As they dig in the ground and watch the lightning, listen to the unsettling roars in the dark that Jud insists are just loons, the dread begins to mount. It’s the most perfectly executed scene in the film and it sticks with you long beyond what comes after. As the cat comes back, dirty and vicious, it finally gives an onscreen presence to what King was giving us in prose. These sequences take their time and allow the characters to really dwell on what they’re encountering. Jud and Louis feel fear, discussing their evening later as Ellie attempts to clean her cat off. When it scratches her, and later the two-year-old Gage, Louis decides he’s had enough and ditches the cat on the highway. We’re approaching that pivotal moment in the plot here and that’s where I realized something was about to go off the rails.

Look, the trailers spoiled the change. During Ellie’s birthday party she sees her cat returning down the road and runs to greet it. We know this scene, we’ve seen it before. Louis saves Gage from chasing his sister out into the road but as the truck swerves it rolls and Ellie is killed. Rarely do films have the wherewithal to show a dead, broken child, but we see her body multiple times throughout the rest of the film and it never stops being devastating. Rachel collapses in the road and Louis cradles his shattered daughter. This change is crucial to the story and I love what they tried to do with it. My issue is that the scenes around those involving the burial ground and the cat have raced to this point, moving it from the end of the second act to only halfway through the film, and it creates a jarring disconnect.

I love the ideas at play here. Gage is killed in the novel and original film, and having a toddler as a slasher is an eerie idea but does not quite connect onscreen. Ellie, however, was older and is able to comprehend tougher ideas. She’s already been talking to her parents about the possibility of losing her cat, about death and what might or might not come next, and in this she is given a voice. When Louis digs her up and buries her we get our perfect sequence, an enraged and broken father tearing the ground up with sharp rocks to lay his daughter to her temporary rest, and it’s all of terrifying and heartbreaking at once.

Pet Sematary (screen grab) Credit: Paramount PicturesAnd she comes back changed, but at first it’s very subtle. She’s dirty and creepy looking, with the back of her head stapled up after the autopsy and her veins popping out against her skin. One eye hangs down, unable to look straight ahead after having her head smashed, and she resembles a walking nightmare. She talks to her father about what she is, what she might have become and whether or not she’s dead. Part of the new avenue of the story is that Ellie is what endeared Jud to the family, his love for this sweet child drawing him into their lives. Early on we’re given a scene where she displays her dancing ballet to “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” and his praise lights up her face. When Louis wakes the morning after discovering she’s come back the undead child is doing the same dance, sweetly moving through the living room in the same manner. She begins knocking things over, raging against her new reality, and it’s disturbing in so many ways.

Look, I love all of this. I love that Rachel and Gage get to see Ellie. I love that the famous Achilles tendon scene remains. But it all happened so fast that we were hardly given a moment to really feel it. Ugly and gross, yes, but is that really what the terror of this story is? The idea behind this one isn’t supposed to be how horrific it can look, it’s what it does to your soul that you have to watch out for. I love the idea of Ellie contemplating her existence and her new life, aggressive and lashing out at anyone who does not immediately accept her. It’s fascinating to me, but it just goes too quickly to really take in.

What I didn’t like, however, was the finale of the story. Let’s just do this.

Ellie decides her mother isn’t going to accept her and murders her as Louis escapes with young Gage, locking him in the car. From here Ellie drags Rachel to the special ground and buries her. She comes back super fast and murders Louis as he fights with Ellie. The two women then bury Louis and we see at the end that they all plan on doing the same to Gage. They have become an undead family, Ellie attempting to bring them into her reality so that they can still be a family together.

Look, I love the ideas behind this. It’s eerie and wrong in all the ways that I love, but it happens so damn fast. Rarely do I say that films of this length need more room to breathe but this could have used an extra half hour to play with. Slapdash paces work really well for lesser horror films or action films, but for something this contemplative you need to slow down and feel it. The first half of the film feels wildly out of sync with the back half in a lot of ways and they needed to slow down and take their time with this.

pet-sematary-1I still enjoyed it. For fans of King I highly recommend this to you as it takes daring liberties with the material and manages to maintain the theme. However, to those like me who are devotees of Pet Sematary and consider it his darkest work, I have to say you need to tread lightly. This is a good but problematic film that goes out of its way to try new things and they aren’t all successful. They’re all really interesting and could have been incredible, but due to what I can only guess is a runtime pushed on the directors by the studio it all feels wobbly. I waited months for this, ready to adore it, and I just can’t say that I did. I walked out both overjoyed and angry, appalled and elated. And maybe that was the intent, but I think that what happened here was a misstep. We’re living in a golden age for King adaptations (that Dark Tower film didn’t happen, it doesn’t exist and you can’t make me think it does) but this feels like a glorious stumble. The great parts are beautiful, and the bad parts are only that way due to poor pacing. For some of you this won’t be worth watching till it hits streaming, but I urge those of you open to change and wanting to see an interesting experiment to try this out when you can. It is far from perfect, but it’s worth your time.

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