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Remake Of Stephen King’s ‘Pet Sematary’ Opens

Sometimes no remake is better

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Stephen King's "Pet Sematary" gets a remake this week.

Companion Viewing

"Carrie" (1976)

"Creepshow 1 and 2" (1982, 1987)

"Stand By Me" (1986)

"Pet Sematary" (1989)

Earlier this week "The Twilight Zone" got a reboot on CBS All Access and now Stephen King’s "Pet Sematary" gets a remake.

I have to confess that I’m not a huge fan of the original 1989 "Pet Sematary." I liked that it had a joy in its cheesy scares and I liked that a woman, Mary Lambert, had directed it. Yet I think I was too old and jaded to actually find its tale of an ancient burial ground where the dead come back to life scary. But at least it embraced Stephen King’s horror with enough fun to make it re-watchable. The new "Pet Sematary" is barely watchable once.

King's story involves Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz) who relocate the family — daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and son Gage (Hugo Lavoie) — from Boston to the small town of Ludlow in rural Maine. Their new home is located near a creepy old pet cemetery where children bury their dead animals and the sign is misspelled "Pet Sematary." The house is also dangerously close to a road where big rigs go speeding by. Ellie is drawn to the cemetery and the woods but is warned of its dangers by their neighbor Jud (John Lithgow). But when the family cat is killed by a truck, Jud reveals the strange powers of the "sour" ground in the woods where the dead can be brought back to life. But as is usually the case, the dead are never too happy about coming back.

If you saw the trailer then you essentially saw the entire film. No surprise is left out but then this remake does such a poor job of building suspense and tension that it really doesn't matter. Co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer know how to do horror as they proved in "Starry Eyes" but this remake feels mostly uninspired and without purpose. Writer Jeff Buhler has one similarly unimpressive literary horror film adaptation under his belt with "Midnight Meat Train" (taken from Clive Barker's story) and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura has such lame efforts as "Replicas" and "The Meg" to his credit so maybe blame for this misfire rests more with them.

One of the main problems is that the first half of the film drags and feels unengaging because the Creed parents are so bland and uncharismatic. We don't really care about them and if there's no horror we have little to hold our attention. Another problem is bringing the father, a doctor and seemingly reasonable man, the point of be willing to try to raise the dead. That's where a little more care in the script would have helped. There are two key things the script has to do to make this plot machination work. First, the sense of grief has to be established and made real, and second, Jud's willingness to suggest such a horrific thing has to be believable and neither happens in this remake.

The irony is that Lithgow is the best thing in the film but the way he plays Jud actually hurts the narrative. In the original film, Fred Gwynne played Jud as a bit child-like and that made his willingness to share the secrets of the forest to bring back the beloved cat more plausible. But Lithgow makes his Jud too rational and even smart to make us take that leap that he would suggest something that he knows full well is a bad thing.

One thing that this film and also the remake of King's "It" nearly get right is the fact that much of what is scary in King's books have to do with real-world horrors rather than with the supernatural. In "It" the bullying and abuse the kids suffers is far more terrifying in the film than the horror hamminess of its Pennywise. And in "Pet Sematary" the real world horrors of debilitating illness and children exposed to death and dying in shocking ways is where the remake finds some of its most chilling moments. But both films fail to realize how to use those real horrors to their advantage to build the terror of the stories. There is often something very real and personal at the core of King's stories and that is sadly often ignored as films try to focus on the overt horror and scares.

"Pet Sematary" relies on horror tropes and music stingers to try and make people jump but there is no true terror or scares in this film. Even with the "twist", the remake tries to deliver there is nothing really surprising. Jud says, "Sometimes dead is better." Well, sometimes remakes are just not needed. Go watch the original (which King actually wrote the screenplay for) if you really want to see this King story onscreen or go watch "Stand By Me," which in many ways is the best Stephen King film adaptation to date.

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