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Spoiler Warning: I ruin key plot points in the book, 1989 movie, and probably the new movie, so proceed with caution!
Before IT Chapter 2 arrives in theaters later this year, another highly anticipated Stephen King adaptation is hitting screens. Pet Sematary is set to retell the tale of the Creed family, a family which moves to a rural town in Maine and discovers a mystical (and cursed) pet cemetery on their property. It's one of King's most popular books, but I had never read it. Nor had I watched the original film. With the early word on the street that the new film from co-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer absolutely rules, I figured now was a great time to read the book and watch the original 1989 movie.
After watching the film last weekend, I decided that, yes, this thing was due for a remake.
The original Pet Sematary movie was directed by Mary Lambert and written by Stephen King himself. I had always heard positive things about the movie, and I was excited to watch it in preparation for the new film. Why did I do this? Probably so I could say "that's not how they did it in the book," and annoy all the people around me. Regardless, I loved the book, and Hulu made it easy for watch the original movie; however, it was not what I was expecting.
A few things I should point out before diving in: While the movie was pretty faithful to the book, watching for the first time, it falls short in some key areas like acting and pacing. Maybe I've just been spoiled by too many good horror films these past couple of years, but I had a hard time getting onboard this movie.
However, it's totally true that I am coming from a different experience than those who grew up watching the movie and I can see this being pretty scary if you were a kid in 1989 when the movie originally hit theaters. There is legitimately one scary scene involving a character named Zelda that unnerved me deeply. What scares audiences changes over time as well, and that could be one of the reasons watching for the first time now made me happy Pet Sematary is being remade. For me, most of the film ended up having a strong cheesy vibe that makes it more fun to watch than scary, but I obviously don't think that was the intention of the filmmakers.
Regardless of how dear some might hold the film, I think we can agree that the acting is not so great in this movie. It stars Dale Midkiff as Louis Creed, Denise Crosby as Rachel Creed, and Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandall. Gwyne is the best of the bunch and although his Maine accent makes it difficult to decipher what he's saying, he's still the strongest actor in the film. Unfortunately, Midkiff really bogs the movie down.
He reads almost every line with this monotone that makes it impossible to decipher what his character is actually feeling. There's a point in this movie where Louis is supposed to go insane, but Midkoff delivers dialogue the same way as before. You'd think having brought your dead son back from the dead only for him to murder your best friend and wife would have some impact on you.
Another issue I personally had sort of relates to having read the book. The pace is obviously faster, because when adapting a book to a movie, changes have to be made to streamline the plot. The problem I had with how Pet Sematary does it is that it drains the film of character and it's harder to discern why anyone is doing anything.
The perfect example is how the movie handles Jud Crandall, the Creed's elderly next door neighbor. In the book, Jud becomes Louis' best friend. They hang out on a regular basis, just kicking back and drinking beer. Jud also has a wife named Norma, whose life Louis saves after she has a nasty spill on Halloween. Because Louis saved his wife, Jud decides to pay him back by showing him the Micmac burial ground when Louis' family cat Church dies.
In the movie, Jud and Louis have a small handful of scenes together before Church has his inevitable meeting with a speeding truck and Jud shows the burial ground... just because? He pays some lip service later that he didn't want Louis' daughter to be sad, but it rings hollow -- especially because the movie's burial ground produces more violent animals than the book's did.
Norma was understandably cut from the movie (likely to keep the runtime and budget down), but without that extra motivation Jud doesn't really have much of an excuse to teach someone how to make zombies. In the book, Jud's decision isn't entirely his own because he's being influenced by the burial ground, but you still need that motivation to further justify the moment.
As an adaptation goes, Pet Sematary is generally pretty loyal to the book. It cuts back on certain supernatural elements, but otherwise it follows the book to a tee. However, that's not always a great thing and one thing should have absolutely been changed: Gage.
In Pet Sematary, Gage is Louis' toddler son who is tragically run over by a truck. He is eventually brought back to life by a desperate and grieving Louis to disastrous results. The movie keeps all this, but here's the thing about a two year old killer: it's adorable.
The resurrected Gage is not scary AT ALL. They weren't able to tone down any of the cuteness. Gage has the exact same voice and is still only saying age appropriate dialogue, so even when he's saying stuff like "I'll kill you," it's super cute. They try to make him frown and look angry but that just makes him even cuter! I mean look at this picture. What's even happening!?
It's supposed to be the most intense scene in the movie, but even when he's slicing calfs and chomping on necks, it was just too silly for me to overcome. In the book, Gage has an entirely different voice and talks like an adult, so it makes him much more menacing. He says some vile things to people right before he kills them.
Thankfully, it sounds like the new Pet Sematary avoided some of these pitfalls. We already know the upcoming release has changed this major plotline to feature Louis's older daughter, someone who can act and change their face and body language to actually be scary (which she reportedly is). It also should help that VFX, ratings, and pacing in movies has changed over time to accommodate modern audiences.
To be clear, all of this has not been to say that Pet Sematary didn't have its charms or that it wasn't good in 1989, but in 2019, I'm ready for something new. Hopefully the new movie will find a balance between today's modern sensibilities and being faithful to Stephen King's original work. It would be even nicer if it could in some ways pay homage to the 1989 film that came before it, because there would be less nostalgia and excitement related to the new Pet Sematary if it hadn't been for the 1989 film. Still, I think it's fair to say this thing was ready for a really scary, modern remake, and we'll know for sure if that's what we got on April 5.