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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Pet Sematary, Review: Grave errors

Pet Sematary, Review: Grave errors

Like most horror films, Pet Sematary begins with a family relocating to a remote house, near a forest, thereby extending an invitation to the supernatural to prepare a proper welcome for them. The only obvious difference is that here the spirits do not reside inside the house, but in a cemetery nearby, though the undead nevertheless float in and wreak havoc on the isolated inmates, as part of their job profile. A few genuine scares towards the end of the story hardly make-up for the slipshod goings-on that last a full 101 minutes.

To slow down a bit and devote more time to his family of a wife (Rachel), a nine-year old daughter (Ellie) and baby Gage, Dr. Louis Creed shifts from Boston to small town Ludlow in Maine. Since he continues to practice, at a University hospital there, it is not clear how he would be able to devote significantly more time to the family. The location fascinates Ellie, who, instead of watching TV as her mother told her to, wanders around. She hears a drum beat and finds that a procession of children, wearing animal masks, are taking a dead dog in a trolley towards a place where a sign reads ‘Pet Semetary.’

Trying to climb up a gradient, Ellie is stung by bee. Jud Crandall, their 80-ish neighbour, finds her in pain and removes the sting. Meanwhile, Rachel arrives, looking for Ellie. Jud warns Ellie and Rachel that the woods are dangerous and not to venture out alone. At the hospital, Louis is confronted by an emergency case in the shape of black student Victor Pascow, who has been fatally injured after being struck by a truck. Pascow dies, though moments later, appears to be alive to Louis. On the following night, Louis has a vivid dream, in which he meets Pascow, who leads him to the back of the cemetery, and warns Louis, in an ancient voice, not to "venture beyond" and that “barrier was never meant to be broken”. When Louis awakens, he finds his feet and the bed-sheet soiled in mud. So, was that a nightmare or did it really happen? Let’s just guess.

Spurred by the dog funeral incident, the couple have to answer awkward questions from Ellie, about death, its inevitability and the possibility of after-life. You see, Ellie is highly concerned about her own cat Church (!) and her baby brother. On Halloween, Church is found dead by Jud. Jud takes Louis to the Pet Sematary, supposedly to bury Church, however he leads Louis farther on, up the gradient, to an ancient tribal burial ground, where Church is buried, and Louis marks its grave by some stones. The next day, Louis is about to tell Ellie that Church ran away when Church returns home alive. Burying Church in that possessed burial ground was a grave error.

A Stephen King novel from 1983, Pet Sematary was first filmed in 1989, from his own screenplay.  A major alteration made by Jeff Buhler (screenplay) and Matt Greenberg (screen story) is that whatever happens to Gage in the original happens here to Ellie. (Another name that came-up only in earlier writing credits was David Kajganich, who seems to have been replaced by Matt Greenberg). Obviously, then, Gage must have been depicted as much older than the toddler he is, in 2019. Again, the family is supposed to move to Maine from Chicago in King’s version, whereas here they come from Boston. It makes little difference to the proceedings, anyway.  The producers have deliberately omitted the portion of the story before the Creed family moves in, giving rise to speculation about a sequel. For the director-duo of Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes), it’s a no-no. But yes, there was a sequel, of sorts, back in 1992. Mary Lambert, the 1989er, returned and directed. Stephen King, who had acted as a minister in the 1989 outing, had his name removed from the writing credits film, which was buried without much of a funeral.

No need to run the Spelling and Grammar check: Pet Sematary is mis-spelt. Ellie, under nine years old, knows what a cemetery is, and how it should have been spelt, but is unaware what a procession means. Mama Rachel explains, “It’s like a parade. Only not a happy one.” Fundamental question: Why do the Creeds want to live in a house from where nobody is within earshot? Louis is a doctor alright, but surely the foursome are not misanthropists. Likewise, we wonder what Jud does for a living, and at apparently eighty years old, how does he survive without any help. A whole procession of children carries the dead dog to its final resting ground, but why is there no adult in it?

Two side-tracks, that of Victor Pascoe and Rachel’s sister Zelda, are badly executed and poorly explained. Logic would suggest that when a dead animal or human re-appears within hours, the first thing you would check would be the grave. Nobody does any such thing. Trucks wreak havoc on the roads of Ludlow, and cause as many as three deaths. Not very imaginative writing, one would say, the neat taking of the last accident notwithstanding. Both the writers and the directors are in their element when Loius and Rachel are doing their take on life and death, unsure about how it will affect their little girl.

Jason Clarke (Australian; Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, First Man, Winchester) as Dr. Louis Creed has a vulnerable face but a rather strong build. When emoting, his sadness is not completely convincing. He often speaks in a whisper. Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color, Lean on Pete, Sun Don’t Shine) as Rachel Creed performs better, though all she has to do is mope and grieve, and, later on, look terrified. One scene of foreplay between the two is rudely interrupted by a clever shot of the cat. John Lithgow (Blowout, The World According to Garp, Terms of Endearment), only 73, to be fair, and not 80, as Jud Crandall, is the mystery man whose motivations are unclear, enough to merit a query from Louis, “You’ll have to do better than that.” Nothing like an old fogey with a gun to add that extra element of the secret behind the hereafter. If only he had listened to his own voice that had warned him, “Sometimes, dead is better.” Tormented, confused, a victim of his own doings, Lithgow does well.

Jeté Laurence (The Snowman, Jessica Jones, Sneaky Pete, Friends from College) as Ellie Creed had to do things no nine-year-old should be subjected to. Movies are make believe, and the audience that will watch Pat Sematary will not have nine-year-olds in it, yet you cannot help feel some concern for actors in such roles. That she makes it all look credible is all credit to her. Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie, three year-old twins, as Gage Creed make for welcome debutants. Doing as told, the little darlings would never gauge what fate awaits Gage in the last shot of the film. And that god for that mercy. Toronto-based Obssa Ahmed (The Expanse; TV work) plays Victor Pascow, the battered accident victim who is about to breathe his last in the hospital. He’s some dreadful sight, for sure, and had to spend most of his time on the makeup chair, to look as horrible as he was supposed to.  It took about five hours each time, and the two twin boys didn’t know he was way more terrified than they were, seeing them scream. In the 1989 version, Pascow was played by a white actor, Brad Greenquist.

Alyssa Brooke Levine as Zelda Goldman has to look repulsive, and little else. Sonia Maria Chirila is cute and terrified, as was the demand, in her role as Young Rachel. More terror is on hand in the shape of Suzy Stingl as Norma Crandall. As many as four cats play the pet Church (short for Sir Winston Churchill; what a wonderful name for a cat!) Will, Drake, Colby and JD! Meow….oops, Oh my God… to that!

Pet Sematary is much more about loss and grief than ghosts and hauntings. It uses the supernatural format to make us think about the imponderables, like worldly attachments and the inevitability and acceptance of death, however untimely it might be (when children die), whatever the cause (accident or illness). Unfortunately, it works a little in each direction, but fails to reach a co-terminal end. Jump scares are in abundance, and the editing insists on abruptness and pan-reverse pan movement of the camera to choose a cutting point. One shot, wherein a light shines in Louis’s face and he’s then seen lying on the floor only serves to confuse. Top angle and location establishing shots are overdone. Refracted and diffused light makes nice frames, and several dark frames have luminous little globes as light sources for effect, largely pointless, though. Music does heighten the tension.

Movies involve suspension of disbelief. Movies like Pet Sematary necessitate numbing your senses, partly due to fear and gore, and partly because they tap at religious or obscurantist beliefs. Not really frightful, the film is gory alright.

Lastly, this might sound preposterous to hardcore movie-buffs, but Pet Sematary’s central idea of the dead reappearing as themselves, with differing personalities, might just have been inspired by the Andrei Tarkovsky cult classic, Solaris (1972). Of course, making any comparison would be a grave error.

Rating: **


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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