Pet Sematary Review: A spookier film than the original that takes too much liberty with its script
Had they not tampered with major events from the original, Pet Sematary (2019) could well have ended up being the best adaptation of King’s novel yet
I wouldn’t consider Stephen King to be your typical horror writer so much as a social satirist with a strong sense of the absurd and the wicked. The man has a penchant for creating hellish situations that stem from childhood. And his metaphor for grief as its own nightmarish state is second to none in the genre. Akin to most writers, he tends to dislike a majority of films based on his books (His famous detestation for Kubrick’s vision of The Shining has made it into the annals of cinema). Condensing a 374-page book into a film of one hour and forty-odd minutes is no mean task; capturing the essence of the source material becomes key. It’s ideal if the makers can get the writer to work on the script as well.
This is exactly what King did for the first film version of Pet Sematary (1989). The initial adaptation encapsulates the sheer weirdness associated with bringing back a loved one/pet you’ve lost by burying the corpse in a particular place, only to have the entity return as an evil/twisted twin of itself, but the film, on the whole, was a massive disappointment. The acting lets it down in myriad ways. Dale Midkiff’s Louis Creed presents this expressionless mask throughout (not much change takes place, despite the eerie events) even as Fred Gwynne’s Jud Crandall is perhaps a shade too theatrical in his role. The only standout is perhaps eight-year-old Blaze Berdahl (playing Ellie). I’m not entirely sure what Mary Lambert was going for, but one thing is fairly clear: it wasn’t meant to be a scary film. Only disturbing and strange.
Director: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer
Cast: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jeté Laurence
With no Stephen King aboard this 2019 version, directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have managed to move away from the original plot quite a bit, but have succeeded in creating an overall spookier remake. This moving away from the story works only in some places, though. As far as the acting and horror elements go, this is a much superior film. Unlike its predecessor, its visual tone is darker – going down the road of a full-fledged horror flick.
All things considered, one can’t exactly club the first Pet Sematary in the same category as this one. Hence, a direct comparison between the two is hard. Making some minor tweaks to the script is fine; such as setting the story in the present-day instead of the 80s, the Creed family moving to Ludlow, Maine from Boston (as opposed to Chicago), and so on. But replacing the death of the couple’s young son (Gage) with their older child (Ellie), instead, is unpardonable really. In that case, you might as well call this Pet Sematary 3.
The liberties don’t end there, sadly. The denouement from the original has its heart ripped out minutes before the credits start to roll. Why it turned out this way, beats me. Because, up until then (the second death/approximately the halfway mark), Pet Sematary was making a strong case for itself. Another failing in this latest version is the under-utilisation of John Lithgow (who plays Jud Crandall). The character is given reduced screen time, making him seem like a supporting actor, almost. Let’s not forget the amount of versatility Lithgow brings to the table; immaterial of medium (stage, film, television) or genre, the man is in a league of his own. It was also a grave mistake to omit mentioning that the place beyond the pet cemetery (where Jud convinces Louis to bury Church) lies on an ancient native American burial ground. The absence of the circle and the hex (drawn in the sand) is quite telling.
The 1989 film and this one are both flawed -- but in such different ways. The first stays true to the events of the book despite its subpar acting, and the second takes too much liberty with its script while being scarier and more realistic on the whole. There is no denying that the acting in the latter trumps the original. That being said, the weird feel is altogether missing in the latest adaptation, as it operates, more or less, on the tenets of a conventional horror film. The ’89 version captured the subject of parental irresponsibility rather well, something this remake fails to do. If this most recent full-length feature had no attachment to Stephen King’s 1983 novel of the same name, it would have been deemed a commendable effort. But that’s not how adaptations are judged, now, are they? It’s a tossup between the two, but my vote goes in favour of the second film by a mere whisker.