At one point, Mary Lambert was a promising director who seemed to have a vision and a future in film making. Lambert’s music videos for Madonna often held striking imagery, so the step to movies seemed to be inevitable. Her debut movie Siesta was weird in the way most first-time directors attempting to score a name and visibility in the festival circle tend to be, and that is perfectly acceptable, Directors often go to great lengths to make their first mark memorable, and more often than not, plot believability moves to second place when the visuals and themes are strong, which Siesta had. I remember seeing it on Showtime where it seemed to play on a loop. I also remember watching it twice, and not really knowing if what happened was inside Ellen Barkin’s character’s mind or if the film itself was some incursion into the surreal. Did it matter? At the time, I would say no, because I had he same experience after watching David Lynch’s Eraserhead, a film I still cannot grasp 40 years later. Anyway. Before I lose track, what I meant was, Siesta seemed to announce a strong visual voice under the direction of Mary Lambert.
So, when HBO showed a sneak peek into the making of Pet Sematary, complete with Stephen King announcing how absolutely frightening it was, I was prepared to see a truly disturbing, nightmarish entry into the horror genre. At the same time, a part of me was hesitant. By the time Pet Sematary was revealed to audiences the genre was all but dead in the water, with the occasional surprise. Even so, I was excited for a new Stephen King adaptation and hoped for the best.
Well, folks; Hereditary this is not. I lay blame on Stephen King himself who wrote the screenplay, and while by now calling King a master of horror would be like calling water wet, his entry into the screenplay genre is another story altogether. While the 1989 movie follows the book almost page by page with some slight deviations too small to really notate, some subtlety could have been used to at least make the story as unsettling as possible. From the opening credits, we get shots of the cemetery and a use of creepy children singing slightly off-tune, both tropes of earlier films. A family, moving into a spectacular new home overseeing a lake, but who is inexplicably entranced by a next to invisible path that leads to the woods. Yes, it’s in the novel… but who on earth would be this drawn to a tangential part of a property with that lake steps away (which would most likely have a dock, but I digress)? An all but too on-the-nose ominous explanation of what the path is, and where it leads to. Cardboard conversations that just don’t feel natural. And I was barely 20 minutes into the movie. Then Victor Pascow’s over-the-top introduction and how he infiltrates himself into the Creed’s life, all but shaking heavy chains and moaning, and an out of left field flashback in which we learn Rachel’s sister Zelda (could the sisters have been more disparately named?) died from spinal meningitis, leaving Rachel scarred. [It never fits into any of the events in the novel, so why King felt it was necessary to include it eludes me.]
All this gets filmed with the interest of a dead cat on the road. It’s as if Lambert, who again, displayed strong visuals in many of her videos for pop artists, either didn’t get the backing she wanted to truly show what she could be capable of, or she figured the movie itself would be a blip in her career and she could just get it done and move on. She shows no clue as to how to build any scene to meet a satisfactory end — family dinner sequences look and feel flat, characters behave only in service to when the plot needs them (or when it doesn’t), and there is a lot of filler thrown in for good measure and a couple of glaring continuity flaws. Several lines, whose repeated appearances on page works (“The soil of a man’s heart is stonier,” is one of them) could have been omitted altogether because let’s face it, no one will guess what that means and it doesn’t matter because while what happens midway is truly horrific and the one sequence in the story that sustains some nail-biting suspense, we never get into the heart of Louis Creed (or Jud Crandall for that matter). Louis serves to be the poor hapless victim trying to do his best to keep his family together.
Thirty years later, and we have a new version of Pet Sematary. This one arrived with about the same anticipation and title spelling as last time, complete with teaser trailers and all. The story is basically the same — family moves into a wonderful new home that harbors a terrible secret just beyond, with one crucial plot switch, which again had me scratching my head when I saw it last April because as awful as that plot development is, it is the one thing that pretty much unspools the entire Creed family and everyone around it.
Pet Sematary 2019 breezes by, touching plot points as though it were an Impressionist doing a rendition of a scene as barely remembered. That works even less this time around because there is, again, next to no time to flesh a story out. Lambert at least attempts to let her characters breathe even if the air was badly manufactured and her actors are from soap and TV stock. For characters to reach a point where there is no other option to alleviate the grief, there should be enough scenes to slowly walk them there. However, this version is even less interested in the why’s and how’s which posits the question, was the remake really needed? Did we truly need to see an adaptation of a novel that was never one of the more salient works of Stephen King? I would say no, but in light of the recent successes of several adaptations of works large and small, the directors thought they could bat it out of the park.
They couldn’t. And because of that, I think that we should let this one rest the sleep of the dead. It didn’t work the first time, it didn’t work in 2019.
Perhaps, the book itself is to blame. It is too… eager to go and wreck havoc on a family for the sakes of self-fulfilling a cursed ground that seems to have a sentience of its own. [Places like these abound in King novels.] It is a shame because the story on its own, without the horror overtones, would have worked — family loses a loved one and falls apart. Again, Hereditary doesn’t just tread those waters; it goes for the deep blackness beyond and perverts the entire concept of what a family is. If both Lambert and the team of Widmeyer and Kolsch hadn’t gone for tired tropes and perhaps gone for a story steeped in dread, an air of inescapable doom, gallows humor, and made the place a truly menacing location wed have a different kind of movie. Instead we now get a completely re-imagined ending that is so twisted it’s almost funny, and that isn’t exactly a compliment.