I Like to Watch | Pet Sematary (2019)
Full confession: I love the work of Stephen King like a gender studies student loves bell hooks or a middle-aged cosplayer loves J.K. Rowling. I’ve read every thing he’s published (including the Richard Bachman stuff) and he is one of those rare authors whom I can revisit periodically and still enjoy. I think I’ve read The Stand five times and the entire Gunslinger series at least ten. Much to Himmel’s frustration, it could be argued that my writing style comes from my wading in deep to King’s prose and coming out of it with some seriously bad habits that I tend to really enjoy.
Like putting my internal asides in italics which drives my co-editor insane…
I am not exactly a superfan of the movies that have been adapted from his books. There are currently forty-six movies adapted from King’s books and short stories with three more coming to date. Aside from those three, I’ve seen them all at least once (and some multiple times).
For every brilliant adaptation — Carrie (1976), The Dead Zone (1983), Misery (1990), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), IT (2017) — there are some equally terrible attempts — Maximum Overdrive (1986), The Lawnmower Man (1992), Thinner (1996), Cell (2016), The Dark Tower (2017). After multiple viewings of even the crap, my conclusion (with a few exceptions) is unless you’re Stanley Kubrick, don’t fuck with King’s language or plot in any way.
Frank Darabont and Rob Reiner get it. The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist, Stand by Me, and Misery, are all uniformly excellent and part of that was what was written in the books was put on the screen with little tinkering. Kubrick gets the big pass because, well, he’s Kubrick and The Shining (1980) is a singular work of genius despite what King has to say about it.
So whenever I hear that a screenwriter has changed some of the essential plotting of one of these books to make a script, I’m dubious. I read that Jeff Buhler, David Kajganich, and Matt Greenberg decided to update the third act of Pet Sematary and I rolled my eyes in that way that a Marvel fan cranks his rubber neck up with incredulity when someone praises the FOX Fantastic Four shitshows.
I had just seen Jordon Peele’s Us and had some real problems with the third act explanations even though the first two thirds were extraordinary and, while I love both versions of IT, I dread the ending of the upcoming second part because (and this is King’s fault and no one else’s) Pennywise is far scarier as a fucking clown than as a giant spider.
OK. Enough preamble.
Pet Sematary is the tale of Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two children, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo & Lucas Lavoie) as they move from Boston to the ever familiar haunting grounds of Stephen King (rural Maine) only to discover a pet cemetery on their property. Their old neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow), befriends Louis and, when Ellie’s cat, Church, gets run over on the side of the road, takes him past the graveyard to an ancient burial ground that brings the dead back to life. Except that they come back evil.
It’s a perfect expansion of The Monkey’s Paw tale.
An evil cat is kind of an oxymoron but you get the drift.
In both the book and the 1989 version, it is Gage who gets squashed by a truck and whom Creed takes up to the burial ground and comes back evil. Jeff Buhler, David Kajganich, and Matt Greenberg decided to monkey with King’s Monkey’s Paw send up and have it be Ellie instead. And it works! In fact, I’d argue it works even better than having Gage (who is precious and cute but pretty much preverbal) and in no small part due to Laurence’s scary as fuck portrayal of Evil Ellie). Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer are deft with the camera and provide some great jump scares along the way.
It’s such a simple change but watching a more advanced female evil child is somehow more sinister, more malevolent. Especially as Creed brings her back because he needs more time with Daddy’s Girl and she is anything but his precious apple of his eye. The feelings of grief over a toddler are excruciating but the grief over the loss of a child in her budding years, as she learns the ins and outs of human behavior and as her personality has blossomed in front of you carries with it more weight. Watching her become malevolent and gleefully murderous after seeing her delight in a doll or brood over her cat is devastating.
King writes in an interstitial in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams:
“I hate the assumption that you can’t write about something because you haven’t experienced it, and not just because it assumes a limit on the human imagination, which is basically limitless. It also suggests that some leaps of identification are impossible. I refuse to accept that, because it leads to the conclusion that real change is beyond us, and so is empathy. The idea is false on the evidence. Like shit, change happens. If the British and the Irish can make peace, you gotta believe there’s a chance that someday the Jews and Palestinians will work things out. Change only occurs as a result of hard work, I think we’d all agree on that, but hard work isn’t enough. It also requires a strenuous leap of the imagination: what is it really like to be in the other guy or gal’s shoes?”
Based on that, I’d like to hope that soon, King will write a horror story featuring a black family that Jordon Peele can then make into a movie. That’d be amazing.