WARNING: This review contains SPOILERS!
From the late 1970’s through a good portion of the 1980’s, Stephen King was one of the most prolific and exciting horror writers in ages, and high on cocaine. Like Scarface levels of cocaine. When one looks at some of his works from this period, you begin to see the evidence of this. One work produced during this time, a book so dark that even King himself admits to being scared by it when he reread it years later, went on to become one of his most popular novels ever – Pet Sematary.
Published in 1983, the story of Pet Sematary tells of Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his family moving from Chicago to a beautiful home in Maine, that just happens to be along one of the most dangerous roads in driving history, due to how fast the semi-trucks usually drive down it. The Creed family develop a friendship with their neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) – a man with an accent thicker than any Nantucket businessman this side of The Kennedy Family. One day, Jud takes the family to see a cemetery (misspelled as Sematary by the kids in the area) filled with the dead pets of those struck by the curse of bad traffic. It is a lesson Jud teaches the Creed’s daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence), since she has a beloved cat named Church (short for Winston Churchill), much to the dismay of Mrs. Creed (Amy Seimetz).
To make a long story short, Louis learns that the cemetery lies on an ancient burial ground, once used by the Micmac Tribe of Native Americans, which has the power to bring the dead back to life. Unfortunately, the ground’s powers have soured, and anyone who comes back after being buried there now comes back nasty. Without going into any more details of the plot, let’s just say that things get out of hand and quite messy after that happens.
The 1989 Pet Sematary film adaptation was a box office smash, despite mixed reviews. To this day it holds a giant cult following, much like the 1990 made-for-TV adaptation of another Stephen King classic, It. The unexpected success of the 2017 remake of It prompted Paramount to see what other popular movies based on a Stephen King novel might be remade. Enlisting the film-making duo of Kevin Kolsch and Denis Widmyer (who brought us the highly underrated Starry Eyes), Paramount decided to resurrect Pet Sematary on the big screen.
Well, to quote Jud here, “Sometimes, dead is better.”
So where does one begin in looking at exactly went wrong with this remake? Let’s start with the addition of an unnecessary element known as The Wendigo. According to Wikipedia, in Algonquian folklore, the wendigo (/ˈwɛndɪɡoʊ/) or windigo (also wetiko) is a mythical man-eating creature or evil spirit native to the northern forests of the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes Region of the United States and Canada. The Wendigo may appear as a monster with some characteristics of a human or as a spirit who has possessed a human being and made them become monstrous. It is historically associated with murder, insatiable greed, and the cultural taboos against such behaviors.
This is apparently why the ground around the burial site went sour. Now it turns whatever is buried there turns into variants of a Wendigo or some force of undead hoopajoobs created by the Wendigo. The addition of this element feels less like a natural extension of King’s novel and more like studio involvement gone wrong.
Specifically, it gives the vibe that the executives of the film saw the first movie and said “Ok, so this creepy graveyard from this tribe….let’s explain why it is this way by trying to create a creature element that has SEQUEL POTENTIAL!“. So, they take away the original vague explanation of something tampering with the sacred land and replace it with something specific that could possibly be used to kick-start the next Conjuring universe.
That’s Strike One, folks.
Strike Two comes from the cast itself. Despite John Lithgow’s horrible accent (which makes you wonder if he hired the same vocal coach John Travolta did for Hairspray) and the lack of chemistry between the actors, the biggest problem is that the characters feel completely wasted. This is especially true of Ellie and Jud. Gone is the development of a special bond between a sage man and a young child that was present in the book. In its place, we have an old New England man, complaining through his clam chowder that Ellie needs to stop going where she doesn’t belong.
Many character dynamics from the original book seem to have been completely thrown away here. It is clear in the original novel that the Creed family is just barely hanging together by a few scant threads. In this movie, the Creed family seem to just be going through the motions, hoping their problems will go away if they just ignore them. The aforementioned iffy chemistry is largely responsible for this feeling, but isn’t helped by a script that haphazardly introduces random elements of the book. For instance, a lot of time is devoted to how Louis’ father-in-law hates him, but the movie never explains why, even though the book did.
Strike Three is the biggest reason why I really felt let down by this film and why most Stephen King fans will feel the same – the massive rewrites. Thanks to the film’s trailer and preview pictures, it is no secret that Ellie gets killed and resurrected by the Pet Sematary. In the original book and film, it is the Creed’s two-year-old Gage who comes back. Now, I can understand the many reasons why this change was made from a film-maker’s perspective. Even today’s modern horror audiences may not be ready to see an undead murderous baby slash up his mother and an old man.
However, making this change beget more changes, which then beget more changes to the point where the third act of the film bears no resemblance to the original novel. Instead, we are given the cinematic equivalent of a mud pie made with cat feces and red paint. Any deeper point the film hoped to make is lost, as the screenwriters and director replace King’s thoughtful climax with a gory, predictable mess that is like watching the worst episode of The Walking Dead while eating cold boogers.
Is there anything positive I can say about this film? Yes: at least it’s not The Lawnmower Man.