We live in a time of franchises and remakes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe as much—if not more—than the next guy. I’m a huge fan of the Friday the 13th movies, Saw, and adore the endless stream of Halloween iterations. Including the remake. Rob Zombie sure can polarize the horror community, but his 2007 Halloween awed me with its grit and sociopathic violence. I think that movie is a great example of when remakes work out.
As I figure it, the four main reasons to remake a movie are money-grubbing, Americanizing a foreign film, updating/introducing a classic for a new generation, and having a different point of view for an older film.
Zombie’s movie falls into that last category for me. He had a vision of Halloween as a down-and-dirty, blood-drenched film. John Carpenter’s classic relies mostly on suspense and there’s little blood and certainly no gore to speak of. That works because the movie is as cold and calculating as Michael Myers himself. Rob Zombie wanted to do with the godfather of slasher movies what Casino Royale did with James Bond—make it feel real. Raw. And I liked that.
It’s what I thought this new Pet Sematary was after.
By the preview, I expected a gritty, emotional horror film along the lines of Hereditary or The Witch. Considering the source material, that is exactly the sort of film that needs to be made of Pet Sematary. The impact of Stephen King’s novel comes from the deep psychological trauma of death. Both quick, unexpected death, and the unbearable lingering of wasting away. King has a knack for mixing supernatural scares with heart-rending drama. And in novels, he has plenty of time and space to develop characters and subplots to that end. Film requires different tactics, briefer ways to establish backstories and character development and arcs. Both the original and this remake Pet Sematary try to be outright horror flicks, but a more drama-centric film could explore the themes that made the novel outstanding. Pet Sematary 2019 does include the novel’s superb “Oz the Gweat and Tewwible” subplot/backstory for Mrs. Creed, but it is clearly meant to serve as a basic scare-driven premise. It fails to pack the emotional wallop of the book’s portrayal, and so it just feels hollow.
As does the whole movie.
The best of King’s work—and the best of the adaptations—are character-driven: Misery, Carrie, The Dead Zone, The Stand, Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption. Yes, “The Body” and “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” came from Different Seasons and were indeed more dramatic works. Misery doesn’t feature the supernatural, either, but that is sort of my point. It’s the human drama that drives his work. King builds even his most paranormal works on a literary skeleton. The Shining is a novel about a father and son, abuse and alcoholism. Christine is, as King tells us right in the beginning, a love story—a love quadrangle as it turns out.
We are in the beginning of a terrific new wave of literary horror films—Hereditary, The Witch, and the new Suspiria are prime examples. Imagine a Pet Sematary that tells an intense family drama about death and dying. The scars that these characters carry. Imagine that Churchill dying is a heartbreaking loss, not just a plot point to get to a ghost cat. In the book, Jud is described as the man Louis needed as a father—he’s not the weirdo/bumpkin neighbor for comic relief and fodder for the ending. Imagine Louis Creed at the funeral for his child, wailing the way Toni Collette did in Hereditary, pounding that pain into our stomachs and minds. Think of the dead coming back not for jump scares and spooky shit, but for the weight of immense sorrow lifted from a man... but only briefly, before very bad things unfold. Bad things that happen to be scary, but are also bitter disappointments, turning hope into hollow, haunted shells.
In the last few years we have seen acclaimed movies that are in large part dramas made for horror fans. Intense dramatic situations out of which pop up brutal paranormal events. That’s what the novel is. And that would make one hell of a Pet Sematary film.