This Dark Chest of Wonders (book review)

Commemorating the ruby anniversary of the disaster epic’s first publication, Andy Burns’s This Dark Chest of Wonders: 40 Years of Stephen King’s The Stand was released by Cemetery Dance back in 2018. My recent re-watch of the ABC miniseries adaptation of The Stand inspired me to catch up and dig down into this dark chest (whose title echoes King’s own dedication-page epithet for the 1978 novel).

Burns’s book is clearly a labor of love, which is not to say that it is marked by amateurish admiration. The author provides a wealth of information about King’s novel; his opening chapter details everything from King’s various sources of inspiration and the cultural context for The Stand‘s composition, to King’s struggles with Doubleday (who sought to abridge the hefty manuscript) and the subsequent reception of the novel (it was interesting to learn, considering the revered status of King’s novel amongst Constant Readers, that the 1978 edition’s “shelf life on the hardcover bestsellers list was relatively brief”). Burns incorporates copious quotes from King himself, drawn from previously-published interviews as well as from discussion of The Stand in nonfiction King books like Danse Macabre and On Writing. One quote I found particularly interesting was King’s revelation of the character in The Stand that he identifies most closely with (someone I never would have suspected).

This Dark Chest of Wonders is no mere monograph; Burns includes a panoply of commentators. Many chapters come in the form of interviews with pertinent personages. King experts such as Bev Vincent and Robin Furth make welcome appearances in these pages, and help shine a light on the character of the Dark Man, Randall Flagg.

A significant portion of the book covers the miniseries version of The Stand. There’s a lengthy (and proportionately enjoyable) interview with Mick Garris, in which the director takes the audience behind the scenes via extensive discussion of the casting and filming of the miniseries. Along the way, Garris gives us a precious anecdote–about how King himself was scared off the set during the filming of the climactic mob scene (Flagg’s staging of the public execution of Larry Underwood and Ralph Brentner).

In his introduction to the book, Burns promises to “unearth all that is contained within this dark chest of wonders that is Stephen King’s The Stand,” and this completist certainly isn’t kidding. By the time Burns turns to interviewing the narrator of the audiobook version and the illustrator of the comic book version, one starts to wonder if this dark chest is going to transform into a trove of the trivial. In retrospect, the book is best enjoyed in small (even random) samples rather than a straight binge. There is a noticeable repetition of information, and the same quotes get used in different chapters. Burns poses similar questions to his various interview subjects–most prominently, why they think King’s novel resonates four decades after its initial printing. The diverse responses to this prompt, though, leave little doubt that The Stand is still terribly relevant, and thus reinforce the reason for a book like Burns’s.

The hardcover edition of This Dark Chest of Wonders is arguably a worthwhile purchase only for hardcore collectors, but the more moderately priced Kindle e-book makes for a valuable addition to the library of any fan of King’s classic post-apocalyptic tale of the superflu and the supernatural.

 

Test of Time: The Stand Miniseries, 25 Years Later

It has been a quarter-century now since Captain Trips first spread across the small screen and infected viewers throughout America. I can remember what an exciting television event The Stand miniseries was, a large-scale adaptation of Stephen King’s epic novel that aired in four two-hour segments over the course of a week. I can also remember, though, having a mixed reaction to this adaptation at the time. After listening to King and director Mick Garris reminisce about the miniseries on the Post Mortem podcast last month (which I posted about here), I was inspired to go watch the miniseries again. This would be my first time returning to the material in 25 years; I was curious how The Stand stood up over time, and if my initial impressions would be changed.

The first thing I can recall about the 1994 miniseries is that the acting was a mixed bag, and a second viewing only confirms this. To be sure, there are some strong performances, led by the never-less-than excellent Gary Sinise, who is perfectly cast as King’s Texan everyman Stu Redman. Ray Walston shines as Glen Bateman, as does Bill Fagerbakke as the mentally-challenged (it’s surprising here in 2019 to see how often the miniseries resorts to the term “retarded”) Tom Cullen. Yet there are also some starkly subpar efforts here, which might be the product of lazy writing (the stereotypically nerdy mannerisms of Corin Nemec’s Harold Lauder) or just bad acting (the single-note conveyed by Shawnee Smith as shrill shrew Julie Lawry). The loudest raspberry, though, has to be directed at Laura San Giacomo, who is painfully unconvincing in the pivotal role of Nadine Cross (or perhaps I am too distracted by those caterpillar eyebrows of hers).

My recent re-watch also reestablished my ambivalence towards the settings in the miniseries. Some of these are particularly striking: such as the scenes set in New York, both amidst riotous upheaval and in post-apocalyptic sprawl (the book’s legendary Lincoln Tunnel walk-through is translated nicely here by Garris). At other, more jarring, times, however, I can’t help but feel like I am watching a film set. The scenes (and not just those rooted in character’s dreams) of Mother Abigail’s Nebraska home and surrounding cornfield are colorful and atmospheric but lack realism.

A quarterly-century later, I am still impressed by how skillfully the plot of King’s novel was adapted for the small screen (the fact that King himself scripted the miniseries no doubt is a major factor). I like how certain elements, such as Frannie Goldsmith’s pregnancy, unfold in a more understated manner and are only gradually revealed. The miniseries also makes crafted use of time jumps (aided by title cards updating the day and place), condensing the events of the novel and moving the action along sensibly. There is one sizable plot hole that I failed to spot back in 1994, but which stood out upon re-watch. It involves the scene when Randall Flagg and Nadine first arrive in Las Vegas. Nadine is practically catatonic (following her desert rape and impregnation by Flagg) as she is ushered upstairs to the would-be honeymoon suite. Later that very same afternoon, she taunts Flagg with alleged knowledge of discontent brewing among his minions; how, though, could Nadine know that “They’re saying that a simple retarded boy outwitted Randall Flagg. They’re saying Judge Farris got away from your man in Idaho. They’re asking questions about Dayna, too.”?

For a miniseries airing on 90’s broadcast TV, The Stand surely features some strong horror. Glimpses of moldering crucifixion victims are hard to forget, much like the scene of corpse clean-up inside a church. On the other hand, the archfiend Flagg (Jamey Sheridan, looking like Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon stunt double) proves grossly disappointing on screen, with his pointy demon teeth and lightning shooting from his fingertips. Garris’s direction also demonstrates an unfortunate over-reliance on “morphing” technology; the repeated emergence of Flagg’s monster face plays like a twisted version of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video. More hokey than horrifying, Flagg formed the glaring weakness of the miniseries for me back in 1994, and the representation definitely has not aged well.

Despite its various strong points, The Stand miniseries in the end is marred by a distinct cheesiness (the “Hand of God,” King’s blatant deus ex machina plot-resolver, does not translate well to the screen, and that closing montage of the heroic characters who died along the way seems like a ridiculous rip-off of the “In Memoriam” segment of the Oscars). In this post-Game-of-Thrones age, viewers are ready for a darker, grimmer adaptation of King’s novel, one infused with special fx that don’t prove oxymoronic. I can only hope that the miniseries remake forthcoming on CBS All Access evinces the same maturation that 2017’s theatrical release of It showed over its own television predecessor.

 

More King on Post Mortem

Eli Roth’s sit-down with Stephen King (which I posted on yesterday) isn’t the only interview with the author to be released in the past week. In the latest episode of his podcast Post Mortem, Mick Garris talks with his old friend and frequent collaborator. The occasion for this interview is the 25th anniversary of The Stand, the grand-scale (“100 days of shooting, 95 scripted locations, 460 script pages, 6 states, 125 speaking roles, 1 year away from home,” Garris details in the intro) ABC miniseries adaptation of King’s epic novel.

I don’t want to spoil the fun for anyone who hasn’t listened to the podcast yet, so in lieu of a review, I’ll just tease some of the highlights:

*King discusses the two disparate (real-world) events that sparked the idea for his novel, and also discusses what almost caused him to give up on the book mid-draft

*King explains why he finds screenwriting easier than fiction writing

*Garris and King reminisce about the famous actor and actress (a pair of veteran King players, at that) who have uncredited cameos in the miniseries

*King (who admits to writing a trial screenplay for Something Wicked This Way Comes when first practicing the craft) elaborates on why filmmaking is like an amusement park

*King speaks at length about his experience working on Maximum Overdrive, and reveals whether he has any desire to direct again

*The director and writer of the original miniseries consider the new 10-hour adaptation forthcoming on CBS All-Access, and King points out “why it’s a good time for The Stand to come back”

*Garris prompts King to identify his biggest literary influence

 

Stephen King, Uncut and Cutting Up

“The more respect we get in this field, the less I feel like we’re doing our job.”–Stephen King

Last week, Shudder released a podcast episode of the interview Eli Roth conducted with Stephen King for last fall’s History of Horror series. The podcast features a slew of material that was never televised on AMC. It’s great fun to listen to King cracking jokes and spouting genre wisdom, and to listen to both he and Roth enthuse about horror films (classic and campy). These two should do a weekly show together–it could be like Siskel and Ebert for our Macabre Republic!

Some of the treats in store for listeners of the podcast:

*discussion of the first film that ever “terrified” King

*the identity of the film that King made his son turn off halfway through, because King himself found it “too freaky”

*behind-the-scenes insight on how the legendary cockroach-explosion sequence in Creepshow was filmed

*King’s identification of his typical starting point when writing shorter fiction

*the purpose/value of horror films, according to King

*the author’s thoughts on watching film adaptations of his own work

*the revelation of King’s near-involvement with a popular Spielberg genre film

*an outline of King’s various critiques of Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining

*an account of the vampire figure in cinema (what types of undead bloodsucker King relishes and disdains)

*why King felt Rob Reiner was the “perfect director” for Misery

 

“The worst horror movie I ever saw was fucking great.”–Stephen King

Horror’s Most Memorable Movie Moments–My Top 10 List

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 Terminator1984)

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 (Poltergeist1984)

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 (Hellraiser1987)

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 Vampire1994)

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 Treat2007)

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.

 

Mob Scene: The Highwaymen

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.

 

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.”

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.

 

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.