Six months away from the High Holiday.
The anticipation of the macabre is mounting.
Six months away from the High Holiday.
The anticipation of the macabre is mounting.
Meagan Navarro’s fun piece last week–“Horror’s 75 Most Memorable Movie Moments!”–over at Bloody Disgusting got me to thinking about what I might add to the list (which, according to Meagan’s criteria, wasn’t just limited to the scariest scenes). Yes, any such effort is inherently subjective, but I submit for your perusal my top 10 choices (presenting the films in chronological order):
1.Ill-Received (Freaks, 1932).
The Gooble-Gobble song is as unforgettable as Cleopatra and Hercules’s drunken disparagement of the “freaks” is reprehensible. This is the most disturbing wedding reception ever (or at least until Game of Thrones came along).
2.Monster Laughs (Young Frankenstein, 1974)
No scene better captures the hilarity of Mel Brooks’s classic Universal Monster-movie spoof than this one. Decades later, Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle’s duet still puts a broad smile on my face.
3.Hull of a Scare (Jaws, 1975)
Man-eating shark terrorizing a beach community? OK, I could deal with that. But the sudden underwater framing of Ben Gardner’s corpse in the hull hole (an image permanently imprinted on my psyche) formed my jump-scare baptism.
4.Roach Explosion (Creepshow, 1982)
I nearly checked out when first watching this segment of the Stephen King anthology film as a ten-year-old. Creepshow‘s most horrifying scene instilled a lifelong dread of insects in me.
5.Police Brutality (The Terminator, 1984)
Cop-killing is a horror-movie standard (forcing the audience to think that not even our sworn protectors can save us from harm). But Arnold’s hyperviolent assault on the precinct in this film constituted an unprecedented rampage–and haunted my dreams for weeks after viewing it.
6.Fears of a Clown (Poltergeist, 1984)
A creepy doll wasn’t bad enough; no, Steven Spielberg had to go and give us a creepy clown doll. Before Pennywise ever popped up in the Derry sewer system, Poltergeist was IT for causing coulrophobia.
7.Cenobite Arrival (Hellraiser, 1987)
Kirsty’s solving of the puzzle box was a cinematic game-changer. The sublime grotesquerie and menacing eloquence of Clive Barker’s Order of the Gash truly revolutionized monster-movie villainy.
8.Kirsten Dunst Dusted (Interview with the Vampire, 1994)
Who ever thought there could be a worse form of vampire attack than a jugular juicing? The fiendish execution of the scene-stealing Claudia was at once terrifying and tear-jerking, and Louis’s subsequent discovery of her ash sculpture was beautifully macabre.
9.Chilling Vigil (Paranormal Activity, 2007)
The scene when Katie looms over a sleeping Micah (underscoring our vulnerability while unconscious) was the stuff of nightmare. A fast-forwarding time stamp on a piece of video has never been more horripilating.
10.Jack-o’-Lantern Extravaganza (Trick ‘r Treat, 2007)
There’s so much about this Halloween-themed film that’s visually spellbinding, but nothing more so than the sight of Rhonda’a yard-ful of carved pumpkins. If I ever lived in the town of Warren Valley (and how I would love to!), this is the place I’d want to call home.
Not every mob scene is concerned with hostile ostracizing. As the Netflix original film The Highwaymen demonstrates, sometimes the villagers aren’t angry, just downright mad.
The film forms a counterpoint to 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. Director Arthur Penn’s Academy-Award winner was considered edgy and graphically violent at the time, but today seems somewhat frivolous, treating the Barrow Gang’s murderous interstate crime spree almost like zany hijinks (complete with rollicking banjo music to accompany bank-robbery getaways). John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen (co-starring a superb Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson) doesn’t romanticize the notorious criminals/lovers; instead the emphasis is on the monstrosity of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and the acts of cold-blooded savagery they commit. In contrast to Bonnie and Clyde‘s spotlighting of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s characters, the pair of public enemies here are kept mostly offscreen. The Highwaymen is the story not of the killers but the pair of former Texas Rangers–Frank Hamer and Maney Gault–tasked with tracking them down.
In the film’s climax, the diligent Rangers finally get their man (and woman), and Bonnie and Clyde are gunned down by a ferocious firing squad. The mob scene follows upon this dispensation of bloody justice, as the bullet-riddled car containing the corpses of the executed fugitives is towed into the nearby town of Arcadia, Louisiana. Word of the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde has spread quickly, and a huge crowd has gathered in the street, driven less by morbid curiosity than the crazy desire for souvenirs. The frenzied masses push past the police to get at the open-windowed car, snatching at the inert bodies and tearing at their clothing. The Highwaymen exposes the grotesquerie of the cult of idolatry that formed around Bonnie and Clyde, as a significant portion of the American public treated the homicidal duo as Depression-era celebrities, admirable antiheroes. What makes this mob scene that much more harrowing is that it actually happened (the real-life details are even more disturbing, with someone going so far as to try to hack off Clyde’s trigger finger; the “death car” itself would subsequently become a macabre tourist attraction).
Bonnie and Clyde have been fictionalized before in American Gothic works such as Norman Partridge’s hard-boiled/supernatural hybrid “Red Right Hand” (which riffs on the 1967 film’s scene of Faye Dunaway fleeing through a cornfield) and Stephen King’s novella 1922 (whose “Sweetheart Bandits” form a clear analogue to the Barrow gangsters). The dark and gritty (and immensely entertaining) The Highwaymen, though, treats directly with the historical figures, presenting a memorable demythologizing of Bonnie and Clyde’s life of crime, and a sharp indictment of the misguided, morally-suspect American public.
Episode 111: “Inside Job”
“But just because [dreams] are powerful, doesn’t mean they are safe. Dreams are just too complex to nail down as purely good or entirely evil. And it’s that unpredictable aspect that gives dreams their mysterious aura. They can delight us with pure fantasy, or stab us with the knife of grief over a long-lost love done. They can reconnect us with sights and sounds from our youth, or they can paint a picture that is difficult to understand. And if you’ve ever had the sort of dream that stuck with you the entire day, like a ghost that was eager to haunt your mind, then you can understand how problematic they can be. A dream come true, it seems, might not be such a good thing.”
The subject of this Lore episode might be dreamy, but Aaron Mahnke makes a lucid exploration of it. He considers the function of dreams throughout history and across cultures, starting with the ancient Eqyptians (it’s interesting to learn that dream books–“collections of common dream images and their associated meanings”–aren’t just a New Age creation). Particular attention is given to the supposed power to heal through dreams; Mahnke recounts the story of the Greek physician Galen, who was visited in a dream by the god of medicine Asclepius and informed how to perform self-surgery to fix exactly what ailed him. From here, Mahnke moves on to the Mesmerism movement, and the claims of “clairvoyant physicians” to be able to use animal magnetism to draw disease out of the human body. A healthy portion of the podcast is focused on Vermont sensation “Sleeping” Lucy Ainsworth Cooke, who reportedly could diagnose, and recommend remedies for, illnesses while she was in a trance state. During her long career as a healer, Sleeping Lucy consulted over 200,000 people(!), and even numbered Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy among her followers.
The title of the episode stems from the fact that dreams can’t be put on display as external proof: when it comes to surreally-inspired healing, it’s a Ripleyesque case of “believe it, or not.” Here, though, is where Mahnke’s narrative itself falls short. Sleeping Lucy was either an incredible fraud or someone with a truly fantastic gift; I wish more documentation of her specific efforts had been provided, to help steer the listener toward one explanation or the other (Mahnke’s account, unfortunately, remains mired in the anecdotal). Also, the opening monologue (whose conclusion is quoted above) hints at a turn towards the darker, more nightmarish aspect of dreams that the ensuing episode never really takes. The coverage of some early cases of psychic investigators (whose dream visions help expose the secret sin of murderers) doesn’t prove terribly gripping because by this late date, such clairvoyant figures have become a pop cultural cliche. Overall, “Inside Job” tantalizes, but ultimately fails to satisfy.
Episode 112: “Facets”
“Death and grief are guaranteed parts of our life. Like taxes, they are something we can count on experiencing more than once. But despite that element of dependability, we never seem to be ready for it, do we? More often than not, we’re taken by surprise, and left gasping for relief. So it’s no wonder that cultures around the globe have put traditions and beliefs into practice that are meant to help–a balm for an aching soul, but also a grim reminder of the inevitable. Part of living is losing the ones we love, and we’ll take any help we can get to manage that–even if it fuels our nightmares.”
Acknowledging the inevitability of death and the universality of grief, this episode traces the practices (and resultant narratives) that have arisen from the attempt to cope with heartbreaking loss. “Facets” is studded with nuggets of intriguing information: noting that funerary traditions are nearly as old as civilization itself, Mahnke points to the Neanderthals as the “first culture to practice intentional burial.” Prior to listening to this podcast, I was not aware of the existence–from the time of ancient Egypt to modern China–of “professional mourners” (or, more technically, “moirologists”): actors hired by grieving decedents to perform ostentatious acts of lamentation. Mahnke also delves into the Gaelic “keening woman,” an actual bardic figure with a “vast collection of songs of lament” in her repertoire, who later mutates into a more sinister and supernatural entity: the banshee. The most extensive focus is on another hair-raising wailer, La Llorona, whom Mahnke dubs “one of the finest examples of global folklore.”
The various tales (with connecting traits) of the weeping-woman myth are compared here to the different facets of a gemstone. This episode-organizing analogy is an appropriate one, since “Facets” provides a treasure trove of dark stories. Starting with discussion of the sineater and closing with the Indonesian legend of the Pontianak (horrifically voracious vampiric ghosts of women who died while pregnant), Mahnke enriches the imagination of anyone invested with a fondness for the macabre and offbeat. Without a doubt, “Facets” is one of the most insightful and fright-fulled episodes of Lore ever produced, and the quintessence of what makes this podcast so utterly fascinating.
In my previous post, I noted Stephen King’s indebtedness in Pet Sematary to Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo.” King’s novel, though, is not the first work of horror to borrow from Blackwood’s narrative (August Derleth transforms the Wendigo into an eldritch deity in the stories “The Thing that Walked on the Wind” and “Ithaqua”); nor is it the most overt. That distinction goes to Laird Barron’s harrowing 2011 novelette, “Blackwood’s Baby.”
Barron announces his genre heritage and acknowledges a literary forefather in the very title of his piece. Within the narrative itself, “Blackwood’s Baby” refers to a “monstrous stag,” the allegedly diabolic offspring of the occultist Ephraim Blackwood and “the Old Man of the Wood, who assumed the form of a doe” to enable the sacrilegious tryst. Both “The Wendigo” and “Blackwood’s Baby” feature a hunters-become-the-hunted motif, as respective expeditions venture too far beyond civilization and too deep into reputedly cursed woods. Overmatched men run afoul of a fiendish adversary, an uncannily anthropomorphic animal (Blackwood’s leonine-stenched Wendigo and Barron’s satanic stag).
Algernon Blackwood (apropos of someone with such an atmospheric surname) was a preeminent writer of outdoor horror, and Barron clearly follows his lead here in sending characters off the beaten path and into forest darkness. While Blackwood’s weird tale speaks to the wilderness’s cruel unconcern (“the indifference to human life, the merciless spirit of desolation which took no note of man”), Barron invests his sylvan setting (a stretch of Washington woods dubbed “Wolfvale”) with even more savagery. “Mother Nature is more of a killer than we humans ever will be,” Barron’s protagonist Luke Honey asserts. “She wants our blood, our bones, our goddamned guts.” Further echoing Blackwood, Barron hints at sinister sentience, as the wary Honey is plagued by “a sense of inimical awareness that emanated from the depths of the forest.” The perception of eeriness is a logical byproduct of finding oneself in such lonesome surround, but both Blackwood and Barron endeavor to show that there really is something terribly unnatural about these particular wilderness scenes. The northern woods in “The Wendigo” are the stomping ground of a creature out of Native American myth, and the hunting area beyond the Black Ram lodge in “Blackwood’s Baby” proves to be “the devil’s preserve.” Spectral cries ring out in Blackwood’s story, and the Wendigo-touched wretch Defago raves about an invisible menace before his death: “people with broken faces all on fire are coming in a most awful, awful pace towards the camp.” Likewise, near the climax of Barron’s narrative, Luke Honey hears the ghostly sounds of the hunters bedeviled in this pagan place: “The shrieks of the mastiffs came and went all day, and so too the phantom bellows of men, the muffled blasts of their weapons.”
At one point, Barron’s haunted protagonist is described as an “avid reader” of such legendary writers of supernatural horror as Robert Louis Stevenson, M.R. James, and Ambrose Bierce. The same is no doubt true of the author himself, and based on the evidence of this novelette, the name of Algernon Blackwood can be readily added to that esteemed list.
As can be seen from my recent series of posts, I have been in a Pet Sematary frame of mind lately. Prior to the release of the new film adaptation, I reread Stephen King’s 1983 novel (one of my personal favorites). At the time of my reread, there was a lot of media buzz about how the new film was reworking the source novel, which got me thinking about King’s own literary sources for (and pop cultural allusions in) Pet Sematary. Here are a (grave)dirty dozen examples that I was able to excavate:
1.Most obviously, King’s novel is inspired by W.W. Jacobs’s classic 1902 weird tale, “The Monkey’s Paw.” King invokes Jacobs’s story of ill-fated wishing in an epigraph, and within the narrative itself, King’s protagonist Louis Creed calls the piece to mind: “And suddenly Louis found himself thinking of the story of the monkey’s paw, and a cold terror slipped into him.” King picks up on Jacobs’s theme of compounding bad decisions: Louis (who’s slow to learn that “sometimes dead is better”) plants not just Church, but also Gage and Rachel in the sour soil of the Micmac burial ground. While the frightfully resurrected son Herbert in “The Monkey’s Paw” is wished away from the doorstep in the nick of time, Gage returns all the way home, to devastating effect: “What comes when you’re too slow wishing away the thing that knocks on your door in the middle of the night is simple enough: total darkness.”
2.In epigraphs to all three parts of the novel, King quotes (or more accurately, paraphrases) the Gospel story of the resurrection of Lazarus. This Bible tale of revival underlines Jesus’s divinity–his power, as the son of God, to perform miracles. By contrast, the ironically-surnamed Louis Creed is “a lapsed Methodist” who “did not attend church” and who had “no deep religious training.” His calling forth of Gage from the grave is a decidedly more unholy (and unwise) act.
3.At one key point in the novel, Jud tellingly says to Louis: “But bringing the dead back to life…that’s about as close to playing God as you can get, ain’t it?” Pet Sematary clearly aligns with the theme of Promethean transgression in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A sardonic Louis will even go on to refer to the returned Church as “Frankencat.”
4.Church also hearkens back to the titular feline in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” While not shaded the same color, Church reflects the black cat in his uncanny return from the dead. His macabre tormenting of Louis also parallels the ruinous effect of the antagonistic black cat on Poe’s narrator.
5.In journeying into the deep, dark New England woods, King follows the literary trail of Nathaniel Hawthorne. King scholar Anthony Magistrale (in Landscape of Fear) explicitly links the works of the two writers:
Hawthorne’s woods are a place of spiritual mystery; in them, young Goodman Brown, Reuben Bourne, and minister Arthur Dimmesdale must confront their own darkest urges. In Pet Sematary, Hawthorne’s historical sense of puritanical gloom associated with the forest is mirrored in King’s ancient Micmac Indian burial ground. Dr. Louis Creed, like so many of Hawthorne’s youthful idealists, discovers in the Maine woods that evil is no mere abstraction capable of being manipulated or ignored. Instead he finds his own confrontation with evil to be overwhelming, and like Hawthorne’s Ethan Brand and Goodman Brown, he surrenders to its vision of chaos and corruption.
I would just expand upon Magistrale by positing that all the “soil of a man’s heart is stonier” rhetoric in Pet Sematary is a deliberate nod toward Hawthorne’s story “Ethan Brand.” Just as Brand, in his obsession with unpardonable sin, has his own heart transmute into marble/limestone at story’s end, a woebegone Louis Creed at novel’s end refers to “the stone that had replaced his heart.”
6.Exactly one paragraph after mentioning the Creature from the Black Lagoon, King returns to the world of Universal monster movies, as Louis uncharitably characterizes his in-laws as “Im-Ho-Tep and his wife the Sphinx.” The allusion to The Mummy is fitting, in that the film (like Pet Sematary) centers on a troublesome resurrection.
7.Louis is equally allusive in the scene when Church is first discovered lying dead on the side of road. Conscious of the “eerie and gothic” nature of “the whole setting,” Louis invokes Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: “Here’s Heathcliff out on the desolate moors, Louis thought, grimacing against the cold. Getting ready to pop the family cat into a Hefty Bag. Yowza.”
8.During Halloween season, Ellie Creed hears “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at school, and her excited recounting of it when she comes home leads Gage to babble about “Itchybod Brain.” Washington Irving’s genteel ghost story furnishes a moment of amusement for the Creed family, who don’t realize they are about to experience much grimmer horror. The Headless Horseman prefigures the hinted-at decapitation of Gage during the tragic accident in the road (when later robbing his son’s grave, Louis notes “the grinning circlet of stitches which held Gage’s head onto his shoulders”).
9.King’s woods-haunting, human-possessing antagonist in Pet Sematary traces back to Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo.” The creature (drawn from Native American mythology) in Blackwood’s classic narrative is sensed moving around the hunters’ campsite, just as Louis Creed hears “crackling underbrush and breaking branches. Something was moving out there–something big.” Blackwood’s Wendigo leaves a noxious aroma lingering; King’s Wendigo is similarly marked by its “eldritch, sickening smell.” King’s novel (particularly as it builds towards its climax) also picks up on Blackwood’s association of the Wendigo with menacing wind.
10.Pet Sematary alludes to classic films about the undead, from White Zombie to Night of the Living Dead. Jud points to the former when he says to Louis: “You know, they have these stories and these movies–I don’t know if they’re true–about zombies down in Haiti. In the movies they just sort of shamble along, with their dead eyes starin straight ahead, real slow and sort of clumsy. Timmy Baterman was like that, Louis, like a a zombie in a movie, but he wasn’t. There was something more. There was somethin goin on behind his eyes.” Indeed, unlike “George Romero’s stupid, lurching movie zombies,” figures such as Timmy Baterman and Gage possess (thanks to the Wendigo’s reanimation/infiltration of their corpses) a fiendish intellect.
11.Timmy Baterman and Gage convey dirty secrets of the grave, tormentingly taunting the living by voicing the vile deeds of their deceased loved ones. King appears to borrow such explicitness from The Exorcist (cf. the Pazuzu-possessed Regan’s profane exchanges with Father Damien). Gage is positively demonic in his shocking revelation to Jud that his wife Norma cuckolded him and had a secret kink for anal sex: “What a cheap slut she was. She fucked every one of your friends, Jud. She let them put it up her ass. That’s how she liked it best. She’s burning down in hell, arthritis and all. I saw her there, Jud. I saw her there.”
12.In Pet Sematary, King makes several connections to his own oeuvre. Early on, Cujo is alluded to, when Jud notes: “Lots of rabies in Maine now. There was a big old St. Bernard went rabid downstate a couple of years ago and killed four people.” The town of Jerusalem’s Lot is mentioned in passing, as well as Derry and Haven–fictional locales that King would make famous in subsequent novels such as It and The Tommyknockers. Pet Sematary also anticipates The Dark Half when Louis discusses the concept “that the fetus of one twin can sometimes swallow the fetus of the other in utero, like some kind of unborn cannibal, and then show up with teeth in his testes or in his lungs twenty of thirty years later to prove that he did it.” The most extensive connection, though, is with The Shining. The Creeds, like the Torrances in the earlier novel, have their family ripped apart by the evil machinations of a Bad Place (The Micmac Burial Ground and the Overlook Hotel, respectively). Plot devices used in both novels form clear parallels: Rachel Creed’d desperate quest to return home to Ludlow from Chicago recalls Dick Halloran’s Florida-to-Colorado odyssey, his attempt make it back to the Overlook in time to save Danny. If there’s any doubt that King had The Shining in mind when writing Pet Sematary, consider this line that the character Steve hits Louis Creed with: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, you know.”
One of the most disappointing aspects of the remake of Pet Sematary (reviewed here) was the film’s failure to bring the Wendigo onscreen as a woods-haunting monstrosity. The movie barely even references the creature from Native American myth (which is so central to Stephen King’s novel). It also abandons the cannibalism element from the original (1989) film adaptation, with the transgressions of Louis Creed’s undead offspring (emphasis on “off”) here being confined to savage slashing with a scalpel. Going into the theater, I’d hoped that the new Pet Sematary would form the preeminent example of the horror genre’s use of the Wendigo myth. That distinction, though, still belongs to “Skin and Bones,” the signature episode from NBC’s 2008 anthology series Fear Itself.
Directed by Larry Fessenden (who drew on similar mythology in his films Wendigo and The Last Winter), “Skin and Bones” stars Doug Jones as Grady Edlund, a rancher who takes a turn for the perverse. Stranded in the mountains while on a hunting trip, Grady resorts to cannibalism, is possessed by a Wendigo as a result, and then returns home to terrorize his wife, children, and cuckolding brother. Jones is an absolute nightmare figure in his portrayal of the voracious Grady; sinisterly sinewy, he embodies the episode’s title. His frostbitten, black fingertips and ears are horrifying, and his inhuman yowls are chilling as a blast of a nor’easter. Jones’s character unnerves even when prostrate in bed with the covers pulled up to his neck, and epitomizes the jump scare when suddenly springing at his prey with supernatural speed. Grady does descend into Freddy Krueger-ish campiness when forcing his wife to serve up some human stew, but remains seriously scary with his strange combination of ungainliness and unnatural strength.
Jones has made a career out of portraying fantastic and horrific creatures in film (The Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water; The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth) and on TV (The Lead Gentleman on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; one of the Ancients in The Strain), but, for me, Grady Edlund is his meatiest and most memorable role. And while the Wendigo has figured into the plots of countless shows (from Haven and Sleepy Hollow to Hannibal and Supernatural) and films (such as the black-humor masterpiece Ravenous), “Skin and Bones” still provides the most terrifying vision of the entity’s supernatural invasion of the human frame.
In many ways, the new version of Pet Sematary improves upon the original film adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel. The acting is appreciably better: yes, Jason Clarke will never be taken for the second coming of Laurence Olivier, but Amy Seimetz (who already proved she could do parental anguish, back in The Killing) is exceptional as always, and Jete Laurence is lovable and much more believable as Ellie Creed than her 1989 counterpart. The 2019 edition exhibits a much tighter focus, paring down characters and incidents (the reprehensible Irwin Goldman–listed simply as “Rachel’s Father” in the film’s credits–doesn’t even get a line of dialogue this time around), while sounding thematic concerns with death and afterlife more distinctly. Patient first-act set-up, coupled with an intoning score, creates a palpable sense of foreboding, and the film is darkly atmospheric, with the misty, forested surround furnishing an unnerving mise en scene.
I just wish I could have liked this film more.
Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer know they have a tough act to follow in the flawed yet memorably frightful 1989 film, and clearly assume audience familiarity here with that earlier version. For better and for worse, the directors employ the precursor as a cinematic touchstone. The infamous run-down-in-the-road scene is cleverly re-choreographed to gut-wrenching effect (but shame on the film studio for blunting the shocking impact by including a major plot spoiler in the trailer for Pet Sematary). The mindful variation on the original’s Zelda scenes is far less successful, with Kolsch and Widmyer serving up lame, predictable scares involving a dumbwaiter.
Like any horror film, Pet Sematary shoots to chill, yet ultimately leaves the viewer cold. This is perhaps best exemplified in John Lithgow’s portrayal of Jud Crandall. Contra the avuncular Fred Gwynne in the original, Lithgow’s Jud is gruff and unendearing, even a little creepy in his affection for Ellie. Overall, the film is too stony-hearted, failing to make us care enough about the characters and the stakes. The concluding twist strikes a satisfyingly mordant note, but fails to resonate tragedy the same way King’s novel or the first film does.
Visually, the titular graveyard proves unremarkable: we hardly get a glimpse of the grave markers, and the “sematary” itself is reduced to the site of imitative pagan ritual (performed by anonymous adolescents in animal masks). The depiction of the Indian burial ground (I don’t believe the Micmac tribe is ever identified by name in the film) likewise disappoints. Filmed in murky close-up, it lacks the scope, the eerie grandeur, of the sour-ground setting in the 1989 film (recall that breathtaking overhead shot of the spiraling sequence of cairns). Worse, the film severely abridges the backstory of the burial ground (e.g. Timmy Baterman’s grim return is deep-sixed in this version), and the sense of a place of supernatural evil is resultantly limited. Missing a golden opportunity to surpass the 1989 film and rectify one of its most glaring errors, the new Pet Sematary gives mere lip service to the Wendigo legend. The imposing creature is shown only as a crude drawing in a book that Jud sticks under Louis Creed’s nose for a brief perusal.
This film is obviously determined to be different from its predecessor (sometimes via facile revision, as in the turning of Victor Pascow into a character of color). Unfortunately, different doesn’t equate with better; there’s little chance this version of Pet Sematary will be remembered and revered by horror fans three decades hence. Straying from the familiar path, the film ends up lost in the woods.
Director Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary was a frightful, if flawed, effort. Three decades in the remaking, the new version of the film hits theaters this week. How might it improve on its predecessor? Here are my thoughts on ten possible upgrades:
1.In a headnote to the novel, King writes: “Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret.” The ensuing narrative digs up the secret and spreads it out for reader inspection. Indeed, one of the most (morbidly) fascinating aspects of the book was its peeking behind the scenes of the “quiet trade” (as protagonist Louis Creed reminisces about his time apprenticing with his undertaker uncle). Regrettably, the 1989 film failed to draw upon this insider info; here’s hoping the remake makes better use of such intriguing source material.
2.Let’s be honest: the acting in the 1989 film was far from award-worthy. Fred Gwynne gave a memorable performance as Jud Crandall, but the rest of the cast was eminently forgettable. Denise Crosby (Rachel Creed) proved wooden as a Pet Sematary grave marker, Blaze Berdahl (Ellie Creed) sounded like a child reciting memorized lines, and the last-act lapse into madness of Dale Midkiff (Louis Creed) was bad to the point of laughable. Yes, the acting bar has been set awfully low here, and clearing it shouldn’t be like scaling the deadfall for the esteemed cast of the remake (led by John Lithgow and Amy Seimetz).
3.The 1989 film’s use of Victor Pascow went terribly awry. The character’s death scene was appropriately disturbing, and his initial ghostly visitation of Louis was chilling. But Pascow’s interaction with Rachel in the film’s final third was nonsensical (how does he influence Rachel all the way in Chicago, and why can’t she–unlike Louis–actually see him?). Worse, it was tonally jarring: this was no time for comic relief, from a ghostly jokester who seemed one step away from breaking out into Beetlejuice tune. The new film can go a long way toward improving upon the original by making more limited, and consistently serious, use of this grave character from King’s novel.
4.In the novel, Louis and Jud’s Church-burying journey through Little God Swamp to the Micmac Burying Ground was an atmospheric delight, complete with loons and foo lights (or what Jud attempts to explain away as such), creeping mist, and “stars wheeling between the massed dark border of trees.” The 1989 film conveys very little of this, and inexplicably, doesn’t even take place during nighttime. Closer focus on the scene from the book would clearly benefit the remake.
5.Anyone who ever watched the original film was likely haunted by the twisted image of Zelda. The 2019 remake will be hard-pressed to top the representation of this character, but could possibly do so by keying in on a novelistic detail omitted by the 1989 film: the young, lisping Zelda’s fascination with “Oz the Gweat and Tewwible” (who King transforms from a children’s book character into a daunting Death figure).
6.The 1989 film includes a fine flashback scene concerning the ill-tempered return of Jud’s dead dog Spot. I would love to see the remake draw more extensively from King’s novel and incorporate more of Jud’s recounting of the history of the Micmac Burial Ground and the animals temporarily interred there. Imagine how awesome it would be to get a flashback scene centered on Hanratty the undead bull!
7.Sadly, the Timmy Baterman storyline was botched in the first film adaptation. The depiction of his character as some rotting mongoloid robs him of his most sinister aspect in King’s novel: his profane revelation of the dirty secrets of the townspeople who oppose him. Also, the scene of the lynch mob arriving at the Baterman home deviates ridiculously from the book (the arsonists’ earnest desire to save Bill Baterman from his abominable son by burning down the man’s house before he can even vacate it calls the old maxim “with friends like these…” to mind). The remake could advance significantly past the original by adhering more faithfully to King’s conceptions of Timmy’s blasphemous character and the novelistic version of the fall of the house of Baterman.
8.One of the best, and most protracted, sequences in the novel involves Louis playing resurrectionist–robbing Gage’s grave and transporting the corpse to the Micmac Burial Ground. It is both a physical and mental ordeal for Louis, and King wrings every bit of gut-wrenching suspense from the attempt. The 1989 film severely short-changed this sequence, and the remake could go much further in conveying the horror of the situation by devoting more screen time to Louis’s dreadful efforts.
9.To me, one of the most incongruous parts of the 1989 film was the decision to splice in surreal images of Jud’s house in oozing, sinking decay during the climax. While visually striking, these images didn’t make a lot of narrative sense. The Gage and Church invasion of Jud’s home is sufficiently terrifying, rendering such distracting graphics needless. It would be truly shocking if the remake made the same mistake Lambert’s film did.
10.The most glaring omission from the 1989 film (even more unfathomable, in that King furnished the screenplay) was the failure to invoke the book’s Big Bad: the Wendigo. King’s novel pumps out plenty of nightmare fuel in its descriptions of this supernatural horror (with which Louis eventually comes face-to-monstrous-face). The remake could distinguish itself mightily by restoring the Wendigo to its central place in the narrative. Indeed, it would be worth the price of admission alone just to see the giant creature realized (ideally, through practical fx) on the big screen.