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Pet Sematary (2019)

Here’s a slight change of pace: Unlike so many other reviewers toward the new Pet Sematary remake, I’m coming at this one totally fresh. I’ve never seen the previous 1989 adaptation, never read the Stephen King source material. I am, however, very familiar with the namesake song produced for that movie.

I’m not typically much for The Ramones, but “Pet Sematary” has been a mainstay on my Halloween playlist for years. It’s not just a solid rock song, it’s upbeat, scary, spooky fun to listen to. I’m also very fond of the Plain White T’s cover that came out for Frankenweenie — this cover is just as effective as a rock song, while enhancing the creepiness through chimes, wailing background vocals, and other Danny Elfman-esque touches. But easily my favorite iteration came out just a couple of days ago, courtesy of Portland’s own indie horror rock band Toxic Zombies. The instrumentation is fantastic, the creep factor is prominent, and these are easily the best vocals I’ve heard in any cover of this song. I’d even go so far as to say that Toxic Zombie perfected the song that the Ramones wrote.

So of course my big question going in was whether or not the remake would offer its own cover of the title track. Sure enough, the end credits rolled and there was a brand new cover, courtesy of Starcrawler. It’s okay. It hits all the right notes and it works well enough, but it still feels a bit flat compared to what came before. And that right there is more or less my review for the whole movie.

What we’ve got here is a straightforward Monkey’s Paw story about a family moving out of the city and into the country boondocks of Maine, only to find that their new real estate purchase includes a cursed patch of land that can miraculously bring the dead back to life as an undead monster. First the family (more specifically the patriarch, Dr. Louis Creed, played here by Jason Clarke) tries it with a dead cat, then they try it when one of their children is tragically slain in a freak accident.

It’s frankly a wonder that Mr. King was able to wring over 300 pages out of this premise. This sounds like a novella that should’ve been a short story.

Sure enough, there’s a ton of padding in this 100-minute movie. We’ve got Victor (Obssa Ahmed), a car crash victim who dies on Louis’ operating table and proceeds to act as a kind of spirit guide for our family. Cut out his scenes and all we’d miss are a few scares. We’ve also got Rachel Creed (Amy Seimetz) and the recurring subplot about her dead sister. I get what the filmmakers are going for, trying to imply that the evil psychic influence of the Sematary is preying on Rachel’s guilt and her innate fear of death, but the flashbacks don’t fit with the rest of the film and the subplot never really goes anywhere.

As for the rest of our main cast, this right here is a texbook example of an Idiot Plot. Why did Judd (the old neighbor played by John Lithgow) introduce Louis to the magic graveyard when he saw what it did to his old pet and knew perfectly well what would happen? Why did Louis bury his child in that magic graveyard when he’s already seen what it did to his cat and knew perfectly well that it wouldn’t end well? Why was that kid even playing out on the street at all when everybody in the whole neighborhood knows about those big noisy trucks that go barreling through on a constant basis with no warning? Why the hell do those big trucks even drive through these backwoods middle-of-nowhere residential roads at freeway speeds?

Granted, a lot of this is hand-waved away by the vague psychic influence that this evil graveyard somehow has on people living nearby. And of course there are so many characters acting out of grief for their deceased loved ones. Your mileage will vary, regarding how far any of this goes toward excusing the miserably stupid actions and decisions that drive the plot forward. And of course, any movie in the horror genre (with very few exceptions) depends entirely on the stupid decisions made by its main characters. Even so, I found it terribly hard to sympathize for any of these characters when I had to stop at least once every ten minutes to scream “Why are you doing that, you IDIOT?!

But then the climax came, and it suddenly hit me that Louis isn’t really meant to be sympathetic — as with Victor Frankenstein and Herbert West, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Over time, it eventually becomes clear that the protagonist is made to suffer for his hubris and his inability to (if you’ll pardon the phrase) bury his dead. He may be our protagonist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s our moral arbiter. Though he does appear to start that way, and watching Jason Clarke guide this character into delusional madness after the death of his child is genuinely interesting to watch.

Speaking of which — without getting too much into spoilers — I understand that there’s already been no small amount of controversy regarding which child gets killed. Apparently, the filmmakers switched it up from the source material, and I can understand why. To start with, it matches a well-established character archetype that’s become a classic horror trope for multiple reasons. For another thing, it gives us a slightly more verbose character, the better to elaborate on motivations, thoughts on death or dying, vague and/or menacing threats, and so on. It was a good choice.

The cast as a whole is pretty solid. Jason Clarke turns in a serviceable lead performance, John Lithgow is a treat to watch, and young Jete Laurence is a real find. I wasn’t quite as impressed with Amy Seimetz, but she does well enough with what she had to work with.

The presentation has a few neat flourishes throughout. I was rather fond of the quick cuts that occasionally flash through, interrupting the flow of a scene in a neatly unnerving way. But I really loved the (prosthetic/CGI/whatever) work on the reanimated characters, such that one eye drooped lower than the other. It’s a beautifully unsettling way of showing that something with the newly-revived character just isn’t right.

Still, if you’ve been reading closely, you might be able to spot a recurring problem with this film: It doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. You’ve got the fakeouts, the jump scares, the rooms and hallways that the characters insist on keeping dark for no adequate reason, and so on. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all produced well enough and a few scares do land nicely. But the old familiar tricks, compounded by the overly dramatic score from Christopher Young, all make the film more melodramatic than genuinely terrifying.

Pet Sematary (2019) does a solid job of cribbing from other modern horror films, but doesn’t really do anything to set it apart from its contemporaries. Between the thin plot, the stock (albeit well-acted) characters, the tired themes we’ve seen explored so many times in other better movies, and the same horror tricks we’ve seen in umpteen different Blumhouse franchises, there’s not much here in the way of personality. Especially when it’s playing next to Us, the far superior and more creative horror film that’s still going strong in multiplexes.

The movie is functional, but nothing special. Definitely home video material.

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