One of the paradoxes of life is that it is possible to get better and worse at the same time. You can see it in the world of the NBA where the athletes are better and coaches and teams have more information about what does and doesn’t work than ever before and the result is a boring game where every team plays exactly the same way and it all boils down to just a three point shooting contest. The Houston Rockets with James Harden could win an NBA title by playing the ugliest and least entertaining basketball anyone has ever seen. Yes, watching Dean Smith’s “four corners” offense was better than watching four guys stand around while Harden flops like a fish.
The same phenomenon can be seen in Hollywood where the level of technical skill and technological possibilities in filmmaking has never been higher, yet the quality of storytelling has markedly declined. That is on clear display in this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown as we see the failure of a creator to adapt his own work to the big screen get topped by remakers who fail to understand why he failed. It’s “Pet Sematary” (1989) vs. “Pet Sematary” (2019) in a battle that proves the problem with clichés isn’t that they’re not true, it’s that they degenerate over time.
"Damn these new contacts!"
Stephen King wrote the original book and then the screenplay for the 1989 version and I think conclusively answered the question of why so many of King’s great books have turned into such crappy movies. A two-hour or less film simply doesn’t have room for all the great characterization and back story that makes Stephen King who he is and lesser writers who they are. Strip all of that away and you are left with plotting which can be rather pedestrian.
Anyway…”Pet Sematary” (1989) is about big city doctor Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) moving his wife and two kids to small town Maine. They move into a rural homestead across the road from spectacular New England stereotype Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), separated by a common language and the relentless truck traffic from a nearby refinery. When the Creed family cat dies, Jud takes Louis into the woods to bury the cat on haunted Indian land. Louis thinks it’s a strange thing to do and thinks it’s even stranger when the cat comes back the next day.
Jud explains that anything buried on that Indian land returns to life, which seems a neat coincidence when Louis’ youngest child is hit by a semi and killed. But of course that’s when Jud tells us the rest of the story about how anything buried doesn’t come back exactly the same as before. Things end in blood and fire with a killer toddler, despite a gross and helpful spirit along the way.
Dale Midkiff after his final meeting with the writers of "Time Trax."
The original “Pet Sematary” is a like a super-sized episode of the TV show “Tales from the Darkside.” It looks and feels like a TV movie for the most part, though a pretty good one thanks to the direction of Mary Lambert and the standout performance by Fred Gwynne. Lambert takes the inherently unworkable concept of a killer toddler…I mean, any grown adult could simply punt the kid across the room…and creates some genuinely chilling and disturbing scenes. Yeah, the moments where the kid is making a mean face look dumb but even by the standards of today’s horror-saturated pop culture, there is some messed up stuff in “Pet Sematary” (1989). And Gwynne uses a thick New England accent to tee up his exposition-heavy role and knock it out of the park. It is an award-worthy performance and the primary reason anyone ever cared about the original film at all.
Seriously...there is some messed up stuff in this movie.
But the problems of the movie stand out like roads flares on foggy morning highway. Midkiff is a slice of beefcake that was moderately hot for about 8 minutes in the late 80s and doesn’t have nearly the acting chops for the part of Louis. The basic plot involves a whole lot of waiting around where nothing actually happens until almost the very end. You can tell that King killed time in the book with subplots involving Louis’ wife (Denis Crosby) and her guilt over a dead sister, the Louis family maid and her battle with cancer, the mutual disdain felt by Louis and his wife’s parents, and back story about the cursed Indian land. There’s not enough time for any of that in the film but King didn’t cut any of it out, so it’s all presented in a very cursory and uninvolving fashion.
The biggest flaw in “Pet Sematary” (1989), however, it that all the characters are a-holes. Louis is an a-hole who moves his family to the country without ever showing his wife their new home. Seriously, what sort of uber-controlling jerk does that? Jud is an a-hole who destroys Louis’ family because he can’t keep his damn mouth shut about the cursed Indian ground. Louis’ wife is an a-hole, though that’s more because you can tell Denise Crosby spent the entire production thinking “I left ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ for this?!?!” Her parents are a-holes who not only leave her alone with her dying sister when she’s just eight years old but her dad gets into a fist fight with Louis at the youngest child’s funeral. Louis’ older daughter is an a-hole because she’s one of these child characters who is supposed to be cute and endearing but is actually super-annoying. Even the Louis family cat is an a-hole because…well, it’s a cat.
"Lilly...I think I'm having a stroke."
“Pet Sematary” (2019) actually fixes a lot of the problems of the original but in a way that results in an inferior film. Jason Clarke as Louis is a big step up from Midkiff but his superior acting serves to make Louis more relatable but less likeable. A lot of the subplots and back story have been pruned away to focus more attention on Louis’ wife (Amy Seimetz) and her guilt over her sister, but the result is the remake never quite figures out who its main character is supposed to be – Louis or his wife? The remake’s version of Jud (John Lithgow) is much less of a windup exposition machine but he’s not a tenth as memorable as the original. The remake even fixes the improbability of a killer toddler by…SPOILER ALERT…having Louis’ older child get killed and resurrected. An 8-10-year-old girl with a knife is much more realistically threatening than a two-year-old. But the older child can also talk and has a more defined personality, which means the movie needs to do more to explain what went wrong with her resurrection and never figures out how to do that. Is she a demon? A sociopath? Cranky over the bad sewing job after her autopsy?
Remember these spooky kids from the trailer? They literally have NOTHING to do with the movie.
The remake’s directors, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, make their individual scenes look much better than the 1989 version but they pale in comparison to the verisimilitude created by Lambert. Little things like having the speeding trucks be a consistent presence throughout the film, even when it’s not necessary for the plot, generate a sense of reality that is entirely missing from the 2019 version.
Both films, though, struggle with the fact that both spend about 75% of their runtime just waiting for the big ending. But while the original mostly sticks the landing, the remake flies off course and crashes into a ditch. More SPOILERS follow…
In the 1989 version, Louis kills his resurrected kid but not before his wife dies. Louis then buries her and she comes back, just about to stab Louis with a butcher knife before the screen goes black and the movie ends. It’s one of those fake out horror flick conclusions where the villain is defeated but then returns at the end for a final scare. It was a tired cliché in 1989 but the original “Pet Sematary” wasn’t exactly Shakespeare to start with.
You can pretty much chart exactly when a Stephen King adaptation was made by how many black people are in the cast.
The 2019 version is some straight up nihilistic garbage. Louis’ wife gets killed by their older child. The child then buries her in the cursed Indian ground. Then, while Louis is struggling with his undead daughter, his wife skewers him through the chest. Louis is then buried and revived and the movie closes with all three zombified family members and their undead cat surrounding the car where Louis’ youngest and still living child is hiding. It ends with evil triumphant and an innocent child about to be murdered by its own parents and sibling. Who finds that emotionally or dramatically satisfying? Maybe if “Pet Sematary” (2019) had been some sort of bold reimaging of the original where such a dark conclusion served a purpose, it would be justifiable. But the remake is an utterly bog-standard horror flick that merely takes a by-now-even-more-exhausted cliché and turns the knob up to 11 to try and get some sort of rise out of viewers. Were they trying to set up a sequel about the continuing adventures of Louis’ zombie murder family?
This Throwdown goes to “Pet Sematary” (1989). It’s a middling motion picture that manages to get a few things right enough to make it more fondly remembered than it probably deserves. “Pet Sematary” (2019) exists because Paramount Pictures needed to make a movie to fulfill its corporate release schedule, still owned the rights to the story, and the remake of “It” in 2017 made money so why the hell not? It was ordered up like a cheeseburger at a fast food restaurant and produced with about as much care.
This thing has been sitting in the woods for decades and the local English teacher has NEVER gone out to fix that sign? Now that's unbelievable.
Pet Sematary (1989)
Written by Stephen King.
Directed by Mary Lambert.
Starring Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, Denise Crosby, Bard Greenquist, Michael Lombard, Miko Hughes, Blaze Berdahl, Susan Blommaert, Mara Clark, Kavi Raz, Mary Louise Wilson, and Andrew Hubatsek.
Pet Sematary (2019)
Written by Jeff Buhler.
Directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer.
Starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jete Laurence, Hug and Lucas Lavoie, Obssa Ahmed, Alyssa Brooke Levine, and Maria Herrera.