One of the most contested ideas within modern horror, among fans at least, is the remake. For some, these forays into nostalgia are sacrilege, failing often to honor the spirit of the original they are recreating. For others, they are evidence of how precious even degenerates like us, the horror community, can be about our memories; some succeed, some fail, but remakes in and of themselves are of no intrinsic value or fault. Honestly, there is truth in both ideas. Some remakes really do improve upon the original, or if not improve, try something new and different that adds something to a living and vibrant text. Others are quite blatant cash grabs, cynical attempts to make money out of our memories without any respect for the passion that made us interested in the first place.
I personally enjoy many remakes, as often as I find them crass and frustrating. I have often suggested that films needing remaking are not those which are already great titans of American entertainment which might benefit in some small way from a new perspective, but whose fan base is too in love to appreciate those changes. Rather, why not remake those films that smacked with potential for greatness but inevitably fell short?
Films like Pet Sematary.
The 1989 version of this story, based also on the incredibly popular Stephen King novel, is no masterpiece. Though I would argue while it has some effective moments and some great performances, it is ultimately a failure as an adaptation and as a horror film. Thus, the perfect candidate to be redone. Unfortunately, 2019’s Pet Sematary finds only new ways to frighten us, and no new ways to tell the actual story from the novel. That is, while the scares are often intense, Pet Sematary lacks character and heart, and ultimately cannot work because none of its characters are compelling.
Pet Sematary is, at its heart, a dark and terrible tale, as Stephen King himself somewhat notoriously pointed out recently There is something deeply upsetting about this tale of a piece of “sour ground” that promises new life but delivers death, an evil brought back to destroy those who sought comfort there. It is about our fear of death, about the dark secrets of our families, and, like many King works, the dark secrets of small towns.
This latest filmic version is no different. The Creeds are searching, quite simply, for a more stable life. Moving to this small Maine town from Boston, Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) is seeking only some time with his family, and a less demanding environment than working as an overnight ER doctor. The move to this place is in many ways a step toward life, a more stable and healthy environment, and instead turns out to be a descent into death and madness. There are old, dark secrets in the woods of Ludlow, tied to a darkness and a legacy of pain. At least I think so. John Lithgow does an admirable job of trying to bring some life to a woefully underwritten Jud Crandall. Crandall is meant to be a friendly but slightly haunted neighbor; but while Lithgow definitely brings some endearing charm to the character, there is little here to suggest depth or history. In fact, when very important details about the extent of Jud’s pain are revealed in the third act, they fly past because it is almost impossible at that point to care. He is not alone. Despite adequate to strong performances from our entire primary cast, including what I hope is a breakout turn from young Jeté Laurence, no character in this film is fully realized, and without that the film can never reach true terror levels.
That is not to say there is not skillful, perhaps even insightful, filmmaking going on here. The dream sequences are ethereal and haunting, the locations are far more expansive and interesting than the original. The new cat is great and really brings some needed levity to what is often a script without much humanity in it. The scenes where Amy Seimetz’s Rachel is haunted by her memories of her sister Zelda and her brutal death are intense, and almost brilliantly upsetting. To that end, and a few others, the film brings much more intense fear to the story. The original film, while it had some effective imagery, lacked in tension and dread. This film technically brings a lot more skill into its scares, and my anticipation of those moments was at times incredible.
I do not mean to suggest these were only jump scares. There were truly upsetting things happening in front of me, and, when the film would telegraph they were coming, I would feel all the anxiety the film makers intended. Yet, that is not all there is to the horror, is there? My concern is not only for my ability to see the images I am being shown without shouting out and embarrassing myself, my dread and horror come in these kinds of films, at least some of the time, for my deep concern for the characters. The film adds so much to original story, first by changing which child dies ( NOT A SPOILER, IT IS IN THE TRAILER) but also by adding an element of indigenous mythology as well. Yet, none of these added elements are deployed in any way to deepen our connection to the characters. Yes, images and sequences scared me, but I didn’t know enough about the folks on screen to understand their motivation or feel for their suffering.
Let me give you a specific example. There is no spoiler in telling you how this drama is set up, the fact that the Creeds live on a busy road and it is not safe. Their cat, Church, is killed and the parents do not want to tell Ellie. They decide to hide it from her, and their neighbor Jud offers to take Louis into the woods to bury the cat. However, while they are out there, he suddenly changes his mind and takes Louis to bury the cat in an ancient burial ground where things come back to life. That is, basically, the setup for the rest of the movie. In order for this scene to work, we must believe that, although Jud KNOWS FULL WELL HOW DANGEROUS WHAT HE IS DOING IS, both he and Louis are so concerned for Ellie and her fragile heart that he risks such a dangerous choice. However, that just isn’t there. If you watch this scene with any inkling of how dangerous it is, it is impossible to understand why he would make this decision. Why? Because the film hasn’t shown us, having spent as little time as possible showing any actual emotional bonds between these people. So over and over, the film never gels into a compelling story. Just an occasionally shocking one.
That is a heavy criticism, so let me say: the parts that work do work, and the film is in fact a remake of a film that also doesn’t quite totally work. Still, I was hoping this film, by changing things and adding things, might bring something new and fresh. Yet, it seems to have missed the very human element of King’s original narrative that made it so brutal and difficult in the first place. We care for these folks, and the slow destruction of their lives is not only upsetting, it is tragic. There is one more thing the film does that is unsatisfactory: there are a number of scares and plot points, which I will not here spoil for you, that only work if you have seen the other film. Yes, there are meta-textual comments, in the film, that address the remake nature of the film itself. In fact, it uses this to play on the audience’s anxieties. The film ends with a cover of the iconic song from the first film: The Ramones Pet Sematary. The cover is competent, but a bit anemic, lacking the full throated pathos and goofy wink of the original. This thinness is emblematic of the entire film, which improves on moments, while leaving out the thick presence of the story itself.