Saturday, July 13, 2019

Movie Reviews: Pet Sematary (2019)

Pet Sematary (2019)
directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer
This is a, well not quite remake, but second film adaptation of the Stephen King horror novel. As is typical with book to film adaptations in general and Stephen King books in particular the directors left a lot out of the film. That's unavoidable. In this case I thought that the film would been better if it had more back story to give context and  nuance to some of the characters' actions and motivations.  

In the book, it's important that the protagonist's father-in-law never really liked the protagonist or thought the protagonist worthy of marrying his daughter, perhaps in part because the protagonist isn't Jewish and isn't successful enough. It's important that the protagonist himself wonders if he's living up to the patriarchal imperative of providing and protecting for his wife and children. It's important that the wife still greatly resents her parents for making her a child caretaker for her now deceased sister, who had spinal meningitis. 

The film leaves a lot of those things out or only briefly sketches them before moving to something else. However King's source material is so strong that the viewer who hasn't read the book can still enjoy the film on its own merits. 

When King wrote the story a cursed Native American burial ground was already a horror cliche. Some writers can spin dross into gold. King is one of them. Some of this story grew out of King's own experiences living in a home located on a busy road and having to explain death to his daughter. This movie gender switched the bad guy, perhaps because an evil little girl is creepy while an evil toddler is too reminiscent of Chucky?

Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) is a doctor from the Boston area with a growing family. Louis wants to maintain a strong relationship with his stay at home wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz). Louis intends to spend more quality time with the apple of his eye, his grade school aged daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence) and toddler son Gage (Hugo/Lucas Lavoie). 

To accomplish these goals, Louis and Rachel have decided to move the family from the Boston rat race to Ludlow, Maine. Louis might earn a little less money but the family's living costs will be less. Louis will have slightly less work and be home in time for all dinners, birthdays, anniversaries, and other important family events. The family purchases a huge farmhouse and IIRC about 50 acres of land.

Upon moving into their new home Ellie comes across a procession of children wearing masks and taking a deceased dog for burial at something called the Pet Sematary. The Creeds' new neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) explains that burying pets there is a local tradition. Even so Ellie probably shouldn't be running around the woods alone. 

At work Louis is unable to save the life of a student, Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) who was struck by a car. That night Louis has a nightmare in which Victor leads him to the end of the Pet Sematary and warns him against going beyond. When Louis wakes he sees his pajamas and feet are covered with mud and brambles.

On Halloween, Ellie's cat Church is killed by a passing truck on the road outside their home. Notice a recurring pattern? Louis is fretting on breaking the news to Ellie when Jud says he might know a different way. There's a stony ground beyond the Pet Sematary. Jud wouldn't have mentioned it but he has grown fond of the Creed family.

That night Jud leads Louis to the spot and directs him to bury Church there. The next day Louis is stunned when an apparently alive Church shows up at the house. However it soon becomes apparent that Church is not the same...or maybe something else came back with Church. 

Jud says he's sorry but couldn't bear to see Ellie in any discomfort. The local Native American tribe believed that the grounds were cursed and inhabited by something malign called the Wendigo. It brings things back to life but at a price. Jud thought it might have been different this time. But Church tortures birds, stares nastily at its humans and attacks Ellie and Gage. Louis must get rid of Church. Of course cats aren't the only dead things people have buried up there.

I thought, despite a plethora of jump cuts and similar familiar moves that this wasn't a bad movie. The directors made the viewer feel the awesome responsibility of being a parent. Your number one responsibility is to keep your child safe. Louis and Rachel will do anything for their children, a trait which is used against them, much as with Ned Stark. I really liked the outdoors settings. The woods are suitably spooky and dark. The houses are almost as dark. 

The filmmakers squeeze a lot out of the old "Did I hear something in the other room?" or "I could have sworn I locked that door." horror movie cliches. Jete Laurence was very self-assured and convincing in her role as Ellie. People should keep an eye on her for the future.

Pet Sematary touches on the human fascination with and frustration with death. The composer Purcell used this text from the Book of Common Prayer for his Queen Mary Funeral March.
Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. 
He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower; 
he fleeth as it were a shadow, and ne'er continueth in one stay
In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour,
but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased
That emotion is something that is found in just about every culture, in one form or another. No one wants to die. We don't want our loved ones to die. If there were a way to stop such things from happening many of us would make that choice, even if it were morally questionable. That's the ultimate theme of Pet Sematary. The book and first film brought that theme out better. This film hits that briefly but is more interested in demonic little girls. The film suffers a bit from not hitting the tagline "Sometimes dead is better" a little harder.  You do have to wonder why a family with two young children would purchase a home that abuts a road with speeding semi-trailers but someone has to buy it, right?
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