Pet Sematary and the trouble with the faithful remake

The dangers of reanimation are all too apparent in this Stephen King retread

PET SEMATARY, from Paramount Pictures.

Warning: spoilers ahead

The phenomenal success of It in the autumn of 2017 (worldwide box office tally: $700m) not only proved horror could go toe-to-toe with the cinematic superheroes but also kick-started a Stephen King big-screen revival. His 1983 novel Pet Sematary – already filmed back in 1998 – was the next out of the gate. The spate of horror remakes over the last decade or so has prompted criticism that many have been wholly unnecessary, due to their reluctance in straying from the original. While  a small number of competent and well-made films (The Hills Have Eyes and Evil Dead) came to light many were largely uninspired and cynical retreads (Poltergeist, The Hitcher, Fright Night, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror and The Omen, to name but a few).

Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) make that fated trek to the ancient burial ground

The writers behind the Pet Sematary remake have taken on board those audience issues with cinematic déjà vu, altering the cataclysmic incident which occurs at the end of the second act and which causes the horrible point-of-no-return actions of bereaved father Louis Creed (played this time around by respected Australian actor Jason Clarke). Instead of cherubic son Gage ending up as human roadkill via one of those monstrous trucks which thunder past the otherwise serene and homely Creed residence, it’s elder daughter Ellie who is tragically wiped out this time, in a surprise twist death which unfortunately verges on Final Destination-style ridiculousness.

Ellie Creed (Jeté Laurence) knows something is amiss with faithful cat, Church

Deviating from both King’s original text and director Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation, this seemingly big departure might have been what spurred directing duo Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer – the team behind the impressive 2014 low-budget horror Starry Eyes – to sign on for their first studio gig. But while there’s that deliberate attempt to forge a different path, the film is still peppered with nods to memorable moments from the first film, including the horrific slicing of elderly neighbour Jud Crandall’s Achilles tendon (an injury which isn’t in the novel) and the memorable closing title track originated by The Ramones, which receives a decidedly unmemorable do–over this time around by American punk rock band Starcrawler.

Masked children taking part in a Pet Sematary procession

It’s a film which wants to have its cake and eat it, but in altering the fate of the Creed family, we’re left with a deeply contrived and lumbering third act, where the full horror of what Louis has done in trying to cheat the demise of his beloved daughter is awkwardly played out and lacks the requisite terror of the 1989 version. What’s left with the remake is a decently-acted – although the sight of the recently deceased, now reanimated Ellie is only enough to invoke a smattering of tears in her mother Rachel (played Amy Seimetz) and not total psychosis – and largely redundant adaptation which really doesn’t need to exist other than to capitalise on the resurgent King brand.

Ellie, back from the dead and looking for love

While Lambert’s original film isn’t without its flaws, it renders the author’s portrait of grief and loss (and the desperation that can bring) much more faithfully to the screen. This is despite the remake taking time to include a discussion about mortality and the afterlife between the concerned parents early on in proceedings, after the discovery of the body of their beloved moggy Church outside their home. Incidentally, the scraggy, demonic-like feline is a deeply disquieting presence throughout the film, and is by far the best thing in the remake. With the iconic line from the first film also being wheeled out this time around and once again uttered by the haunted Crandall (“sometimes dead is better”) it is also applicable to this remake.

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