If there had been an Internet and fangirls and fanboys back in Stephen King’s film and TV adaptation heyday — the 80s to early 90s — he never would have had the chance to fall out of favor.
Over-exposed, with every month, it seemed, hosting a new King “Lawnmower Man,” Maximum Overdrive,” “The Stand” or “Christine,” Hollywood managed to wring every ounce of value out of his brand by the 90s.
The movies generally weren’t very good, and most were of the “Pet Sematary” (1989) variety — killer concept, cheap cast, indifferent script and direction.
But with a remake of “It!” blowing up, “Mr. Mercedes” hitting TV and all things King back in vogue, The Modern Master of Horror is having another moment, long past “Misery” and “Dolores Claiborne.” And to judge by the nerdgasmic raves coming out of the gathering of the tribes called South by Southwest last month, the remake of “Pet Sematary” was supposed to be just more kindling on the bonfire.
But it’s not. Neither good nor terrible, it’s an inert remake, just “different” enough to warrant online dissection in the labs where horror films are put under the microscope.
It’s not frightening, so the co-directors rely on cheap jolts — a quick cut, LOUD music or sound effect, all designed to pin us back in our seats. The cheap frights are necessary because real suspense is missing. The script gives away the game too early, has ZERO room for pathos and relies on the reliably dull Jason Clarke to carry it off.
All I remember about the original was the horror hook — the “sour ground” where pets and if need be humans are buried by eccentric Mainers who want them to return to life — and that Fred Gwynne was the only Big Name in the cast.
John Lithgow has that part in the remake, playing the elderly, sage and kindly neighbor who wises the new family, The Creeds (Clarke, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence and twin boys named Lavoie who combine to play the toddler, Gage) about that old graveyard behind their new home in rural Ludlow.
The local kids, and occasionally adults, make ritualistic trips there to bury their pets, wearing homemade masks as they do.
It has a sign, scrawled and misspelled, “Pet Sematary.”
Even eight year old Ellie (Laurence) knows, “They spelled it wrong.”
But when the family cat Churchill is run over by a mean Maine driver, neighbor Jud has a better place to bury it — BEHIND the pet cemetery. He doesn’t warn Louis Creed, a man of science (doctor) and thus a skeptic, about what happens next.
Louis has been having visions, warnings from a dead patient he lost on the gurney in the college clinic where he now works.
“The barrier is not MEANT to be broken!”
And the cat coming back to life (nice makeup) is just the beginning of his problems.
This “Sematary” is two minutes shorter and plays much longer than the 1989 version, with a stately pace that feels like “gravitas” but is nothing of the sort. It’s just slow.
The script touches on Louis and wife Rachel’s diverging views of what to tell their two kids about mortality, death and dying. She’s pushing “heaven,” he doesn’t want to lie. But David’s answer to little Ellie’s question about death is reason enough to NOT want to tell her the cat is dead.
Death “might seem scary, but it’s not” can’t be Stephen King’s own words, can it? Terrible line for a doctor dad who doesn’t want to “lie” to his children. Death is terrifying at that age, and the less said about it the better if you can’t manage anything better than that.
The production design looks backlot heavy, with every fog machine in the tri-state area engaged for night shots.
But “foreshadowing” to directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer means pounding home the menacing tractor trailers hurtling down the two lane road in front of the house. “Character arc” means the Dr. David gives up his core beliefs without fuss or fight.
And “climax” means “Let’s drag this thing out well beyond the point there is a point, and beyond any fright or fun we can wring out of it.
Fun? That’s the word this production’s team never learned. But again, getting the dead cat makeup (it rarely looks digital, if indeed it was) right seems like the top priority.
MPAA Rating: R for horror violence, bloody images, and some language
Cast: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence , Obssa Ahmed and John Lithgow
Credits:Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, script by Jeff Buhler based on the Stephen King novel. A Paramount release.
Running time: 1:41