Thursday, October 24, 2019

King Week: The ground is sour

In which Halloween-related marathoning has resulted in reviews of several spooky movies from the mind of the world's favorite horror author, Stephen King.


Directed by Mary Lambert
Written by Stephen King (based on his novel)

Directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmeyer
Written by Jeff Buhler (based on the novel, etc.)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Pet Sematary tempts me to get real irresponsible and declare, "You know what?  Maybe it is just the underlying story here that sucks."  I'd rather not do that, however, because many people I respect have assured me that it's a very good novel, maybe Stephen King's best, and you can easily see the possibilities within each of its two film adaptations for something meaningful and, if not exactly scary, then deeply unsettling in its observations about life's relationship to death.  Nevertheless, in either case, the possibilities are all you see, and Pet Sematary's 1989 adaptation (by graduated music video director Mary Lambert) alongside its 2019 re-do (by the Wikipedialess duo Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmeyer) are both fairly lousy, fairly dumb movies, sometimes full-on incoherent in their implausible modeling of humanity.  This is true, despite the 1989 version being adapted by King himself (so you'd assume whatever's good in the book would be at least partially recreated there), and despite the 2019 version having had three full decades to figure out how to present the story's grief-stricken irrationality and patriarchal hubris in any remotely credible way.

The fact is, both movies are about 90% functionally identical, calling into question why Sematary '19 even exists.  (The answer is "it's 2019 and this is all we know how to do anymore.")  The divergent endings represent the only substantive difference between the two, and the 2019 ending is worse, replacing the theme-affirming tragedy of the original film and the novel—which at least allowed Sematary '89 to close out on its strongest single beat—with a more comprehensible (but also more banal) concept that mostly suggests that screenwriter Jeff Buhler had belatedly realized that not only had he received a paycheck in exchange for doing practically nothing, the story he'd re-transcribed also didn't make a whole lot of sense.

Anyway, the upshot is that while I wanted to review both, it would be a waste of time to review them separately, because they're simply not separate things.  Moreover, as I've said, both are bad, so let's just get it over with.  The best thing about Sematary '89 is the awesome Ramones song written for the film and played over the closing credits (and I honestly, unironically love how many King adaptations have had companion songs written for them, I just wish they weren't sometimes the most likeable thing about the movies they were attached to).  The best thing about Sematary '19, meanwhile, is jump scares.  Or maybe an extravagant truck crash sequence.  Given that the best things about Sematary '19 are actually parts of the movie, this would seem to give a slight edge to the remake.  However, that Ramones song is really good.  (The Starcrawler cover that the new film uses, less so.)

So: in both versions, we have big city doctor Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff '89/Jason Clarke '19), who's seen fit to move his family—wife Rachel (Denise Crosby/Amy Seimetz), their elder daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl/Jete Laurence), and their younger son Gage (Miko Hughes/twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie)—away from the hustle and bustle of Chicago or Boston, depending, to Ludlow, ME, which seems like just another sleepy little bedroom community amongst many in New England, but this impression is undermined somewhat by the stretch of highway in front of their new house that's constantly traversed by enormous, speeding trucks.  The highway has claimed the lives of an inordinate number of local pets, as the Creeds learn when their friendly neighbor Jud (Fred Gwynne/John Lithgow) shows them the so-called "Pet Sematary" on their property, a place where the community's children have lain to rest so many of their flattened companions.

Indeed, motor vehicles in general are a big problem in this town (Stephen King has long borne a serious grudge against the automobile, and the automobile ultimately took its revenge).  Louis discovers this for himself when one Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist/Obssa Ahmed) is delivered into his care, sans roughly half his head.  (The 2019 version wins further style points for its convincing portrait of a pulsing human brain deprived of its covering.)  Pascow uses his dying breaths to warn Louis about "the barrier," and he sees him again that night, in a true dream that repeats this instruction with visual aids, Pascow gesturing to something mysterious that lay beyond the Pet Sematary.  Louis finds out what that is when Ellie's cat Church becomes the newest victim of the highway. (And in all versions, including the novel, this is the first way the story drops the ball hard, emphasizing over and over that it's Ellie's cat, not Louis's, and Louis barely cares about the cat itself, which means that the two film adaptations are compelled to trudge through a terribly alienating emotional landscape while King and/or Buhler set up all the complicated pieces of their supernatural plot.)

In any event, despite the blunt materialism that is Louis's only real onscreen character trait in both versions, he bows to Rachel's unwillingness to confront her children with the grim reality of death, and plots to conceal Church's demise.  But Jud can do him one better, and that night he takes Louis out past the animal graveyard to the real cemetery.  Louis follows his instructions, and soon Church is back—though by no means the same.  Perhaps life, or whatever, could go on, except not long thereafter something even worse happens to the Creed family, the broad shape of which is easily guessed, even if I've noticed a certain caginess from other writers in regards to Pet Sematary's plot, as if it were not extremely obvious that, no, neither movie is actually about a poorly-behaved zombie cat.

Insofar as the justification for remaking Pet Sematary was that the original was bad (though it is certainly well-liked by many), and one of the big reasons it was bad was that it featured bad performances from bad actors—whereas (hypothetically speaking) Pet Sematary '19 has good ones—it's surprising what a mere iterative improvement it is.  Given that Seimetz is competing with Tasha Yar, it would be horribly unfair to say she's not better, but since neither film foregrounds Rachel in any way beyond "this is her one character trait," Seimetz's technical superiority doesn't really matter.  The child actors of the remake, on the other hand, are probably actively worse by trying to be better; Gage barely has a reason to exist in the new one, and is therefore routinely forgotten by his parents and the film, and Ellie doesn't much benefit from the stiff, practiced way Laurence pursues her expanded part.

In the central arena, it's a dead heat:  Midkiff and Clarke already share the same basic lack of screen presence (Clarke has always struck me as the poor man's, if not the destitute man's, Patrick Wilson, and as Louis is practically the definition of a stock Patrick Wilson role it's surely only the Conjuringverse that kept him from it).  Yes, there's blatantly more craft to Clarke's performance, which at least keeps him from growing leaves and laying down a root system during the first act the way Midkiff does; but once the real plot kicks in it's possible he's even more monotonous, whilst Midkiff, if nothing else, is permitted a few brief flashes of the ecstatic mania you'd prefer to see accompany Louis's increasingly-terrible decisions.  Lithgow, of course, was always going to be the most compelling figure in either cast, but it's ultimately just extrinsic familiarity.  Gwynne makes an effort to give Jud a Mainer accent, which, along with the vanishingly small but noticeable side cast of Sematary '89, provides at least a marginal sense of its setting, as opposed to almost literally none beyond "I'm pretty sure it's in North America."  As for  Pascow, he's a special case, because Sematary '19 thinks he's best-suited to being a spooky prop, and doesn't even consider giving him any of the playful material afforded Greenquist, which allowed a ghostly nag to, somehow, also be the first movie's most enjoyable character.  (It turns the 2019's race-blind casting into something of a double-edged sword, too: "let's put a black actor in the default-white part!" "okay, but don't forget to cut the part down to, oh, let's say three-fifths of what it originally was."  And "three-fifths" is quite possibly too generous.)  I suppose the new Church is unambiguously superior to the old Church, but mostly because they got a very well-trained cat who was willing to suffer under gooey dead-cat make-up for his treats.

As Pascow and Church suggest, the remake's on solider ground when its goal is just to make things bigger, louder, slicker, and scarier: it's an efficient little machine for startling you, while its idea of atmosphere, for better or worse, seems to have been transposed without any updating at all from a 1940s Universal Horror, with the mountains of Maine boasting a surprising number of Scottish moors.  For the remake's purposes of giving the "sour ground" more malign agency, its crucial changes to Church and the second act turn are eminently good ones.  But, inevitably, it descends right back into the kitschiest kind of bullshit horror—just as its predecessor did at the same exact time—except in Sematary '19 it's vastly more atonal.  There's a larky quality to Lambert's staging that at least admits it's impossible to actually take this nonsense seriously—not that I'm absolutely sure this makes hers better.

Because in neither case does it actually work, either on the level of brutish gore, or as the fitting denouement to a dark joke (though the 1989's ending almost, almost gets there in its very final shots).  And the reason neither one actually works is that neither movie ever manages to make its characters feel like anything more than pawns being impatiently moved forward toward their predetermined fates.  And so almost no decision makes any genuine sense, or even any subjective sense that you can understand on behalf of the character: if Jud's rationale for why he helped Louis resurrect Church isn't in the least convincing, it doesn't so much as occur to Pet Sematary that it might need to explain why Louis agreed to drag a cat corpse for miles over difficult terrain for a reason nobody gave him.  And that's the foundational sin of the whole thing: what the cemetery offers doesn't work, they know it doesn't work, both men have direct evidence that it doesn't work, then they try to make it work.  (I'm not thrilled, either, by how little curiosity this atheistic scientist has for a phenomenon that should shatter his whole worldview.)

To the extent this can be defended as "thematic," neither film ever manages to convince us why Louis himself thought these might be good ideas, which of course they are not, as becomes apparent with almost comedic speed.  I mean, clearly, there is something weird and deep going on underneath the text of Pet Sematary—Rachel's flasbacks to her disfigured, agonized sister and the side character (present only in the '89 version) who commits suicide rather than continue to face cancer aren't, you know, accidents of  King's writing process—and so it's hard not to notice that the story's poking hard at the idea that life, bound to broken flesh, is terrifying to the able-bodied and may well be not worth living for the afflicted.  It gestures toward themes of euthanasia—and of the shameful fear that, in the right circumstances, you too could find yourself praying for a loved one's death—and even if those themes are fraught as fuck (and oh boy, are they), at least they are themes.  But as Pet Semetary—or, I grudgingly accept, at least the Pet Sematary films—don't have the patience for themes, all they can offer instead is increasingly stupid and silly violence that at least Lambert's movie understands is funny. Kolsch and Widmeyer, on the other hand, must've seen Lambert's movie as very impressionable youngsters, and somehow believed it was possible for you to not just be genuinely scared by it, but actually get sad about it, too.

Score, Pet Sematary (1989): 5/10
Score, Pet Sematary (2019): 5/10

P.S.: To be clear, yes, the new one's worse.

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