Digging Deeper: Stephen King’s Sources/Allusions in Pet Sematary

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.”

How to Go Wendigo

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.

 

 

Grave Mistake: A Review of the Pet Sematary Remake

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.

Sometimes Dead is Even Better: 10 Ways the Pet Sematary Remake Can Improve on the Original

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.

 

Me vs. Us

Midway through Us, NWA’s “F*** tha Police” is invoked to brilliant comedic/satiric effect. A track by a contemporaneous rap group, though, perhaps provides a better gloss on Jordan Peele’s much-anticipated sophomore effort (following 2017’s Get Out): Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype.”

Helmed by an Important Director who has previously demonstrated a knack for delivering a thrilling plot and probing message, this film is one we are predisposed to like. According to reviewers (by Metacritic metrics, Us has garnered “universal acclaim”), it’s one we should like. But the term “masterpiece” has been bandied about much too facilely, making such film critics sound more like hype-meisters than insightful commentators.

Get Out, a riveting mystery with a horrifying reveal, expertly explores the subject of race relations in America. In Us, the social commentary (concerning the uprising of the underclass) is much less coherent and more clumsily presented. It’s also somewhat disconcerting, since the victims of the sinister doubles here (most graphically, the drunken, obnoxious couple and bratty twins next door) are all conspicuously Caucasian. Maybe Poole felt that the film already depicted plentiful black-on-black violence (as the African American protagonists are menaced by, and fight back against, their doppelgangers), but the demographics of deadly demise in Us are nonetheless eyebrow-raising.

The hype machine for the film also has been busy generating Oscar buzz for Lupita Nyong’o for her dual role of heroic mother Adelaide and villainous revolutionary Shadow. But, again, I’m not buying it (no more so than I did the overvaluing of Toni Collette’s acting in Hereditary last year). Not that Nyong’o doesn’t give a fine performance; there’s just nothing extraordinary or distinctive about it. Audiences have seen the portrayal of traumatization, not to mention the stop-at-nothing defense of one’s family, countless times before. And while the antagonist role might naturally make for more memorable characterization, Nyong’o’s Shadow is a pale effort. Her croaking whisper comes across as more hokey than horripilating, more gimmicky than plot-motivated in any convincing way.

What frustrates me most about Us is that film gets off to such a promising start. Following an atmospheric prologue (leading to an uncanny encounter in a seaside hall-of-mirrors attraction) the action flashes forward to the present day. Peele adeptly establishes his characters (the nuclear quartet of the Wilson family, who are all likeable and lifelike) and sets the stage for the coming disruption of their summer vacation. The home invasion–one of the most harrowing incidents of its kind since A Clockwork Orange–comprises the strongest part of the film. The situation is wonderfully creepy in and of itself, and the suspense keeps increasing with the cuts back and forth between the Wilsons’ individual struggles with their respective doppelgangers. Besides being gripped by the protagonists’ peril, the viewer is stirred by curiosity: who/what are these homicidal lookalikes (dubbed the “Tethered”) terrorizing the Wilsons, and where have they come from?

Unfortunately, much like Paul Tremblay’s acclaimed 2018 home-invasion novel, The Cabin at the End of the World–Poole’s film fails to pay off on its intriguing set-up. The explanation (provided via a pair of unsatisfying infodumps) for the Tethered’s origins/motivations is downright absurd. This story of weird experiment and national conspiracy (I won’t get into more specifics here, for fear of spoilers) opens up plot holes the size of the underground tunnels featured in the film. While critiquing the plot dynamics of Us, I cannot fail to note that the climactic twist is forecast from the opening scene, and proves neither shocking nor mind-blowing.

There are elements of the film that I truly enjoyed, such as the allusions to Blade Runner (Adelaide’s daughter Zora shares a name with one of the replicants Deckard retires, and the somersaulting neighbor girls mimic Pris’s android gymnastics). Kudos, too, to Poole for his extensive Gothicizing of the Hands Across America event from the 1980’s. Us also features a killer score, which helps heighten the tension and darken the mood throughout.

In the end, though, the parts do not add up to as grand a sum as might have been achieved. Straining to make social commentary, the film approaches pretentiousness, and its determination to embed subtext ultimately subverts narrative logic. No doubt, this is a movie (apropos of its double theme) that will be better appreciated following a second viewing. But after the disappointing experience of our first relationship, I can’t say I’m eager to give Us another chance.

 

Kid You Not: A Review of The Prodigy

I caught a screening of The Prodigy yesterday, and in hindsight found it apropos that the previews before the start of the film included trailers for the remakes of Child’s Play and Pet Sematary. The basic premise of the former–the posthumous persistence (in pre-adolescent mold) of a killer–is forwarded here, while a central theme of the latter–parental love leading to poor choices and catastrophic consequences–resounds in director Nicholas McCarthy’s film (not coincidentally, Jeff Buhler, the writer of The Prodigy, also scripted the forthcoming Pet Sematary).

In fact, The Prodigy manifests a broad horror lineage. Its most obvious relation is to the Evil Kid film, a subgenre stretching from The Bad Seed to The Good Son (with The Omen in between). But it hearkens back, too, to The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that ur-werewolf narrative (as identified by Stephen King in Danse Macabre) of conflicting figures in a singular body. The Prodigy is arguably also a ghost story–only in this case it’s a house of flesh that’s haunted, and the restless spirit isn’t seeking to have the story of its bloody death unearthed.

Film reviewers have failed to catch an intriguing connection that The Prodigy makes: the name of the paranormal problem child, “Miles,” is also that of the young boy watched over by the governess in The Turn of the Screw. To note this allusion, though, is also to highlight a shortcoming: whereas Henry James’s supernatural/psychological horror novella is a masterpiece of ambiguity (the question of whether Miles has fallen under the evil influence of a ghost is never resolved), The Prodigy (thanks to the precise imagery of its cross-cutting prologue) makes its uncanny aspects clear to the audience from the start. Miles’s parents seem the only ones who haven’t caught on (failing to do so until the boy is eight), and the dramatic irony drags on a bit too long.

The scenes dramatizing early instances of disturbing behavior underwhelm here because they have become overly familiar; like his cinematic brethren, Miles is the bane of babysitters and family pets. McCarthy steers the film in a more impressive direction when he touches on the taboo–the subtle gestures that “Miles” makes toward his mother that raise the specter of incest. For me, the most unnerving moment in the whole film occurred when the scheming Miles, like some juvenile (and decidedly foul-mouthed) Machiavelli, blackmails the reincarnation expert Arthur Jacobson with the threat of alleging sexual misconduct during their hypnotherapy session.

At times, the film’s plot strains disbelief: there’s not a chance in hell that Miles would have been allowed to set foot back into the classroom after his spectacularly violent outburst against a fellow student (the legal repercussions of the incident are completely glossed over as well). Trading in notions of reincarnation, The Prodigy inevitably approaches the hokey, so credible performances are a must. Taylor Schilling gives a strong one as Sarah, a mother beleaguered by her beloved boy’s bad turn. And Jackson Robert Scott is undeniably creepy as the eponymous savant. Scott, who gave his arm and his life to Pennywise as Georgie Denbrough in IT, here plays a role that recalls another Stephen King kiddie: the adorable but deadly Gage Creed in Pet Sematary.

Where The Prodigy really hits its stride is in the home stretch. When Sarah finally realizes what she is dealing with, her actions to save Miles lead to some terrific suspense. The climax ties back nicely to the film’s opening, while also presenting a question likely to linger in viewers’ minds long after the closing credits: How far would you be willing to go to protect the life of your child? I wish more screentime had been devoted to this moral dilemma, which proves much more gripping than the standard scares stocking the first two-thirds of the film.

While falling short of the extraordinary, The Prodigy is an effectively entertaining horror movie, one that just might cause prospective parents in the audience to consider contraception instead.

 

Of a Different Feather

Let me begin by offering a pair of disclaimers. First, I’m not a big fan of Sandra Bullock, whose acting seems to range between bitchy yelling and the delivery of sarcastic zingers. Second, I’m the guy who always grouses that movies “based on the novel” never are as good as the book.

Which brings me to today’s release to Netflix’s streaming service, Bird Box, an adaptation of Josh Malerman’s harrowing 2014 novel. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Bullock gives a convincing and complex performance; she conveys both gritty determination and emotional vulnerability as a single mother, Malorie, desperately struggling to deliver her children to safety across a post-apocalyptic American scene (“landscape” doesn’t seem the right word here, considering that a good chunk of the film involves a rowboat journey downriver). And my concerns that I would have to title this posted review “Turd Box” thankfully proved unfounded. The film is a gripping and entertaining thriller, effectively dramatizing the sudden breakdown of civilization when the world is overrun by mysterious creatures that drive anyone who beholds them to a prompt (and often gruesome) suicide.

Still, the viewer fortunate to have read the Malerman book beforehand is likely to sense some missteps by the movie version. There’s no denying that the source text presented a difficult case for adaptation: readers are able to get right inside the head of the frequently-blindfolded “viewpoint” characters and share their fear of the unknown, whereas the medium of film automatically enforces a more externalized perspective. The fact that Bird Box‘s viewers are able to see what the characters cannot steers the experience from dread toward dramatic irony (the film attempts to address this dilemma by employing close-ups and random cuts to an occluded “I-camera” to simulate Malorie’s sightless perspective). A second area of difficulty concerns what to do with the monsters: unlike A Quiet Placewhere the grotesque predators are spectacularly visualized, Bird Box (in a wise adherence to Malerman’s approach in the book) never brings the suicide-inducing nightmares front and center. But how then to present an invisible menace? Shadows and swirled leaves are deftly employed, but the (over-reliant) resort to whispered temptations feels more hokey than horrific.

My major issue, though, is the sea change the filmmakers create by turning from suspense to action. The movie is filled with scenes of exciting adventure (e.g. the river here features roaring rapids), which while well-choreographed also give the proceedings a rushed feel despite Bird Box‘s two-hour-plus run time. Nowhere is this more regrettably evident than when Gary invades the plot. In the film, this obvious lunatic confirms our first impression all too soon, whereas the book wrings sweat from the uneasy reader because of the uncertainty of situation (Malorie’s mounting suspicion of Gary, and her indecision after realizing that her concerns about him are justified). In retrospect, a ten-episode series (cf. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House) rather than a feature-length film would have made for a stronger adaptation. This would have allowed for a more natural development of characters (especially the supporting cast) and set-up of incident, and enabled viewers to have a keener sense of the housemates’ entrapment and their day-to-day difficulties of living in a world where willful blindness has become the first rule of survival.

In and of itself, Bird Box is an eminently watchable film, but those hoping for the height of terror are advised to migrate straight back to Malerman’s novel.

 

Mob Scene–Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh

 

The 1992 film Candyman made a couple of key revisions when adapting Clive Barker’s story “The Forbidden.” First, it relocated the action from (the fictional) Spector Street Estate in England to Cabrini-Green, Chicago’s most notorious housing project. It also furnished a backstory for the titular killer: no mere urban legend, Candyman was actually a black artist named Daniel Robitaille, who ended up lynched by a miscegenation-hating mob after impregnating a white woman. In Candyman, Professor Purcell conveys this exposition (the transcript of his speech can be read here) to protagonist Helen Lyle over the dinner table. The graphic picture Purcell paints is framed as a strictly verbal account, but in the film’s 1995 sequel, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, Daniel’s torture/murder is fully dramatized onscreen.

This mob scene begins in horrific fashion, with the gruesome sawing off of the subdued Daniel’s right hand. But the sudden swarming of a black cloud of bees (and just as quick retreat of this quasi-Biblical plague of insects) is a nonsensical bit marked by silly CGI. The drama also gets melo-, thanks to the hammy histrionics of Daniel’s protesting lover Caroline. Perhaps most dissatisfying of all, the scene is too on-the-nose in its explanation of the origins of the Candyman legend. A child present at the spectacle of violence tastes a drop of honey splattered on his cheek as Daniel is smeared with honeycomb, and proceeds to christen Daniel with the hybrid moniker “Candyman.” A parasol-carrying woman picks up on this lead, and laughingly chants “sweets to the sweet” (we’ve come a long way from the allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Barker’s story). Finally, Caroline’s vengeful father feels a strange need to stick a handheld mirror in the ravaged Daniel’s face; the mirror conveniently capture’s Daniel’s soul as he dies uttering “Candyman.”

Yes, the execution here leaves a lot to be desired, but this mob scene undeniably succeeds in establishing the modern-day bogey as a formerly human victim. The erstwhile Daniel Robitaille is transformed into a sympathetic figure, an innocent man (in life) whose romance with Caroline precipitated a tragic death. Candyman–who provides a voiceover to the flashback–was forced to become “the reflection of [the racist rabble’s] hatred, their evil.” His mortal demise is much more pitiable than that of another horror icon, the child murderer Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street, who suffers a boiler-room immolation by a mob of outraged, vigilante-justice-seeking parents.

Recently, a remake of the original Candyman was announced, with Jordan Peele at the helm. If the forthcoming film chooses to give a similar backstory to the legend, it might be worth the price of admission just to see what sort of mob scene the Get Out director envisions.

Baby’s Fiftieth Birthday

As I mentioned in a previous post, the excellent documentary series Eli Roth’s History of Horror has sparked a desire in me to re-watch countless genre classics. First up on my list was Rosemary’s Baby, the 1968 Roman Polanski film (based on the Ira Levin bestseller) that is now an astounding fifty years old. Here are some thoughts upon viewing the DVD once again in 2018:

One ostensible key to the film’s longevity is that it succeeds in frightening its audience even when the supernatural element is subtracted from the plot. The body horror of Rosemary’s painful pregnancy strikes a chord with every prospective parent, as well as anyone who has ever feared being ravaged from within by some terrible disease.

Rosemary’s Baby, which transplants the witchcraft tale from Puritan New England to the heart of metropolitan Manhattan, continues to speak to our hyperpopulated urban modernity. The film underscores the perils of the apartment complex, of living in too close proximity to too many strangers. As Rosemary Woodhouse’s residence in the Bramford demonstrates, you never know who you might get as neighbors, or if you can trust the public face they present.

Ruth Gordon garnered Oscar glory for her portrayal of nasal busybody Minnie Castavet, but hers was a one-note performance bordering on cliche. In retrospect, Sidney Blackmer’s embodiment of Minnie’s husband Roman creates the much stronger character–one all the more sinister for his seemingly avuncular nature.

Mid-Twentieth Century values are on full display in the film: Guy is the breadwinner, Rosemary is the homemaker. Perhaps the most appallingly chauvinistic moment occurs when Guy pesters his drowsy wife to get up and cook him breakfast (on the morning after he fed her roofie-laced chocolate mousse and pimped her out to Lucifer!).

Rosemary’s climactic expectoration in the face of Guy (a quasi-Weinstein using sex to manipulate his own acting career) should elicit resounding cheers from supporters of the current Me Too Movement. [For an excellent look at the film through this particular lens, see the Laura Jacobs article “The Devil Inside: Watching Rosemary’s Baby in the Era of #MeToo”.]

Along with The Haunting (1963), Rosemary’s Baby–whose titular infernal infant never appears onscreen–forms a preeminent example of a film that prefers to hint at horror rather than hit viewers right in the face with it (Rosemary’s demand “What have you done to its eyes?” ranks right up with Eleanor’s “Whose hand was I holding?” in The Haunting as a moment that terrifies without overtly identifying). Rosemary’s Baby forms a polar opposite to another hit horror film from 1968, the unabashedly graphic Night of the Living Dead. It’s also the antithesis of the similarly-occult-themed film The Exorcist (1973), whose over-the-top garishness has lost its shock value over time.

Unlike The Exorcist (which I critiqued in an earlier post), Rosemary’s Baby warrants and rewards repeated viewings. Subsequent study highlights the various subtle clues of conspiracy–the Machiavellian machinations of the coven, not to mention the utter duplicity of John Cassavetes’s Guy (a virtuoso American Gothic hero-villain). The dramatic irony can also be savored: even after discovering witches in her midst, Rosemary mistakenly believes they want to steal her baby for a blood sacrifice, and is slow to realize that she’s bearing a half-breed with the actual blood of Satan in its veins.

Rosemary’s Baby is a clear product of its times, an era of considerable cultural turbulence. But a present-day viewing verifies that the film is still relevant, and still eerily effective, a half-century after its release.

 

Forgotten by History

One last post on Eli Roth’s History of Horror

Over the course of seven episodes, the documentary series covered an impressive array of films and television shows. Inevitably, though, there were omissions, either due to time constraints or oversights. Here is my list of the seven most glaring examples:

The Simpsons: Treehouse of HorrorAn annual Halloween institution for nearly three decades (one that has invoked/reworked countless horror classics) surely could have been given at least a passing nod.

Tim Burton’s oeuvreThe auteur of the Gothic and the macabre was basically MIA. Burton’s grimmer and gorier efforts (Sleepy HollowSweeney Todd) would have been perfect fare to savor.

Dark ShadowsA whole episode devoted to vampires, and not one mention of Barnabas Collins, who brought bloodsucking to the afternoon soap opera and captivated a slew of viewers on a daily basis?

It FollowsThe show’s talking heads would have had plenty to expound upon with this haunting and subtext-heavy sexual horror film.

The WitchPowerful, if polarizing, Robert Eggers’s frightening foray into the bedeviled New England wilderness would have been right at home in the “Demons Inside” episode (and could have culminated an episode devoted to the witch figure).

The Twilight ZoneThis eerie (and enduringly popular) series hosted by Rod Serling featured some of the scariest scenes ever to play on the small screen (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”: enough said), but you wouldn’t know it from watching Eli Roth’s History of Horror.

Alien. The titular predator is an iconic monster, and certain (chest-bursting) images from the film series have been seared into the viewing audience’s psyches. If sci-fi horror such as John Carpenter’s The Thing could be covered, then Alien should not have been foreign to the AMC program.

 

The preceding list is presented less as a critique than as a simple expression of surprise. A positive spin could be given in this sense: however inclusive Eli Roth’s History of Horror might have been, it wasn’t exhaustive (i.e. there’s room for future episodes!). Overall, I found the series finely edited and highly enjoyable to watch. The analysts added terrific insights and displayed an obvious love for the horror genre (which, time and again, was shown to have deeper significance and not merely form the pop cultural equivalent of junk food, filling the bovine masses with empty calories). Most importantly, the series got me excited to go and re-watch the classic films and TV shows covered. This illuminating history has pointed me toward a future of dark delights.