Movie Review ~ Doctor Sleep


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dan Torrance meets a young girl with similar powers as his and tries to protect her from a cult known as The True Knot who prey on children with powers to remain immortal.

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis, Kyliegh Curran, Zahn McClarnon, Carl Lumbly, Alex Essoe, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Alyn Lind, Jacob Tremblay

Director: Mike Flanagan

Rated: R

Running Length: 151 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  It’s time to own up to the dark truth that I’ve seen every Stephen King movie but never read a Stephen King book.  I know, it’s a horrible thing to admit and I don’t offer it up with any amount of pride, only to say that I’ve appreciated that King is a writer with work that has provided so many wonderful adaptations.  Way back in 1980 when The Shining first premiered, it’s well known it wasn’t King’s favorite interpretation of his work.  Legendary director Stanley Kubrick took quite a lot of liberties with the source novel, eliminating characters or changing their make-up all together, to say nothing of the reworked ending.  While a TV adaptation hewed closer to King’s original vision, it paled in comparison to what Kubrick had created.   Over the years, King came to some finality with the movie, for better or for worse, and it was generally accepted by all in thinking of King’s novel and Kubrick’s film as two separate entities that shared similarities.

Re-watching The Shining again (released in a spectacular 4K BluRay) for my 31 Days to Scare, I was struck by how little actually happens (in terms of on-screen action at least) in Kubrick’s film up until the final third.  Over the years I’d always remembered the movie to be this non-stop cabin fever scare-fest that was a journey into madness from the start but that’s what a young imagination falsely remembered will do to you.  Seeing it through a more adult eye with a critical angle, I was taken by how well Kubrick turned up the heat on the Torrance family as they came to the Overlook Hotel in Colorado and the horrible fate that befell them.  Jack Nicholson’s performance is legendary to say nothing of Shelley Duvall’s unfairly maligned and unjustly ignored heroic work as his wife who comes apart at the seams on account of her husband’s own mental breakdown.

Kubrick’s The Shining ended (spoiler-alert) with Jack Torrance frozen to death in the Overlook’s hedge maze and his wife Wendy and son Danny high-tailing it down the mountain to safety.  So when King went to write a sequel to the novel years later, he obviously was writing a sequel to his story that ended with the Overlook destroyed.  King’s follow-up, Doctor Sleep, was a well-received best-seller and soon it was time to consider making that into a movie as well.  Yet, how to merge this book with the previous movie?  Enter Mike Flanagan, riding high off of his success with a series of successful genre films Oculus, Hush, Gerald’s Game, and the series The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. Hired to adapt and direct Doctor Sleep (he also edited the movie), Flanagan worked with King to adjust the novel to fit with Kubrick’s original film and the result is a seamless continuation that’s supremely satisfying and frequently frightening.

Picking up in 1980 where Kubrick left off, Doctor Sleep starts not with the Torrance family but with Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, The Greatest Showman) and other members of The True Knot.  Surviving on the essence, or “steam”, of those with special powers like Danny has, they move throughout the country hunting children because that is when their “steam” is at its most potent.  The more they feed, the longer they live and the stronger they become.  At the same time, Danny and his mother (Alex Essoe, Starry Eyes) have relocated to Florida where Danny sees visions of a familiar friend from the Overlook.  Jumping ahead 31 years, Danny (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Robin) has dulled the memories of his past and stifled his “shining” with alcohol and drugs and is barely standing when he meets Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis, The Meg) in a small New Hampshire town.

Finding a new life and sobriety, Danny spends the next eight years working at a hospice and often using his gifts to help patients transition to the other side with peace.  He’s also been communicating telepathically with Abra (Kyliegh Curran) another child possessing the power of the shining equal to Danny who has caught the attention of The True Knot.  When she begins to see visions of Rose the Hat and The True Knot in action, eventually finding a link into Rose’s consciousness, Abra knows she can’t take them on alone.  Asking for Danny’s help, he has to decide if he can open up the door to let his dark past back in he’s worked so hard to keep boarded up for these many years.  With so many ghosts from the Overlook locked away inside their individual Pandoras boxes, if that portal opens Danny isn’t sure what else might return with them.  But does he have a choice when a hungry cult will stop at nothing to get to Abra and now for the first time has also sensed his power and presence?

At 151 minutes, Doctor Sleep outpaces The Shining by 5 minutes but offers more movement and thrills at the outset than Kubrick did in his film.  Now, some may see that as a good thing or it could be a sign of Flanagan not totally trusting the audience to wait for two hours to get to the main event – but I don’t agree with that.  This is a movie that has measured out it’s shocks in just the right places, aiming squarely for maximum impact and not just to goose audiences with short attention spans.  No, Flanagan has previously demonstrated in his projects that he knows just when to push the button on the scare machine and here again he proves his timing is spot-on.  He doesn’t even have to push hard, simple things like music cues or familiar images can get those tingles started in your tailbone and send them upwards fairly quickly.

The references to The Shining are both obvious and sneaky and you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for some fun ways Flanagan and his production team have tipped their hat to Kubrick’s original design.  While some scenes from the original are recreated in part, I was so glad to see it wasn’t with old footage made to look new or digitally altered to appear as if Nicholson and Duvall had come back for reshoots.  Casting new actors in these roles that aren’t exactly lookalikes but aren’t doing a pronounced impression was a wise choice too – you get the general idea of the previous actors but it’s more the character that’s important above all else.  Someone at my screening whined at the end they wished Nicholson had returned…but that would have been a huge distraction.

As is typical, Flanagan has assembled an interesting array of actors and it’s not just those at the top.  While McGregor is in fine form as the tortured Danny and nicely conveys the sense of loss and ongoing struggle he’s going through, he often takes a backseat when someone like Ferguson is onscreen because she’s such a commanding presence.  Stalking around the movie (and other actors), Ferguson’s character is wicked scary and doesn’t oversell why she’s the leader of this bloodthirsty pack.  There’s no campy acting going on with Ferguson.  Rose the Hat has survived for a number of years doing what she does and she has little qualms about taking the lives of the young — it’s a really evil role and Ferguson is impressively menacing in it.  I also quite liked Curran’s Abra, delighting in her burgeoning powers but also realizing the reality of the terrifying visions she’s seeing.  She ably holds her own against more seasoned performers and does so in the face of some disturbing material.

That’s another thing about Doctor Sleep that got under my skin and I couldn’t shake, it’s a very unsettling film.  Horror movies are meant to jostle you a bit and then let you go on your merry way into the night but Flanagan’s film digs in and sticks with you for a while after the movie is over.  While the imagery might not be all that gruesome, there are some suggestions of terrible acts that are hard to brush off and it adds to the growing sense of dread leading to the climax of the film.  While I won’t say how or where the film ends, speaking for myself I left the movie feeling satiated with where Flanagan (and King) led these characters.

Bound to keep a new generation of viewers up at night by pairing this with the original, Doctor Sleep is another win for Mike Flanagan and well as fans of Stephen King.  It’s a handsome production that provides the requisite shivers and shudders but takes it’s time to find an emotional core beneath it all.  Adding in the strong performances from the leads and supporting players and you have a solid effort worthy of sitting on the shelf next to its predecessor.

Movie Review ~ IT: Chapter Two


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Twenty-seven years after their first encounter with the terrifying Pennywise, the Losers Club have grown up and moved away, until a devastating phone call brings them back.

Stars: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Jay Ryan, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård, Xavier Dolan, Will Beinbrink, Teach Grant, Jaeden Martell, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer

Director: Andy Muschietti

Rated: R

Running Length: 169 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Two years after IT: Chapter One took the late summer/early box office by screaming storm, we find ourselves in a similar situation upon the arrival of its sequel.  Like its predecessor, IT: Chapter Two is being released at the very tail end of a mostly bummer summer of sputtering sequels and non-starter indies.  At this point in the year, the hunger for something high quality that isn’t seeking Oscar gold (or is it?) but just wants to entertain is, I must admit, quite appealing.  Re-watching Chapter One in anticipation of Chapter Two, I was struck by how well that earlier film scooped up the audience into its spell and had high hopes the second chapter would continue with that same magic.

In my review of the first film I wondered why the studio didn’t have a little more faith in the property and shoot the entire novel back-to-back instead of disrupting its non-linear plot in favor of more straight-forward storytelling. Instead, Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema, still wary after a troubled start to the project when the original writer/director left, decided to test the waters by filming only the first of a planned two-part movie.  The film was a gigantic hit (rightfully so), made a few stars out of the kids, and almost immediately had fans compiling their dream cast for the follow-up that quickly got the greenlight.

It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club bested Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård, Atomic Blonde) and most have moved away from the tiny town of Derry, Maine.  Mike (Isaiah Mustafa, The Three Stooges) is the only one that has stuck around, living above the library and keeping watch for any strange occurrences that might be tied to the evil he faced with his friends when they were tweens.  Receiving a fairly targeted message at the scene of a horrific crime that confirms his worst suspicions, Mike tracks down his long-lost pals who have all strangely forgotten the summer of the clown and they oath they made to return.

Overcoming his stutter and becoming a successful novelist and screenwriter, Bill (James McAvoy, Split) is more than happy to vacate the set of his latest movie where he’s having trouble getting the ending right.  Beverly (Jessica Chastain, Lawless) escapes her violent husband/business partner in order to keep her promise, while foul-mouthed stand-up comedian Richie (Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins) leaves his tour and heads for Maine.  Eddie (James Ransone, Sinister) and Ben (Jay Ryan) have no problems getting out of their stuffy corporate jobs and away from the drone of their daily lives.  Only Stanley (Andy Bean, Allegiant) finds it harder to return for reasons I won’t spoil here.

When the gang has gathered back in their hometown and Mike levels with them about the evil that has reemerged, the memories come flooding back and it’s here the movie starts to fray. Up until that point, writer Gary Dauberman (Annabelle Comes Home) and returning director Andy Muschietti (Mama) have been pulling the rope tighter and tauter around the group, giving them all warning signs that danger awaits them all.  Once they all arrive, however, there’s a fracturing isolation that occurs which gives each person an individual mini sub-storyline to follow and the movie curiously goes slack.  Seems that Mike has found out a way to destroy the entity that has been feeding off of Derry residents for hundreds of years and he needs his friends to split up and gather a personal “artifact” from that summer that was important to them.

This gives each actor their own stretch of time to be the star of the film and not everyone uses their time wisely. Surprisingly, it’s the biggest stars that fare the worst with McAvoy whipping himself into an absolute frenzy at inopportune times, coming off as bug-eyed and hysterical instead of terrified.  Chastain is right behind him feasting on the scenery and she and Hader fight over which high emotional moment to gnaw on next.  (There is a serious campaign to get Hader an Oscar nomination for his work here and, while I’m a fan, that’s totally bonkers.  This isn’t even an Oscar-adjacent performance.) All three become, frankly, grating as the movie extends which makes the restrained and nuanced work Ransone, Ryan, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Mustafa, seem even more welcome.  These character “adventures” feel like the chapters they are in the book, personal moments that have slight ties to the greater action but are largely drop-in and drop-out scenes.  The same scenario is repeated later in the movie when the adults get thrown into their own personal horrors.  What started in 2017 as a scary riff on Stand by Me turns into a tricky re-working of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.

What’s really missed are the child actors from Chapter One and, though they have been brought back for this second installment they aren’t…quite the same.  Over the past two years the kids have done what kids do at that age: they grow.  Via digital scrubbing and voice modulating, the performances have been youth-ized and the results are often creepier than Pennywise.  You know the voice matches the actor but the face doesn’t look right so it’s all strangely out of whack.  Only Sophia Lillis seems to have escaped the airbrush and thus her performance feels the most grounded and real.  When the action switches back to the adults, you can see the work the older actors have done to match their younger counterparts and, for what it’s worth, the casting is spot-on.  I just kept wondering what would have happened if they waited 27 years to let these younger actors grow into their older selves.

As is the case with most sequels to horror films, the scares have to be bigger and more frequent and IT: Chapter Two definitely falls in line with expectations  The trouble with that is there is no build up to a scare almost anywhere in the movie.  Sure, there is some disturbing imagery and a few jolts but none come close to the satisfying and expertly orchestrated thrills elicited from Chapter One.  It’s like in Jaws.  Once you’ve seen the shark, you’ve seen the shark and it’s all about the attack from then on.  Now that we are familiar with Pennywise and have seen so much of him, there’s less menace to be had, even though he does bare that hideous maw with rows upon rows of razor teeth multiple times in the film.

There’s a fairly large amount of iffy CGI on display, as well. Though the protracted finale of the film features the most well-rounded effects of all, there are numerous nightmare creatures conjured up by Dauberman and Muschietti that are simply goofy to look at.  An abundance of grotesque creepies emerge from the darkness throughout the movie and few have the same impact of the simple image of Pennywise staring out of the dark at an unsuspecting child.  An effective (if extremely hard to stomach) opening sequence at a country fair and a later scene underneath the town bleachers are good reminders of how Muschietti can extend tension to its most enjoyable breaking point.

At 169 minutes, the movie either needed to be 40 minutes shorter or 60 minutes longer. Were it shorter, Muschietti could have trimmed up some redundant character bits in the third act that feel like extra padding.  Had it been longer, we could have spent some more time with the Losers Club and their lives outside of Derry.  There’s too little of their current lives shown to give us a proper introduction so we have to almost base our knowledge soley on what we remember from the original film.  What I do appreciate is Muschietti’s attention to small details from the book and within his vision of the film.  I’ll  have to give the movie a second watch, but there’s usually something not quite right going on in the background of scenes that most viewers won’t catch on the first viewing.  It’s also a nice touch to have Eddie’s nagging wife played by the same actress who was his mother in Chapter One.  There are also two very funny cameos, one in particular that had our audience cheering.

There’s rumors of a supercut that might happen that would combine both movies into one and I’d be fascinated to see how that would come together. I’d definitely recommend this movie, sequel flaws and long running time aside, because of the way it nicely concludes what was started back in 2017.  If only everything was done at the same time and the filmmakers didn’t have that extra year to get too zealous with their plans for IT: Chapter Two.

The Silver Bullet ~ IT: Chapter 2



Synopsis
: Twenty-seven years later, the Losers Club have grown up and moved away, until a devastating phone call brings them back.

Release Date: September 6, 2019

Thoughts: Back in 2017, Warner Brothers took a risky move by remaking Stephen King’s IT as a big screen endeavor. Though the television mini-series had unquestionably not aged well it still held a soft spot in the hearts of many a fan.  Thankfully, the gamble paid off and director Andy Muschietti (Mama) delivered not only a scary as hell horror film but one that also captured King’s nostalgic tones as well.  The performances were far above average considering that most of the kids were unknowns and that helped keep the tension up throughout.  Two years later comes the concluding chapter featuring the members of the Losers Club that have grown up and are revisited by a vengeful evil that has been waiting for them for many years.  The first teaser trailer is a doozy too, crafted mostly as a scene between Jessica Chastain (The Martian) and a creepy lady that lives in her childhood home.  I found myself slowly inching away from my desk as it went along not sure where it was taking me.  Here’s hoping this sequel seamlessly branches off the first film and ends with the kind of bang it deserves.

Movie Review ~ Pet Sematary (2019)

1


The Facts
:

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.

Down From the Shelf ~ Pet Sematary Two

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage boy and his father move to his recently deceased mother’s hometown, where they encounter the ancient Native American cemetery with the power to raise the dead.

Stars: Edward Furlong, Anthony Edwards, Clancy Brown, Jason McGuire, Sarah Trigger, Jared Rushton, Darlanne Fluegel

Director: Mary Lambert

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: If you were to be browsing the roster of movies that have been made from the novels/novella/short stories of Stephen King, you’d notice the strange absence of a popular Hollywood occurrence: sequels. Something about King’s work has never leant itself well to a continuation of the story, mostly because the tales are largely self-contained within the singular telling. When the effort has been made to squeeze a little more money out of a popular title, you wind up with an icky franchise like the Children of the Corn saga, which has produced numerous sequels. (I stopped watching after the third one and stopped counting after the sixth). Then you have interesting misses like The Rage: Carrie 2 and this sequel to 1989’s Pet Sematary.

I could actually see where Pet Sematary would be a valid property to revisit seeing that the ending of the first film was so open-ended and ambiguous. The evil at its center, an ancient Indian burial ground where dead things come back to life, was still open for business so what was stopping another unsuspecting family from moving into the neighborhood? With the slate wiped clean there was an opportunity for screenwriter Richard Outten (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) and returning director Mary Lambert to expand on King’s original idea and go deeper into the origins of the cemetery.

Unfortunately, this was 1992, when the goal of studios was to make their horror films as straightforward as possible. There’s little care for those pesky detailed complexities of backstory that would take time away from gore and bloodshed. So instead of a creative furthering of the material, Outten opts for a vague rehash of the original where someone learns the hard way that you shouldn’t re-bury dead things.

After watching his B-movie star mother get electrocuted in a freak accident on the set of her latest flick, Jeff (Edward Furlong, A Home of Our Own) returns with his father Chase (Anthony Edwards, Top Gun) to her hometown of Ludlow, Maine to bury her and start a new life. Chase sets up shop as the town veterinarian while Jeff quickly runs afoul of the school bully (Jared Rushton) and befriends a lonely outcast (Jason McGuire) with a tyrannical stepfather (Clancy Brown, Thor: Ragnarok). When the stepfather accidentally kills his friends dog, Jeff is introduced to the local pet sematary and the dark magic it holds.  Everyone in town knows what happened to the Creed family just three years earlier…and now Jeff is standing in the same location where the dead can walk.

Like the wiley cat in the first film, the once docile dog returns as an aggressive pup and causes all sorts of trouble that lead Jeff and Justin down a morally dangerous path. As they try to undo their dirty deed and as Chase learns more about what his son has been up to, the movie feels like it shows its hand far too early on. The big reveal on the ultimate power of the burial ground in the original movie was kept for the last twenty minutes or so but here you have someone resurrected about 45 minutes in and that person becomes almost an almost comedic figure, intentional or not.  Though they are supposed to be menacing, one-liners and a strangely goofy stare are clearly meant to put this character in the Freddy Krueger territory as someone who might kill you but also might just as well make you sit down and listen to their comedy routine first too.

Lambert actually succeeds well in the first half of the movie, starting with the creepy opening on the movie within a movie. She’s not working with A-list actors here and this is another opportunity to wonder why the screechy Furlong was ever considered a commodity in Hollywood. As the movie devolves into its expected violent end it never brings any scares along with it – and that starts to get mighty frustrating because you want something more to be happening. I appreciated Lambert opted to include scenes with some sincerity in them, such as when McGuire is mourning the loss of his dog but then they are overshadowed with lame pseudo-terror sequences that feel imposed upon her by the studio. The ending is especially problematic and bombastic, feeling like it was made by another filmmaker entirely.

Not surprisingly, Pet Sematary Two failed to dig up the same kind of business its predecessor did and it’s largely because no one bothered to come up with something interesting for audiences. Instead of giving us just another story of death, burial, resurrection, and violence why not go back and show us a little more about its origin? I’m sure everyone made a nice buck off of their time spent on the project…but it effectively killed any chance of a third film or more. And this is one that could have, in my opinion, had a few more sequels up its rotting sleeve.

Down From the Shelf ~ Pet Sematary (1989)

The Facts:

Synopsis: For most families, moving is a new beginning. But for the Creeds, it could be the beginning of the end.

Stars: Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Fred Gwynne, Miko Hughes, Blaze Berdahl, Brad Greenquist

Director: Mary Lambert

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When Pet Sematary was released to theaters in April of 1989, Hollywood had already worked its way through many of Stephen King’s earliest works. Carrie, Cujo, Christine, The Shining…these and more had found their way to the big screen and the attention was now turning to his more obscure works as well as the new novels he was continuing to publish. Largely, the results weren’t that impressive, resulting in some clunkers and a few passable entries in the anthology horror genre before a welcome detour into nostalgic drama with the now-classic Stand by Me.

So going into opening weekend Pet Sematary wasn’t exactly a license to print money like some King adaptations would be several years after this one made nearly sixty million dollars at the box office. Yet the reason why Pet Sematary stands above many of the films that came before it and after (with a few notable exceptions) can be attributed to several factors. Unlike other novels that got the silver screen treatment, the source material was strong, the script from King himself was much more focused than anything the author had turned in before, and the direction from Mary Lambert was skilled at turning even the most benign situations into the stuff of nightmares.

Moving from the big city of Chicago to the small town life in Ludlow, Maine, the Creed family is ready for a change. Louis (Dale Midkiff) is the new doctor at a local college while his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby, Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary) sets up home with their two young children (Blake Berdahl and Miko Hughes, Kindergarten Cop). Aside from being directly next to a busy road that sees semis frequently speeding past, it’s a welcome change of pace. They even have a friendly neighbor named Jud (Fred Gwynne) who has lived in the same house long enough to fill them in on all the town gossip…including what’s at the end of the path behind the Creed’s house.

That’s where the pet sematary is…where the children of the town bury their dearly departed animals that either died of old age or met an untimely end thanks to the dangerous road right outside the Creed’s front door. Filled with headstones and gravemarkers that date back almost a century, there’s plenty to see here…but there’s also a place beyond the standard burial ground that holds a darker secret and it’s where Louis Creed will innocently cross a line that will lead to deadly consequences for his family.

King has gone on record saying his 1983 book is the only one that truly scared him when he was writing it and there’s something to the simplicity of the set-up that makes you understand why. What King is detailing in the events of the movie are all of our wishes to bring our loved ones (human and animal) back but not understanding that often, dead is better. King also turns the tables on those that feel a sense of relief when the sickly do die…showing that they are haunted by memories long after the other person has been buried.

Director Lambert has a rock and roll vibe to her movies but also perfectly captures the small town feel the movie requires. Largely taking place inside and around the Creed house, it’s a contained picture with only a few players and keeping it small makes the shocks more effective. It also shows some of the limitations to the actors with people like Crosby and especially Berdahl coming off as weak counterpoints to Midkiff and Hughes (who, at 3 gives a remarkable performance). Still, it’s Gwynne who walks away with the film with his Maine accent delivered in his basso profoundo voice. I also liked Brad Greenquist (Annabelle: Creation) as a mostly benign (if ghastly) ghost trying to guide the Creed family away from the evil they can’t seem to avoid.

With a remake of Pet Sematary on the horizon, it’s nice to look back and remember how solid this first pass at King’s tale of terror is. Admittedly, it starts to get a bit histrionic in the last half hour with the dial being turned up on everything from Elliot Goldenthal’s music to Midkiff’s performance but when it plays it cool it’s highly effective.

For an in-depth look at the making of Pet Sematary, check out Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary.  It’s available on Amazon Prime!

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 ~ Thinner (1996) 

The Facts:

Synopsis: An obese attorney is cursed by a gypsy to rapidly and uncontrollably lose weight.

Stars: Robert John Burke, Joe Mantegna, Lucinda Jenney, Michael Constantine, Kari Wuhrer, Stephen King, Walter Bobbie

Director: Tom Holland

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Starting with the release and huge success of Carrie in 1976, author Stephen King has enjoyed seeing the profits for numerous adaptations of his work come his way.  Studios began scrambling to buy the rights to his work and bring his tales of terror to life which is how we’ve come to have solid titles like The Shining, Christine, Cujo, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, and Misery in our libraries.  To talk about the good adaptions, you must also talk about the bad and King’s work has produced far more duds than hits…such is the case with Thinner from 1996.

Originally published under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman, Thinner hit bookshelves in 1984 and when it was discovered the King was Bachman isn’t wasn’t long before a studio attached themselves to the grim morality tale.  Condensing the 300+ page novel to 90 minute movie, director and co-screenwriter Tom Holland (who also wrote Psycho II and directed Fright Night) removed the, uh, fat from King’s tome and produced a slick but slack horror thriller that is passable entertainment but feels like everything about it was second-hand.

When overweight attorney Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke) accidentally runs over and kills an old gypsy woman and then gets off scott free, he incurs the wrath of a gypsy king (Michael Constantine, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2) who puts a curse and him and others that covered up the crime.  Each person cursed has their own personal hell to endure and Billy’s is that no matter how much he eat,s he continues to lose weight at a rapid pace.  At first, that’s good news for the man that has tried for years to shed pounds and his beleaguered wife (Lucinda Jenney, Matinee) who has kept him on a strict diet.  When the weight loss begins to accelerate, and his friends start dying in horrible ways, Billy must track down the gypsy clan to get the curse reversed.

Arguably, there’s a nice concept at the heart of Thinner and had this been given a bit more money and prestige I’d imagine it could have been a sleeper hit.  The problem is that Holland never quite figures out is how to make his characters (any of them) the least bit sympathetic so we have someone to be invested in.  There’re literally no “good” people to be found, everyone has an ulterior motive to their actions or spits their lines out with such overstimulated venom you have a hard time feeling sorry when they are killed off.

It also doesn’t help the leading man is such a bore.  Burke had infamously taken over for Peter Weller in RoboCop 3 and even under that heavy costume with his face obscured he managed to overact.  He does the same thing here, saddled with a fat suit and unconvincing make-up at the beginning and eventually turning skeletal as he continues to lose fat and muscle.  I’m not sure if the make-up did this to him but Burke has this smile/grimace on his face when he’s heavier that is truly unnerving…and not in the way Holland intended.

If I’ve forgotten to mention Joe Mantegna (House of Games) up until this point he should count himself lucky.  As a tricky mobster client of Billy’s, Mantegna plays up the wise guy role to the point of parody and acts as a silly means to an end in helping Billy connect the dots to the origin of the gypsy curse.  If there’s one actor I didn’t mind, it’s the always reliable Jenney who seems to know she’s in a turkey so opts for such a small performance that it has the effect of letting her scene partners look like they’re overacting.

Not surprisingly, this was a huge box office bomb but it didn’t stop the King adaptations from coming.  It would be three years before The Green Mile would be released and in 2017 there was the one two punch of the remake of IT and the dandy Gerald’s Game for Netflix.  It’s clear the best was behind the King work at that time and while Thinner wasn’t bad enough to make studios think twice about taking a dip in the King swamp it’s prospects of being much better are keenly felt two decades later.

31 Days to Scare ~ Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary

The Facts:

Synopsis: This documentary is a detailed look into the making of Pet Sematary, one of the most enduring cult-horror classics of our generation.

Stars: Miko Hughes, Denise Crosby, Dale Midkiff, Blaze Berdahl, Susan Blommaert, Sean Clark, Mary Lambert, Brad Greenquist, Stephen King, Heather Langenkamp

Director: John Campopiano, Justin White

Rated: NR

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I’ll let you in on a little secret. Not only do I have a fondness for the horror genre with old-school scares from the ‘70s and ‘80s of particular interest, I also enjoy documentaries on the making of horror films from that same era. Produced at a time when the scares were often as cheap as the production values and acting, there’s just something fun about gathering the filmmakers and cast together again years later to recount how a fright flick came together.

Released in 1989, Pet Sematary was another in a long line of Stephen King adaptations that did decent business at the box office but truly thrived when it arrived on home video. It’s arguably one of the better remembered films based on a Stephen King novel, at least during that mid-to-late ‘80s stretch when everything King touched found its way to cinemas to varying degrees of success. This film had several things working in its favor. The source material was quite strong and King wrote the screenplay himself. Though she had a moody directorial debut in 1987 with Siesta, director Mary Lambert was still best known as a music video director with Madonna’s Material Girl, Like a Virgin, and Like a Prayer videos high up on her calling card. It was also rare to have a female director in charge of a gory horror film (and its 1992 lesser sequel)…but Lambert turned out to be an inspired choice and brought a creativity to the proceedings.

All of these factors serve as the jumping off point for the entertaining documentary Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary, which is available to stream on Amazon Prime. A fully formed and informative behind the scenes look at the genesis of King’s original story and its transition to the big screen is covered well by directors John Campopiano, and Justin White. They’ve gathered all the necessary talking heads (and a few surprisingly obscure crew members) to narrate the location shooting, release, and lasting legacy of Pet Sematary. Getting an insider’s look at some of the special effects and production design in addition to on-set stories of reshoots and cast remembrances of working with the genial Fred Gwynne are just icing on the cake of a very well-made retrospective.

Even if you aren’t a die-hard fan of the movie (I watched it so many times on cable and rented it often that I suppose I should count myself in that pool) there’s something of interest here in how these movies are made and the type of technical acumen that goes into the work.   In the business of scare, it can be hard to keep things fresh but the stars truly came together for this production and everyone involved seems to have nothing but warm memories of their participation. Worth a look!  I dig that poster too!

31 Days to Scare ~ Castle Rock (Teaser)

Synopsis: Based on the stories of Stephen King, the series will intertwine characters and themes from the fictional town of Castle Rock.

Release Date: TBA 2018

Thoughts: Ever since the first announcement for Castle Rock was released in February 2017 the entire production has been shrouded in mystery.  From J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens and known to be a producer with a Midas touch) and author Stephen King (Gerald’s Game), this Hulu series teased intertwining tales that took characters/events/ideas from King’s canon and gave them new life as residents of Castle Rock, Maine.  Any King fan will tell you the fictional town plays a part in nearly every one of his novels and I’m downright fascinated to see what they’ve come up with.  Boasting solid stars like Sissy Spacek (Carrie), Terry O’Quinn (The Stepfather), Scott Glenn (The Bourne Legacy) along with rising names like Jane Levy (Don’t Breathe), André Holland (Selma), and Bill Skarsgård (IT), this feels like it’s either going to be right on the money or all smoke and no fire.  After this first full trailer, I smell payola for all involved.