Sometimes Dead Is Better Than Just Being Ok

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As a fan of the original novel by Stephen King, and as someone who enjoyed the original film adaptation, I was looking forward to this remake of Pet Sematary.  Especially since the remake of It had been so well executed. Unfortunately, once the bad reviews started rolling in, I realized this film probably wouldn’t be as good as I had hoped.

Here’s the problem: it was an ok horror film.  It wasn’t bad, and it wasn’t great.  If a horror film is really bad, you can have a good laugh and it becomes memorable.  If a horror film is really good, then obviously that’s what makes it memorable.  But if a film like this is just ok, then it will soon be forgotten.  I giggled at a few parts, but not enough; some parts were well done and/or really scary, but not enough of it was good enough to make me want to watch the movie all over again.  In a few years I’ll know that I’ve seen it, but I’ll probably have to re-read this post in order to actually remember what I watched.

Right from the start, there was too much build up and not much action.  And I got the feeling that the film was trying a little too hard to set the eerie tone.  The earlier scenes in the film were over saturated with mini jump scares – like a sudden cut to a piece of wood being chopped right after a quiet/tense scene.  There were too many mini jumps back to back that they just weren’t effective and they soon became boring. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the film was serving up a lot of foreshadowing. If you’re at all familiar with the book or the original film, all of this excess foreshadowing just becomes really unnecessary and a little silly.

That being said, one of the strong points of the remake was that is toyed with your expectations. If you are familiar with the book and/or original film, you expect certain things to happen, and certain scenes to play out in a specific way. In these scenes, the stage would be set for exactly what you were expecting to happen; either the plot was following that of the book, or the scene was shot in such a way that it evoked the memory of that exact scene in the original film.  So for these moments, the twist was much more effective because of the way it took advantage of the audience’s expectations.

(It’s unavoidable – from this point onward there will be SPOILERS)

The most unexpected, of these moments was when the fates of the children were switched: it was Ellie (Jeté Laurence) who got killed by the truck, not Gage (Hugo Lavoie). At first, this drastic change is jarring enough that I was really impressed with the route the film was taking.  And then the implications of what had been done began to sink in.  When Ellie is brought back from the dead, she settles into the somewhat overdone “creepy little girl” trope that we have come to expect in horror films.  And if she’s just another “creepy little girl” I really don’t think that she has the potential to be as frightening/disturbing as the undead toddler that is typically the star of this story.

There was an attempt to make Ellie creepier though, through the use of the cat mask.  But this was a concept that should have been carried all the way throughout the film, and it was not. The disturbing animal masks at first appeared in scenes revolving around the Pet Sematary; and when Ellie came back from the dead, one appeared in the basement of the home.  She only wore it once when she attacked Jud (John Lithgow), but never again after that scene, so it just felt like the concept got abandoned part way through production. Especially when she could have easily worn it numerous other times throughout the film without it becoming too much of a gimmick.

The child swap also creates a problem because a toddler and a nine-year-old don’t talk the same.  Ellie isn’t as scary because she can talk, and she can tell victims and audiences exactly what her plans are before she even strikes a blow.  An undead Gage, on the other hand, is scarier because he cannot articulate his motivation for killing or his plans, and that makes him more unpredictable.  This also creates a problem with the ghost of Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed).  When it is Gage who sees Victor, all we get is a bunch of unnecessary scenes that show a toddler afraid of a ghost.  But when it is Ellie who sees Victor, she is able to speak to the adults about what is going on and can attempt to inform them about the dangers at hand.

Despite the uselessness of Victor’s later scenes with Gage, he, Zelda (Alyssa Levine), Church and the Wendigo were some of the most well executed “characters” of the film (I use the term loosely as the Wendigo is barely there). Victor’s role in the film was interesting because although he was trying to warn Lewis about the dangers of the woods, he was, first and foremost, a ghost haunting this household.  He was both friendly and scary all at the same time and the juxtaposition was well executed. Zelda, by comparison, was nothing but scary, and she delivered the strongest scares and was the most effective ghost (even though she was more of a recurring memory that a ghost). And the makeup for these two characters was delightfully grotesque.

The Wendigo was also really well handled in this film as it never actually appeared.  Or maybe it did? But that’s what was so effective about it.  It is talked about, mysterious howls are heard, but you never actually see it.  Until maybe you do see it, blending in with the outline of the trees in the forest. Its existence is never confirmed or denied, and that makes for effective horror – things are scarier if you don’t know exactly what’s causing the scares.  And it was a relief that although mentions of Aboriginal people and folklore were present, this remake carefully avoided references to the overdone and cringe worthy concept of an “Ancient Indian Burial Ground”.

And finally, the most important character of them all: Church.  This was a gorgeous and adorable cat, and the most lovable part of this movie.  Seriously, the four cats they used in this role were way too cute for a horror film.  Leo, Tonic, Jaeger, and JD were a delight to watch, even at their most evil.  Church was gorgeous and fluffy by default, and any attempts to dirty him up and make him look angry and evil could not entirely be taken seriously.  Yes, he delivered some minor scares, but there were a few giggles from the audience here and there when he showed up on screen.  That being said – and I mean to disrespect to John Lithgow, whom I adore – those cats were by far the best actors in this film. If I remember nothing else about this average horror film, I bet I will have a hard time forgetting those cats.

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