Saturday, April 6, 2019

Is Dead Still Better?: Pet Sematary (2019)

Church the cat is not amused (Pet Sematary, 2019)

I've been excited about the remake of Pet Sematary for months, so I took a rare chance to see it on Thursday of opening weekend.  How did it fare?

It depends what you compare it to.  If you compare it to Stephen King's fantastic novel, it's not nearly as deep a probing of death and grief or of the characters' inner lives.  If you compare it to the previous 1989 film, it lacks that distinctive 80's silliness and strikes a more serious tone befitting the direction of horror films in the 2010's (although I have a soft spot for one of the 1989 film's silliest moments: King's cameo as a priest).

None of this is to say that I didn't like the new Pet Sematary.  I liked it.  A lot.  It's not perfect, but it's a solid contemporary adaptation of a horror classic.

The cast does a great job.  Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz make fine bereaved parents, and I actually thought John Lithgow's Jud was truer to the character in the book.  But I was especially impressed by Jeté Laurance who plays Ellie and the several feline actors who play Church the cat (who is cast as a Maine Coon as he was in the novel rather than the Russian Blue he was in the 1989 movie).  One of the feline actors, Tonic, got to attend the premiere!

The Maine scenery is as creepy as one would hope.  Little things like the eerie animal masks the local kids wear when burying their pets or the loons offering horrific punctuation set the mood effectively.  The changes made from both the novel and the previous adaptation work for the most part.

One change that didn't work is that the new movie almost entirely cuts out the close friendship that Louis and Jud develop, which is a central part of the book.  This makes a lot of the later plot points a bit less comprehensible.  Maybe it was for time, but a few 30-second scenes of Louis and Jud drinking beer on Jud's porch would have gestured toward it.

A few other changes, like dropping the whole dynamic of  Louis's complicated relationship with Rachel's parents or having had Jud's wife Norma die before we meet him, made sense for a film.  The core of Louis's and Rachel's inversions of how they feel about death is still there, as is Rachel's reckoning with the death of her sister Zelda; Louis and Rachel basically switch positions thought out the film between death accepting and death denying, although this is of course much more thoroughly explored in the novel.

One change I wish they would have considered was to change the trope of the "Indian burial ground" that feeds on stereotypes of Native Americans as the "savage Other."  It was softened a bit here. Also, the Wendigo was more like it is in the book.  Could they have changed the Native American stuff to a curse from the early white settlers of Maine with the same effect?  Or aliens?  Or whatever IT is?  (Speaking of IT, look for an IT Easter egg!). Or a monster from Todash space from The Mist and the Dark Tower series?  Or would that be changing too much of the essential parts of the story?  Or does the fact that the native people were afraid of this area, too, change how this feeds (or doesn't feed) into harmful stereotypes?  I'm not sure.

There are other changes that get into major spoiler territory, so I'll leave them for unearthing in a little bit.

I'll be teaching my horror and philosophy class again this fall.  To make more room in the schedule for students to make their own horror movies, I made the regrettable decision to cut the novel, although it will be an extra credit reading.  I'll have the students watch this new adaptation instead, but I predict I will say a lot of things like, "this was deeper in the book, of course."  Oh, well.

The 2019 film is also in obvious dialogue with the 1989 version.  The Untitled Nerd Network has a video review of the new movie that spends a lot of time on the differences between the two film adaptations.  I recommend checking it out!  There are some little things that fans of the 1989 film will find amusing or surprising in the new one.  There's even a cover of the Ramones song "Pet Sematary" (one thing I miss about the 80's: movie theme songs).

We are almost at the end here and I intend to accept this end with equanimity rather than unnaturally prolonging it.

We are now crossing that barrier into the spoiler burying ground...  Don't say you weren't warned.  Sometimes unspoiled is better.

SPOILER ALERT! ...   The biggest change in the new movie is that it is 8-year-old Ellie that gets killed in the road rather than her toddler brother Gage.  This changes things in ways it may be too spoliery to say, but I will say it changes the ending.  I love the last few lines of the novel, and you don't get that here.  You get something just as creepy ... and possibly more disturbing.  I'm not sure I like it.  I'm not sure I'm supposed to like it.  This new Pet Sematary is not messing around.


Throughout all these changes, I am pleased that the philosophical core of the story is still there, even if it's not as deeply explored as it is in the novel.  This is why I'm okay using this new film as a springboard to the philosophical questions in my class this fall.  As I put it in my review of the novel: "Would you abolish death if you could?  Might we be better beings without it?  Or is there some secret blessing dyed into the horrors of death, one that makes us the beautiful, tragic creatures we are?"

When it comes to the world of Pet Sematary as well as our own, sometimes dead is still better.

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