Movie Review ~ Pet Sematary (2019)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Dr. Louis Creed and his wife, Rachel, relocate from Boston to rural Maine with their two young children. The couple soon discover a mysterious burial ground hidden deep in the woods near their new home.

Stars: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, Obssa Ahmed

Directors: Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Normally, I’m not a fan of remakes of originals that were just fine to begin with. Stephen King’s 1989 adaption of his own novel Pet Sematary was a solid horror film that has held up quite well over the past thirty years. Sure, it’s low tech and some of the performances delve into out-of-place hysterics at times but it was largely a successful effort and often spoken of highly as one of the better King adaptations that have made it to the big screen.

Yet I wasn’t that mad at the fact that the source material was going to get another treatment…and I actually thought it was long overdue. After a lackluster sequel that failed to move the series forward in any compelling way, the property just sort of sat there on the shelf for the ensuing years. I’ve always considered the book and its concept to be one that would lend itself well to multiple sequels and creative approaches yet no one had bothered to take another crack at it. As the original film approached it’s 30th anniversary, Paramount decided to dig up their former horror hit and handed it over to three guys that have been making a name for themselves in the scare business.

The new film has a screenplay written by Jeff Buhler who already had The Prodigy in 2019 and will pen upcoming remakes of Jacob’s Ladder and The Grudge, and was directed by Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer who gave us the underrated horror gem Starry Eyes. Having these three give King’s tale of a city family that moves to the country and experiences the dangerous power of a nearby burial ground seemed like an on the money choice and with stars like Jason Clarke (The Aftermath) and John Lithgow (Pitch Perfect 3) on board this remake was elevated up a few notches from being just a shameless cash-in.

The Creed family has uprooted their life and moved to a small town in Maine so Louis (Clarke) can be a big fish in a small pond as the doctor at a local university. Like the first film, his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz, You’re Next) doesn’t seem to have much of a life of her own outside of taking care of their two young children so while Louis goes to work Rachel begins the process of setting her family up in their new house. Friendly neighbor Jud (Lithgow) catches young Ellie (Jeté Laurence) exploring in the woods and shows her the pet sematary on their property where children come to bury their pets. When tragedy strikes the Creed family, Louis is driven to make an unholy choice involving the pet sematary that has deadly repercussions for everyone.

While the film largely falls into the remake category, with names and situations that echo what we’ve read/seen before, certain elements of the plot have been reimagined and not all of them work as well as they should. If you’ve seen the previews you’re likely aware of the one big change from the book/original film and that choice is, in hindsight, a smart one considering what it allows the filmmakers to do with the final 1/3 of the movie. What I didn’t care for, actually, was that last act when it became less of a slow-burn horror movie and more of a cheap scare machine which undercut some of the strong structure that was built up early on.

Another strange thing about this film is that Buhler’s script is overly talky. In most cases, having some extra character development in a movie designed to provide maximum scare time would be welcome but there seemed to be an endless series of scenes with Louis and Rachel talking in their bedroom. Feeling like low-grade Cassavetes, their marital squabbles and differences of opinion in how much they share with their children about death starts to feel intrusive to the frights. After a while, you begin to wish the bad thing that is coming will just happen so they’ll have something else to talk about.

Clarke, as usual, makes for a reliable leading man and the conflict Louis experiences sits well with him. No one plays tragically at odds with oneself quite like Clarke can. Like the movie, he starts to veer off course near the end but he holds on longer than the film does. I’ve not seen Seimetz in a lot of things but she brought a nice layer to Rachel that wasn’t present in the previous film. The subplot concerning her guilt over an incident from her childhood involving her dying sister isn’t as scary as the 1989 version because its less subtle but she navigates some jarring pseudo-scares quite well. The Jud character was always the most memorable in these films and while Lithgow is no Fred Gwynne, his wind-beaten face and growly voice convinced me right off the bat he was the right guy for the role. The trickiest part in the film is taken on by Laurence as the Creed’s daughter who has to play a whole range of emotions – for a young performer tasked with the film’s most important material she is a strong presence.

As they demonstrated in Starry Eyes, Kölsch & Widmyer know how to slowly turn up the heat on their movie pot and allow it to boil over at just the right time. Here, though, the pot stays on the fire just a hair too long, that is the difference between a remake that sticks its landing, and one that bites off more than it can chew. (I’m trying to jam pack this with metaphors today, clearly). The ending of the film doesn’t measure up and just gets too bizarre to the point where the audience laughs in all the right places but more than a few unintentional passages as well.

I feel like we’re going to be seeing more of these remakes of popular films over the next few years and if they turn out like Pet Sematary I won’t be totally disappointed. There’s some thought that went into this one and more than few examples of creativity on display that are worth noting from directors that are continuing to hone their craft. Showing a bit more appreciation for narrative follow-through and arriving at an ending that satisfies is what was missing.

31 Days to Scare ~ Pet Sematary (2019) – Trailer

Synopsis: Behind a young family’s home in Maine is a terrible secret that holds the power of life after death. When tragedy strikes, the threat of that power soon becomes undeniable.

Release Date:  April 19, 2019

Thoughts: Remakes are a tricky thing and often I feel like to remake an already established film isn’t really worth the time or money.  Why go back and revisit something that still holds up?  Sure, movies like Oceans 11 and even last year’s re-do of Stephen King’s IT improved upon their originals but what about the Carrie remake or any of the sanitized updates to horror films like Prom Night or When a Stranger Calls?  Tough stuff.

So here we are now looking down the barrel of a Pet Sematary remake and I’m conflicted.  The original 1989 film retains much of the same scares and thrills as it did when first released but this look at the 2019 version has arrived and I’m not inclined to claw at the walls in frustration.  I really enjoyed directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer previous film Starry Eyes and star Jason Clarke (All I See Is You) seems a good choice for the lead.  I just hope they can exercise some restraint and give us a spooky tale and not go into excess.  Don’t want audiences leaving the theater thinking that sometimes un-remade is better.

Make sure to check out my review of Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary, the documentary on the making of the first film.

31 Days to Scare ~ Starry Eyes

starry_eyes

The Facts:

Synopsis: A hopeful young starlet uncovers the ominous origins of the Hollywood elite and enters into a deadly agreement in exchange for fame and fortune.

Stars: Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan

Director: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Where to Watch: Netflix

Review: We’ve seen it before in movies like Showgirls and The Neon Demon and even stage musicals such as 42nd Street so it’s not a wholly original tale: girl comes to the big city with dreams of stardom only to become compromised and corrupted in her pursuit of fame.  Celebrity comes at a cost and the moral seems to be that it’s necessary to sacrifice a piece of yourself if you really want to get ahead.  So, on the surface, Starry Eyes could be seen as another one of these examinations of Hollywood scruples but in the end I found it impossible to shrug it off.

Sarah (Alex Essoe) is desperate for her big break.  She’s working at a Hooters-esque restaurant alongside other would-be-actors trying to fit in auditions during her breaks.  We get the impression she’s very much alone in the world with only a few surface friendships and no family to speak of.  When Sarah gets the opportunity to audition for a new film for a hot studio, she fails to impress the casting agent and retreats into the nearest ladies room where she has a breakdown. She forgets to check under the stalls, though, and doesn’t realize her screams and violent self-flagellation are being observed by the same woman she just auditioned for.  And the woman likes what she sees.

Now back in the running for the lead role, the meek Sarah puts the cart before the casting couch and severs several valuable ties to the only people that care for her well-being.  Sarah will be tested by the mysterious producers in several more auditions, not for her acting ability but for how far she’s willing to go to and how much pain she’s able to accept in order to sign on the dotted line.

Writer/Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer start at a low heat and gradually turn up the temperature until a finale where all hell boils over.  Is Sarah just releasing some long pent-up violent behavior or is she transforming into the fame monster she’s been all along…whatever it is, she’s ready to consume all that stand her in her way.

The film isn’t all smooth sailing, it’s low budget obviously dictated a short shooting schedule and there are a few scenes/performances that should have been afforded a few more takes.  As with every mystery, the more we find out what’s going on the less interesting it becomes but Starry Eyes avoids disinterest by never coming right out and telling us what’s happening.  There’s no cheap narrative device that explicitly calls out the origins of Sarah’s transmutation from soft-spoken pushover to freaky fiend and more’s the better for it.

While the supporting performances run the gamut from ‘I want to see more of you’ to ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’, there’s no doubt Essoe is pretty damn great.  Putting her body through the ringer and laying herself bare, we’re both turned off and intrigued by her behavior toward herself and especially to those trying to pull her out of a nightmare of her own making.  It’s not a sympathetic character but you’ll likely find yourself empathizing with her as she wastes away.

The finale is probably gorier than it needs to be, considering the preceding scenes are relatively bloodless, but by that time Essoe has you wrapped around her finger and it’s hard to look away.  The conclusion may not please everyone but for me it worked because it stayed true to the overall tone.  Kolsch and Widmyer have something to say about the Hollywood machine and Starry Eyes proves to be a wickedly twisted way to deliver it.