Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Movie Review: Pet Sematary

Pet Sematary *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer.
Written by: Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler based on the novel by Stephen King.
Starring: Jason Clarke (Louis Creed), Amy Seimetz (Rachel Creed), John Lithgow (Jud Crandall), Jeté Laurence (Ellie Creed), Alyssa Brooke Levine (Zelda), Maria Herrera (Marcella), Obssa Ahmed (Victor Pascow), Lucas Lavoie (Gage Creed), Hugo Lavoie (Gage Creed), Sonia Maria Chirila (Young Rachel).
Despite being a big Stephen King fan, I only saw Mary Lambert’s original Per Sematary adaptation from 1989 a few weeks ago to prepare for this new film. It wasn’t a particularly good film, even if it was more or less faithful to the King novel it is based on, which is one of the cruelest and meanest King has ever written – and one that gets downright hard to read at points, especially as a parent. This new film is clearly superior to the old adaptation in almost every way – except for two things. The first is that even though he’s quite good, John Lithgow is nowhere near as good as Fred Gwynne was as Jud Crandall. And the second is that in the filmmaker’s efforts to provide more unexpected twists and turns – and deviations – from the novel, I think they somewhat lose the thread of the point in the last act. The ending of the novel (and to a lesser extent, the original movie) was a gut punch. Here, it’s just one more twist on top of so many in the last act of the film – most of which work in terms of plot, but doesn’t leave you with that same feeling of being gutted. Instead, this new film offers you a really fun time at the movies – which is not quite what I think of when I think of Pet Sematary.
The basic setup for the plot is the same – Dr. Louise Creed (Jason Clarke) movies to a small town to become a University doctor for a slower pace in his life. He is joined by his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), 8-year-old daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence) and toddler son Gage (Lucas Lavoie). The move to an isolated house – across the road from old timer Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) – their back lot edging into a vast forest. The road in front of them is used by a lot of speeding transport trucks – one of which kills Ellie’s beloved cat. This is when Jud takes Louis to the Pet Sematary – and beyond – to place that can bring back the dead, even if they won’t be the same when they do come back.
I think that directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, along with the writers, made this version of Pet Sematary with fans of King’s novel in mind. They play with you a little bit, lull you into thinking that this will likely be the story you know well, because a few minor changes aside, the first half of the movie play it pretty much straight from King’s novel. The first big twist comes when one of those trucks comes zooming down the road, and it feels like the directors are almost giving you the exact same scene as in the first movie – but then changing it at the last second, and revealing something perhaps even darker. From then on, they use some of King’s source material – but basically go off on their own trying to zig every time you think they are going to zag.
On a narrative level, I think the twists and turns work – at least in terms of providing the audience some good scares, and some genuine surprises along the way. The film gets lot of things right that the old film did not – often in the performances. Jason Clarke is far superior to Dale Midkiff in the original film – especially early in the film, when he’s playing a normal guy just trying to figure out what the hell is going on. The changes in the narrative don’t quite allow him to go as far off the deep end as Midkiff got to – which is good, because Clarke isn’t as good at that. The best performance in the movie belongs to Amy Seimetz as his wife Rachel – who in the original movie was basically stamped on the forehead with the word wife, and given nothing of interest to do. Seimetz – a genuinely great actress (she delivered one of my favorite performances of the decade in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color) is great here, again lulling you into a false sense of security in the first half, but really digging deeper in the second. If Clarke’s Louis isn’t as deep as he was originally, then Seimetz’ Rachel makes up for it. As for Lithgow, he is a genuinely great actor – and he’s decent as Jud – but it kind of seems like he’s phoning this performance in. Fred Gwynne was the only legitimately great part of the original film – a smiling, kindly devil leading Louis straight to hell.
The film is well-made, and legitimately scary and unsettling at parts. Right up until the last few minutes of the film, I thought this may be one of the best horror films of the year – not up to Us levels clearly – but as good as these types of things typically get. And yet, the movie twists and turns too many times in the last few minutes, which ultimately does more harm than good. Instead of the sickening sense of dread that the novel had, these movies here seems to winking at us too hard. There are so many times you can pull the rug out from under the audience before it’s impossible to take it seriously. That’s why the final shot in the movie doesn’t really hit as hard as it probably should – certainly nothing like the final moments of King adaptation The Mist – one of the best King films in recent years.
Still, it’s hard to complain too much. Pet Sematary is a really good horror film, marred but not ruined by an unsatisfying ending. Strangely, that’s the case with many King novels – but not Pet Sematary. While trying to surprise the audience, the filmmaker’s kind of messed up the ending. But they got so much else right it’s hard to complain too much.

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