‘Pet Sematary’ Remake Easily Improves on the Original

Pet Sematary 2019 movie poster

Of all the Stephen King cinematic adaptations up for a remake, “Pet Sematary” is the one I looked forward to the most. I never cared much for the 1989 version directed by Mary Lambert. It wasn’t a terrible movie, but it was undone by a screenplay which tried to fit in too much from King’s novel, and ironically it was a screenplay written by King himself. While Fred Gwynne was perfectly cast as Jud Crandall, Dale Midkiff’s performance goes way over the top and contains moments which Kevin Smith and Ralph Garman are justified in describing as “exquisite acting.” And there was the ending which was undone by test screenings where the audience demanded something more graphic. Bitch, please!

Now we have the remake of “Pet Sematary” which comes to us from the directors of “Starry Eyes,” Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, and it is easily an improvement over what came before. It is not a great horror movie, but even if it were, it is nearly impossible to top King’s 1983 novel which itself is one of the darkest works of fiction ever conceived. Heck, even King himself thought he went too far with it, and that should tell you something. Still, it is an effective film which pays tribute to the spirit of the novel even as it makes changes to the source material in a way I did not see coming.

As before, the story starts with Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) driving with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two kids to their new home in the small town of Ludlow, Maine. We learn that Louis and Rachel were looking to escape big city life for something simpler and countrylike to where they could spend more time with each other and the children. When they arrive at their new home, it looks like a heavenly and peaceful place which they will serve them well, but we all know where the story will go from there as a huge 18-wheeler truck zooms by with little warning while leaving a lot of dust and dead leaves in its wake.

The first half of the “Pet Sematary” remake more or less follows King’s novel to the letter as it treads familiar ground while adding some interesting touches in the process. Upon discovering the pet cemetery of the movie’s title, we also see a procession of children wearing animal masks as they march on by while carrying a dead dog in a wheelbarrow to the place which will bring about its resurrection. Both Kolsch and Widmyer give this movie a wonderfully unnerving feeling which they keep building on throughout as things for the Creed family get worse and worse to where they have little chance to regret the deeds they have committed.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

One of the interesting things about this version is how the filmmakers have switched elements around, but in a way which does not take away from the spirit of the novel. Instead of young Gage getting run over by a truck driver who is distracted by his cell phone (and who isn’t these days?), it is Ellie, and the reaction of her parents to this terrible tragedy feel all too real to where neither has to yell out in sheer anguish.

Jeté Laurence plays Ellie Creed, and her performance is especially impressive as she makes this resurrected character far more than a zombie with a thirst for blood. Ellie seems very aware of the fact she is not who she once was, but she also has knowledge of what lies beyond the realm of the living, and she becomes a little too eager to bring her parents to the other side of it.

Jason Clarke has long since proven to be one of our most dependable actors in movies today with his terrific performances in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Chappaquiddick.” Clarke makes Louis Creed into an especially sympathetic character even as he comes to play God when it comes to Ellie’s life. The late Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) warns Louis not to exceed the boundaries set for humanity, but Louis is blinded by a grief I would not wish on anyone, and his desire to undo a terrible tragedy is understandable even if it flies in the face of reason, logic and the saying of “sometimes dead is better.”

Amy Seimetz, who co-starred in “Alien: Covenant,” also makes the most of her role as Rachel Creed, an individual who has dealt with death a far too young an age. Rachel remains forever haunted by the passing of her sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine) whom she was forced to watch by her lonesome while their parents were away. Indeed, Seimetz makes you deeply feel the unfairness of Rachel’s predicament as no child should be forced into such a position at such a young age, and it proves to be one of this movie’s most haunting segments as a result.

And while there is no topping Fred Gwynne’s performance as Jud Crandall, the great John Lithgow succeeds in making this role his own. How many movies and TV shows have we watched Lithgow in anyway? He has been a constant in popular culture, and he remains a welcome presence in anything he appears in. Lithgow doesn’t have to do much to show how Jud has lived a long life which has been filled with one tragedy too many, and this is the mark of a great on camera actor.

Kölsch and Widmyer do an excellent job of raising the tension and overbearing atmosphere of the story throughout the movie’s running time, and they don’t just resort to giving us jump scares every five minutes. They are also aided by a powerful film score composed by Christopher Young which makes an already unnerving motion picture even more so.

“Pet Sematary” is one of the few books I got to read before it was turned into a movie, and this is quite the feat for me these days as filmmakers typically beat me to the punch. As a result, my perspective of the book will forever remain more powerful than any movie made out of it. Still, this cinematic version of it is a powerful one which takes chances with the source material while remaining true to its spirit. I am also quite thankful the filmmakers had enough freedom to give this movie the ambiguous conclusion it deserves. I am a big fan of ambiguity in movies, and this one has an unsettling conclusion which stays with you long after you have walked out of the theater.

Still, I would have preferred The Ramones’ version of their song “Pet Sematary” as opposed to the cover of it performed here by Starcrawler. Nothing against their version, but in this case the original reigns supreme.

* * * out of * * * *

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All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Pet Sematary’ (1989)

While I am not the biggest fan of the 1989 cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling novel “Pet Sematary,” never will I forget the first time I watched its trailer. Me and my friend Tim were at Crow Canyon Cinemas to watch “Fletch Lives,” a sequel I couldn’t wait to see. There were a number of trailers which preceded it, but then came the one for “Pet Sematary,” and it was a red band trailer. You know, the kind of trailers meant for “restricted audiences only.” Typically, they are attached to an R-rated movie, but for some odd reason, this particular red band trailer was shown ahead of the PG-rated “Fletch Lives.” I told people about this later, and they told me no one is allowed to place a red band trailer before a PG rated movie, but I remember exactly what I saw.

Back in 1989, I was not all that crazy about horror movies. Over the years I have come to love this genre, but even the tamest of horror scary flick would unnerve me to no end back when I was a kid. As soon as the trailer took us to the pet cemetery of the movie’s title, all the little hairs on my body went straight up as I found myself looking away from the silver screen at times.

20 years later, this trailer for “Pet Sematary” stands out among so many others as it proved to be almost as terrifying as the one Stanley Kubrick did for “The Shining.” The build up from a seemingly normal family living in a town far away from the big city hustle to an unveiling of a sinister secret the people of Ludlow, Maine will have wished they kept hidden was handled brilliantly, and it scared me so much to where I didn’t see the movie until about five or six years after its release. This ended up being one of the few King novels I read before I saw the movie, and this is saying quite a bit.

The very scary cat with the glowing dead eyes, the precious child who somehow got hold of a shiny scalpel, and the presence of Fred Gwynne, perfectly cast as Jud Crandall, made for a trailer which looked far more effective than the average King cinematic adaptation, and the original “Pet Sematary” was released back in a time when King movies were both plentiful and critically maligned. Not even the welcome presence of Denise Crosby, who I was heartbroken to see leave “Star Trek: The Next Generation” during its first season, was enough to soothe my shattered nerves. Thankfully, Chevy Chase’s return to his best role as Irwin M. Fletcher helped to calm me down even if “Fletch Lives” was nowhere as good as “Fletch.”

For me, this trailer peaks right where it should as Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) takes a phone call from his undead son, Gage (Miko Hughes). The framing of this shot is perfect as it shows Louis isolated in what should be the safety of his own home as he yells into the telephone, “WHAT DID YOU DO???!!!” After the movie’s title appeared onscreen, we were left with the sound of Gage telling his daddy “now I’m gonna come play with you,” and the laugh he gave following that was simply blood curdling. This was the icing on the cake as few trailers could ever prove to be as scary as this one was back then. No wonder this proved to be one of the more commercially successful King movies from the 1980’s.

If you haven’t already, please check out the 1989 trailer above. I really want to thank “Horrorama – Classic Horror Movie Trailers & More” for finding this trailer including it on their YouTube channel as I have been looking for this one for ages. I feel like I looked everywhere on the internet and thought I would never find it. Thank goodness I was wrong.

Pet Sematary 1989 poster

‘Pet Sematary’ Remake’s First Trailer is Unearthed For All to See

Pet Sematary 2019 Teaser Poster

The cinematic adaptations of Stephen King’s novels have been a mixed bag, but ever since the phenomenal success of “It,” Hollywood has been desperate to adapt his works more than ever before. But moreover, they are also not afraid to remake those films which have already been made from them like “Carrie,” “The Shining” and “Salem’s Lot.” It was only a matter of time, and an eventual escape from development hell, that we would get a remake of “Pet Sematary,” and now its first trailer has been unearthed for all to see.

To be honest, I never cared much for the 1989 version of “Pet Sematary” directed by Mary Lambert. Some of the performances were rather weak, and King, who wrote the screenplay, ended up cramming too much of the novel into the movie to where not all the plot threads were tied up in a satisfying way. Having read “Pet Sematary” myself, I can confirm it is one of King’s scariest works which left me unnerved, especially with its wonderfully ambiguous ending. Now that we are finally getting its latest cinematic incarnation, I cannot help but be intrigued.

From its trailer, it is clear directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (“Starry Eyes”) are intent on making this version their own. The sight of children marching to the beat of a drum through the cemetery while wearing animal masks is a scary sight even if one of them reminded me of the rabbit mask from “Donnie Darko.” Granted, it starts off in a routine fashion with Louis and Rachel Creed (Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz) driving their kids to their new home in Maine. As they get their first glimpse of it, a truck comes roaring by without warning as if a gale force wind suddenly swept by, leaving trees shaking endlessly. It’s a strong moment as we are reminded of the terrible tragedies which will eventually befall these characters.

This trailer doesn’t spell out the story for its audiences, and we only glimpses of other characters like Church and Victor Pascow. Interestingly enough, these proceedings are dominated by John Lithgow who plays Jud Crandall, and he speaks his dialogue in an increasingly ominous tone and without a New England accent. It’s great to see Lithgow here as his presence lends much to what we see here. He does, however, have to contend with the shadow of the late Fred Gwynne who played Jud in the original. Whatever you may have thought about the 1989 film, there’s no denying Gwynne was perfectly cast and the best thing about it.

Overall, this trailer left me intrigued at the possibilities the remake has to offer. It features Clarke who, whether he’s in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “Knight of Cups” or “Chappaquiddick,” is one of the most dependable actors working in movies today. However, I have to say the trailer for the original was much more frightening, especially with Dale Midkiff standing in the middle of his kitchen yelling into his phone, “WHAT DID YOU DO??!!” Even more chilling was hearing Gage’s voice saying, “Now, I want to play with you.” My hope is the next trailer for “Pet Sematary” is even more chilling than this one. My other hope is that the filmmakers will get to retain the ambiguous ending of the novel in this version. Thanks to test screenings, the 1989 movie was denied this, and I am still annoyed to this day at its conclusion.

“Pet Sematary” is set to open in April 2019. Please check out the trailer below.

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘The Shining’

I guess you could say this particular trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” was an early example of a teaser trailer. These days we get teaser trailers for all the big Hollywood releases, and they are designed to whet our appetite not just for the next big blockbuster, but also for the next trailer which will give us even more information of what is in store for us. These days, we even have teaser trailers for teaser trailers, something which I hope will be stopped soon because they are ever so annoying. We get teased enough as kids, so doing this at the movies does not help.

What I love about this trailer for “The Shining” is how simple it is in its design, and yet it still feels deeply unsettling. All we see at first is part of a hotel lobby with two elevators and chairs. The camera never moves an inch as the movie’s credits move upwards indicating the title, the actors starring in it (Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall), the names of the screenwriters, how it is based on “Stephen King’s Best-Selling Masterpiece of Modern Horror,” and the one credit us movie buffs are always happy to see, “Directed by Stanley Kubrick.” Seeing this had me wondering what one could expect with this adaptation of King’s work, and the music composed by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind certainly sends a shiver down my spine.

Watching this trailer reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” as Kubrick, like Hitchcock, managed to find a sinister quality in everyday things and the ordinary. There’s nothing particular special about this hotel lobby here as it looks like any other we have ever been through. This makes it all the more horrifying when those gallons of blood start pouring out of the elevators and into the lobby,

Once again, the camera never moves or pans away, and seeing the blood wash over it is incredibly frightening as you feel trapped and unable to escape. Our instincts tell us to run away, but Kubrick is not about to let his audience off the hook. As the blood drips off the camera to reveal the damage left in its wake, it is clear how the “Dr. Strangeglove” director is more than prepared to take us on a most unsettling ride.

Opinions about Kubrick’s “The Shining” have varied over the years, and King himself has said numerous times how much he despised it. Whatever you may think of the film, this trailer for it is a brilliant piece of work. It’s a shame we don’t see more trailers like this one these days. Of course, if you know of any, please feel free to share them with me.

 

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Maximum Overdrive’

Okay let’s be honest, “Maximum Overdrive” is not a good movie, and that is being generous. It is one of the many adaptations of a Stephen King novel or short story, in this case “Trucks,” and it also marked the feature film directorial debut of King as well. The fact he hasn’t directed a movie since should be no surprise to anyone who has seen this one. The acting is embarrassingly over the top, the editing very sloppy, and not even a rock and roll score by AC/DC is enough to lift, as King described it, this “moron movie” out of the cinematic abyss.

But when all is said and done, the trailer for “Maximum Overdrive” is one of my favorite movie trailers of all time. Watching King gleefully describe what he has in store for us makes me want to watch this movie again, and that’s even though I already know just how bad it is.

Right from the start, King makes it clear to the audience how “Maximum Overdrive” will be a unique movie compared to the others based on his work, and as the camera closes in on his face, he gives off a wide-eyed expression and a twisted smile which quickly reminds us how this is the same man who wrote “Carrie,” “Salem’s Lot” and “The Shining.” I love how he talks about how he “sort of enjoyed” directing a motion picture, but it makes me wonder if this was the cocaine talking as he later admitted how “coked out of his mind” he was while making this Golden Raspberry nominated film.

It was also a brilliant move to use the “Chariots of Pumpkins” theme John Carpenter and Alan Howarth composed for the “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” soundtrack here as the wonderfully creepy music adds to King’s creepy appearance while he stands in front of the Green Goblin mask which is featured prominently on the front of the biggest truck in “Maximum Overdrive.”

The worst parts of each actor’s performance are kept to a bare minimum here, but the annoying nature of the character Yeardley Smith plays is something even the makers of this trailer could not hide from the public. But do not feel bad for Smith. She has more than persevered since “Maximum Overdrive” as she still is the voice of Lisa Simpson on “The Simpsons,” and it is enviable role for any actor which she has held onto now for decades.

When King points his finger at us and says “I’m going to scare the hell out of you and that’s a promise,” it is a wonderfully unsettling moment as those of us who are fans of his writing are well-aware of how often he has kept us up nights. Of course, this movie is anything but scary, so perhaps he was talking about one of his books instead without even realizing it.

In a world filled with an infinite number of movie trailers, the one for “Maximum Overdrive” stands out for me among so many others. Even though the movie it advertises proved to be a critical disaster, I still enjoy watching it from time to time as there are few other trailers like it.

 

 

Mike Flanagan Makes the Unfilmable ‘Gerald’s Game’ a Cinematic Reality

Geralds Game movie poster

Of the many Stephen King novels, “Gerald’s Game” is one of my favorites. Hearing the author talk about it on an episode of Fresh Air with Terry Gross, I was instantly intrigued by its premise of a couple’s sex game gone wrong to where the husband dies and the wife is left handcuffed to the bedpost with no means of escaping. The more King talked about it, the quicker I was to leap out to the bookstore to buy a copy (albeit, when it came out in paperback).

I was also intrigued at the possibility of “Gerald’s Game” being made into a movie as it presented unique challenges to daring filmmakers; how can you stage the action when much of it takes place in the character’s head? Furthermore, how many actresses would be willing to play such an emotionally draining role? Many have described this particular King novel as “unfilmable,” but I always had a feeling this would be proven wrong.

Well, Mike Flanagan, the director of “Oculus,” “Hush” and “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” accepted the challenge of adapting “Gerald’s Game” as he is also one of its biggest fans. Along with screenwriter Jeff Howard, he has made this seemingly unfilmable novel a cinematic reality as he puts us right in the head of its main character as she is trapped in a predicament which presents her with physical and emotional terrors we live to avoid in real life.

We are introduced to Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) as they pack their bags for a weekend getaway to their house by the lake. It is filmed to look like an average vacation with them gathering their things. That is, until Gerald puts two pairs of handcuffs in his bag. Once they arrive, it doesn’t take long for them to get up to the devil’s business as Gerald cuffs Jessie to the bed. You can see in her eyes she is really not into this sex game of his, and she tells Gerald to stop. Gerald, however, suddenly suffers a fatal heart attack as the result of taking one Viagra pill too many, and he drops dead right there on the bedroom floor. Just like Renton told Begbie in “Trainspotting 2,” “Remember not to exceed the stated dose.”

Jessie is then trapped in a most unfortunate situation as she and her husband picked a time to vacation when everyone else is not, so it’s unsurprising to realize is no one around for miles to hear her screaming for help. I have seen this a lot in horror movies, a married couple vacationing at a time when the tourist season is non-existent, and it’s like they have the whole place to themselves. Heck, “Gerald’s Game” would make for an inspired double feature at New Beverly Cinema along with “Honeymoon” as both deal with the same predicament.

Flanagan sets up things for us cleverly as he shows how isolated Jessie and Gerald are from regular society. We meet the dog who will later become hungrier than ever even after Jessie offers him a piece of steak which Gerald tells her costs $200 a pound.  Beyond that, the two of them even leave the front door open as if the house represents Pandora’s Box. This all adds to the growing tension as we know how badly this game will turn out for the two of them.

Once the action focuses on Jessie being handcuffed to the bed, Flanagan gleefully tightens the screws. A cellphone is on the nightstand next to her, but it’s just out of her reach. There is a glass of water nearby, but she cannot bring it to her lips. And then we become witness to her hallucinations as her situation becomes increasingly precarious to where we feel every bit as vulnerable as she does.

The way Flanagan handles Jessie’s hallucinations is quite brilliant as they take the forms of herself, her dead husband, and even her younger self (played by Chiara Aurelia). Flanagan also edited the film, and he keeps us guessing as to where we should be looking next as the focus changes before we realize it. I loved how successful he was at catching the audience off guard as the POV shifts constantly as I had no idea where it would go next.

“Gerald’s Game” does feature a music score by The Newton Brothers, but the film works best when the only sound, other than what’s outside Jessie’s window, is silence. I don’t know about you, but I need some form of sound, soothing or otherwise, to calm my brain just to even fall asleep. When everything is silent, I cannot help but be all too aware of my surroundings and feel like Dee Wallace’s son hiding under the covers in “Cujo.” Flanagan seizes on this silence as every single sound takes on a new, and much more frightening meaning.

Things get even more unnerving when we are taken back to a time when young Jessie was watching a total eclipse with her father. While watching it with special glasses, her father ends up doing something no father should ever do to their child. We don’t see exactly what he’s doing, but it’s enough to make us squirm in our seats as we know it’s something very inappropriate. Henry Thomas, years removed from “E.T.” and “Cloak & Dagger,” turns in a fantastic performance as Jessie’s father, Tom. Just watch him as he carefully manipulates Jessie into keeping this event a secret from her mother. The way he slyly gets Jessie to see things his way reminds me of what a good actor Thomas still is, and that’s even when you want to break his character’s nose.

Some horror movies either show very little or show everything, and with “Gerald’s Game,” Flanagan finds a balance between this. We never see much of Gerald’s body once it flops onto the floor and out of Jesie’s eyesight, nor do we get a specific view of which body parts the dog is feasting on (what did you expect? He almost got to eat a $200 steak). He does, however, show us Jessie’s ever-so-delicate movements as she retrieves a glass of water without breaking it just as Eddie Murphy had to carry one over a bottomless cavern in “The Golden Child.” Of course, this moment is completely dwarfed by the method Jessie undertakes to free herself as it provides us with a cringe-inducing scene on the level of James Franco amputating his arm in “127 Hours.”

If there is anything wrong with “Gerald’s Game,” it is the inclusion of the Raymond Andrew Joubert character (played here by Carel Struycken) whom another describes as “the man made of moonlight.” Indeed, this was also a big problem with the novel as Raymond figures prominently in its last half to where it felt like I was reading a whole other book. Flanagan would have been best to leave this part out of the movie as it never fits here in any meaningful way, and the ending suffers because of it. Having said this, the character’s inclusion is almost worth the trouble as Struycken makes him a terrifying presence, especially when he first appears out of the shadows in the corner of Jessie’s bedroom. It is truly the stuff nightmares are made of.

Carla Gugino would not have been my first choice to play Jessie, and this ends up saying more about me than anyone else. Her work in the “Spy Kids” movies, “Sin City,” and on television shows like “Spin City” and the short-lived “Karen Sisco” should have made her a bigger star, and yet she still seems to be flying below everyone’s radar. Her performance in “Gerald’s Game,” however, should quickly remind us all of how fearless an actress she can be. This is not the most appealing role for anyone to take on as it is emotionally draining, and actors can fall into the trap of emoting rather than acting here. Gugino never does fall into this trap though, and she never backs away from portraying Jessie’s most agonizing moments as her privacy is invaded in different ways.

As for Bruce Greenwood, you can never go wrong with him. While he in no way fits the physical description of Gerald in the novel, it doesn’t matter because he makes the character both loving and undeniably creepy. Just wait until you see the look in his eyes. Even after Gerald dies, Greenwood remains a strong presence as he takes the form of one of Jessie’s hallucinations, and he makes Gerald as creepy in death as he was in life.

The images King evoked in “Gerald’s Game” still remain strong in my mind even though it has been over 20 years since I read it. Thanks to this novel, I will never listen to the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” in the same way ever again. I even got my dad to read it, and he later told me, “Why did you make me read this? It’s so revolting!” While many consider this novel one of King’s lesser works, I completely disagree as it still permeates my consciousness to this very day.

With this cinematic adaptation of “Gerald’s Game,” Flanagan has succeeded in making a motion picture both compelling and agonizing to sit through. Even though I know how the story turns out, my eyes were glued to the screen as I wondered how the director would visualize the novel’s most extreme moments. In a year where King adaptations have ranged from excellent (“It”) to utterly disappointing (“The Dark Tower”), this one delivers as it prods at our deepest fears in the real world as they prove more terrifying than anything from the supernatural realm.

Speaking of “The Joker,” I kept waiting for that song to come on. Maybe issues with song rights kept Flanagan from using it. Or perhaps, after our first look at Raymond and his box of bones, it is clear he is not about to speak of the pompatus of love.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘It’ Proves To Be one of the Best Stephen King Movies in a Long Time

It teaser poster

It” isn’t just one of my favorite Stephen King novels, it’s also one of my favorite books ever. On one hand, it is a terrifying tale of a malevolent force who takes the form of a clown and feeds on the fearful children living in Derry, Maine. On the other, it is a thoughtful and deeply felt examination of kids who are forced to endure a tougher childhood than anyone ever should. I read King’s massive novel (1,138 pages) back when I was a teenager, and it made me realize it was okay to be different than others. Looking back, it also reminded me of a line of dialogue from one of my all-time favorite movies, “Pump Up the Volume:”

“High school is the bottom. Being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point. Surviving it is the whole point.”

For those who have read this novel, you can see how it is more about the kids than it is about Pennywise the Dancing (not to mention incredibly vicious) clown. Thank goodness director Andy Muschietti realized this when he came on to direct the long-awaited film version of “It.” While Muschietti delivers the requisite thrills and chills a horror film like this one demands, he keeps a very observant eye on the kids and the conflicts they are forced to endure, and I don’t just mean Pennywise.

The film focuses on the book’s first half when the members of “The Losers’ Club” were suffering the slings and arrows of daily life at school. But while King set this half in the 1950’s, Muschietti moves things up to the 1980’s, a time of Ronald Reagan, calculator watches, New Kids on the Block, and movies like “Gremlins” and “Beetlejuice” which, like “It,” were released by Warner Brothers. This was a decade defined by greed, but for these kids, it was a time of innocence which would be destroyed for them far too quickly.

“It” was previously made into a wonderfully entertaining television miniseries by Tommy Lee Wallace, but Muschietti lets you know right from the start how the censorship of American television was not going to apply here. Little Georgie Denbrough suffers a most terrible fate when Pennywise bites his arm off and drags his body into the sewer, and even if you know this event is coming, it is still chilling to witness as this is the kind of thing movies typically avoid showing. From there, I couldn’t help but remain in a state of heightened anxiety as while I knew what was going to happen, the safety of network television was not around to reassure me about the horrors I was going to witness.

The misery and sufferings of The Losers’ Club feel much more unnerving on the silver screen than on television. It’s especially galling to see poor Beverly Marsh get wet garbage poured all over her in the bathroom as she has become the victim of unsubstantiated rumors that she is promiscuous. But judging from the moment she when she puts her backpack over her head for protection, she has been dealing with this stigma for a very long time. Or how about Ben Hanscom, the overweight new kid in town who has zero signatures in his yearbook, one of the saddest sights the audience is forced to take in here. While these kids’ sufferings don’t feel as raw as what Sissy Spacek endured in “Carrie,” it’s still easy to feel for these kids who have been cast out of what is perceived to be the realm of normal.

Heck, even their parents prove to be an emotionally distant, and if they are not, they instead prove to be ridiculously overprotective. Beverly’s father seems to care for her a little too much, and this care seems to imply crimes more insidious than our imaginations can ever handle. Eddie Kaspbrak’s mother is determined to keep him safe from any and every germ planet Earth has to offer, and at times she threatens to be as scary as Pennywise due her raising her son as if he is the reincarnation of Howard Hughes. As for William Denbrough, things will never be the same between him and his parents following the death of his brother Georgie.

There’s some passage in the Bible which says God only gives you what you can handle, but the members of The Losers’ Club have far more than anyone should ever be made to handle, and this is made clear before Pennywise begins to disrupt their unfairly depressing lives. As a result, they need each other to get from one day to the next, and the strength they have together allows them to be a formidable force against Pennywise. Muschietti’s attention to these kids’ struggles makes this film very effective as we come to care for them deeply, and this makes their stand against this homicidal clown all the more involving.

Speaking of Pennywise, Bill Skarsgard makes him into the freakiest clown and scarier than any clown Rod Zombie could come up with. Whereas Tim Curry’s Pennywise was at first approachable and then murderous, Skarsgard’s is vicious right from the get go whether the kids realize it or not. Even before those set of jaws come out, Skarsgard more than reminds the audience of how clowns have always been creepy, and he makes Pennywise into the clown who gleefully inhabits all our nightmares.

So where do I rank this particular Stephen King adaptation among the many already unleashed on the public? Hard to say. It is easily one of the best King adaptations in a while, but it is not as scary as “The Shining” or “Carrie.” This is not a motion picture filled with jump scares every 5 minutes as Muschietti is more in creating something which is infinitely chilling and suspenseful. What results is a highly entertaining movie which never feels like a simple remake of the miniseries. He is also blessed with a terrific cast of actors who are not afraid to embrace the depressing natures of their characters. I just hope none of them have to deal with this shit in real life.

I’m also thrilled no one tried to fit the whole book into one movie. There’s no way you could have done that without messing everything up. There was already talk of a sequel long before this movie even opened, and this is a sequel I am more eager to see than any “Star Wars” movie which has yet to be released. It’ll be interesting to see how The Losers’ Club will transition from childhood to adulthood as they attempt to put the past behind them. But as Peter Gabriel once sang, “Nothing fades as fast the future. Nothing clings like the past.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Kimberly Pierce’s ‘Carrie’ Not Really Necessary, But Better than Expected

Carrie 2013 poster

“Carrie” was the first Stephen King novel ever published, and it’s the one people keep coming back to. Filmmakers had the hardest time, until recently that is, getting “The Dark Tower” made into a movie, and bringing “It” to the silver screen seemed to be an impossible challenge. This serves as a reminder of how development hell is still alive and well in Hollywood. “Carrie,” however, has been adapted into the horror classic Brian De Palma directed in 1976, turned into a musical that became famous for how long it didn’t run on Broadway, generated a sequel called “The Rage: Carrie 2” which disappeared from theaters not long after its release, and was later remade into a TV movie where the only saving graces were Angela Bettis as Carrie White and Patricia Clarkson as Margaret White. Now we have yet another remake of “Carrie” which would have been totally unnecessary were it not for Kimberly Peirce, the same filmmaker who gave us the brilliant and emotionally devastating “Boys Don’t Cry” which dealt with a human being cruelly cast out of regular society. As a result, this remake suddenly felt a lot more promising than I expected it to be.

Why do people keep coming back to this particular King novel? Well, with its themes of bullying, isolation and the pain of adolescence, “Carrie” proves to be as timely now as it was when the novel came out in the 1970’s. The story remains the same, but the tools of humiliation and anger have been slightly updated. Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) still has her first period, but this time it is captured on an iPhone and posted on the internet with gleeful malice and a complete lack of sympathy. Granted, Carrie probably doesn’t have a Facebook page as her mother Margaret (Julianne Moore) has spent a lot of time homeschooling her daughter before being forced to send her to a public high school, and she remains as strictly religious as ever; locking her poor daughter into a closet to pray to a bleeding Jesus on a cross.

The main fault with this version of “Carrie” is it follows De Palma’s film a little too closely. For those who have seen the 1976 movie, not much has changed, so this may not seem as scary as before. At the same time, I found myself admiring what Peirce was able to convey with the characters, particularly the females. While certain characters end up coming off as a bit too generic, we get to see the different dimensions which make them more human than the average character we constantly get exposed to in horror movies.

Moretz successfully makes the character of Carrie White her own, and you never feel the shadow of Sissy Spacek’s performance hovering over her. She is able to bring more of Carrie’s rage we saw in King’s book, and we see her as a powder keg just waiting to explode. We all know her as Hit Girl from the “Kick Ass” movies, and it’s only a matter of time before she starts kicking some serious ass at the prom. Even though Moretz doesn’t quite match the description King made of Carrie in the book (she’s one of those actresses you can’t make look ugly), it’s clear from her performance how deeply she understands this horribly shy and alienated teenager inside and out. While this Carrie isn’t ugly by a long shot, she is made to feel ugly by everyone around her, and you can see this weighing heavily on her psyche.

Julianne Moore continues to put in one great performance after another, and her work here as Margaret White is very effective. Whereas Piper Laurie played Margaret as a deranged religious zealot whose devotion to Jesus was unwavering, Moore instead makes the character surprisingly empathetic. Margaret is still deranged, but Moore shows her to be a loving mother who does care ever so deeply about her daughter even if her love comes with a lot of mental anguish. Moore even shows Margaret engaging in self-mutilation which is painful to watch and adds another layer to this character which wasn’t in the book.

Actually, for me one of the most fascinating characters in “Carrie” is Chris Hargensen who is played here by Portia Doubleday. Chris hates Carrie with a passion and looks forward to humiliating her with a vengeance on prom night, but I found myself really getting caught up in how the character goes from being just another spoiled girl to someone who slowly gravitates towards the dark side. Chis initially shows some hesitation when her never do well boyfriend Billy Nolan (Alex Russell) kills the pig whose blood they will use to dump on Carrie, but once she starts cutting the dead pig’s throat, I found the look on her face to be one of the movie’s most horrifying moments. As she gets deeper into criminal activity, we see Chris starting to get both aroused and scared by it, and she doesn’t realize until it’s too late that there’s no turning back.

I was also glad to see Judy Greer playing PE teacher Miss Desjardin, and the role allows her to balance out her sweet side with a rougher exterior as she gets constantly exasperated by her students who show little signs of being the least bit sympathetic towards Carrie. I also have to give Ansel Elgort some credit as he makes Tommy Ross’ transition from not wanting to take Carrie to the prom to making sure the two of them have the best time possible very convincing. Then there’s the lovely Gabriella Wilde who plays Sue Snell, the popular girl who encourages Tommy to take Carrie to the prom. She’s very good in the role and shows us the inner turmoil going on as she sees her goodwill get dumped on, literally.

Look, there’s no way that Peirce could have topped De Palma’s “Carrie.” Having read the book, it would have been interesting to see it done as kind of a documentary as the book is told from various points of view where the townspeople share their memories of what happened on the night of the prom. Still, it’s Peirce’s approach to the characters which made her version of “Carrie” worth watching for me.

Was a remake of “Carrie” really necessary? Not really, but it happened anyway and not for the first time. Having Peirce behind the camera for this one gives this remake a reason for being, and she is blessed with a cast who did not let their memories of De Palma’s horror classic get in their way. If anyone else had directed this version, I’m not sure I would have bothered watching it. Peirce remains a filmmaker who understands how cruelly we can alienate someone for being different, but she never gets caught up in making this into a message movie. She is determined to have us rooting for Carrie even as she lays waste to a town and its inhabitants who have been relentlessly cruel to her. That’s why we go to the movies anyway, to engage in our fantasies.

Now let’s think about adapting some Stephen King novels which haven’t already been made into movies or miniseries. There are so many to choose from.

* * * out of * * * *

Click on the video below to check out the interviews I did with Chloe Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Judy Greer and Kimberly Pierce on “Carrie” for the website We Got This Covered.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Cujo’

Cujo movie poster

It took Cinematic Void putting together a Stephen King film festival at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood to give me a reason to finally check out the cinematic adaptation of “Cujo.” It was a movie I have heard a lot about, and I remember the book’s original artwork with those growling teeth which indicated this particular dog was looking for more than puppy chow and snausages. Moreover, the word Cujo has long since been burned into my consciousness, and it seems to exist as a description of a dog who has gone mad and cannot be mistaken for man’s best friend. In “Fletch,” it made perfect sense when Chevy Chase said “Cujo” as he wandered through a seemingly abandoned house in Utah. Considering he was attacked by a Doberman Pinscher earlier in the film, his fear of being attacked again was completely understandable.

“Cujo” was released in 1983 during a decade when adaptations of King’s work were plentiful and varied in quality. While some were exceptional (“Stand by Me,” “The Shining,” and “The Dead Zone”), others like “Maximum Overdrive” just didn’t work. “Cujo,” however, proves to be an above average adaptation of his work as well as one of the more unusual. While many of his books deal with the supernatural, this one deals more with the horrors of real life instead of just monsters.

I’m sure you all know the story to “Cujo” by now. In case you don’t, it involves a beautiful St. Bernard who, at the movie’s start, chases a rabbit through the woods. In the process, he gets his head stuck in a cave filled with bats, one of which bites him on the nose. From there, he goes from being a lovable household pet to an infinitely vicious one as he attacks any and every human being in his sight.

From the outside, “Cujo” seems to have a very straightforward plot which indicates to the viewer it will be one of those animal attack movies we have seen time and time again. But what really surprised me most is how it focused more on the human element to where I realized the dog was really a supporting character more than anything else.

You have Vic and Donna Trenton (Daniel Hugh Kelly and Dee Wallace), a married couple and the proud parents of a highly imaginative boy named Tad (Danny Pintauro). But while they appear to be leading the perfect life in Castle Rock, Maine, there are cracks beneath the surface which will inevitably become visible to everyone. Vic is increasingly concerned with economic security, something even more understandable these days. Donna is having an affair with Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone), her ex-boyfriend from high school, as she is terrified of being trapped in a small town for the rest of her life. And Tad, he is still at an age where it’s far too easy to believe monsters are hiding in the closet and waiting to jump out at him. Seriously, seeing Tad race to his bed after turning off the light and hiding under the covers brings back a lot of memories.

Taking the fears of each character into account, it serves as a reminder of how brilliant King is at examining not just horrors of the unknown, but also the ones we are forced to experience in the real world. This makes “Cujo” especially effective as the obstacles these characters are forced to deal with feel almost as scary as the thought of this dog tearing their flesh apart.

“Cujo” was directed by Lewis Teague who also helmed the Stephen King anthology film “Cat’s Eye” as well as the cult classic “Alligator” and “The Jewel of the Nile.” Teague was lucky he got to make “Cujo” back in the 80’s, a decade where filmmakers had the opportunity to build up to a furious climax instead of being forced to rush straight to one. These days, studio executives would have begged, if not ordered, him to rush right into the sequences where the dog attacks the hapless humans and increase the blood and gore horror fans are expecting. Instead, Teague got to take his precious time introducing us to characters who are not mere stereotypes and whose struggles will soon pale in comparison to the dog whose appearance becomes increasingly dirty and slimy.

This movie’s major set piece comes when Donna and Tad become trapped in a Ford Pinto as Cujo thrashes away at it, trying to get inside. From there, “Cujo” becomes a major exercise in sheer intensity as we watch Donna do what she can to save herself and her son before the dog makes chop suey out of them both. But if the dog doesn’t get to them, the sweltering summer heat may do them in instead. Suffice to say, they cannot stay in the car forever.

It’s interesting King chose a St. Bernard as the type of dog instead of another like a Doberman Pinscher. Of course, casting a Doberman might have seemed like typecasting as they have always been the villains of dogs. St. Bernard dogs seem more like comic relief, and this was made clear back in the 1990’s with those “Beethoven” movies starring Charles Grodin. Therefore, choosing a St. Bernard as a dog is an inspired choice as it shows how easily a dog, any dog, can turn deadly after being bitten by a bat. When we first see Cujo, he is a beautifully groomed dog you just want to hug. But he soon becomes a dog in desperate need of a shower as he looks disgustingly slimy and has what looks like an abundance of snot sliding off his face. Eventually he becomes an evil force to be reckoned with, and it’s easy to understand how no one could have prepared for him.

But while this dog looks to be the main star of “Cujo,” he is not. The real star is instead Dee Wallace who, just as she did in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” gives us a mother who cannot be mistaken for the average movie mother. I love talking about when actors inhabit roles more than play them, and it is certainly the case with Wallace here as she gives a performance best described as emotionally blistering. She makes us feel Donna Trenton’s frantic struggles as well as her mental and physical exhaustion in dealing with a crumbling marriage, an affair, her son and, of course, the dog. Also, she makes us feel every single bead of sweat coming off of her body as she and Tad are trapped not just in the car, but in the sweltering summer heat as well.

There also moments where Donna loses her patience with Tad, and this makes Wallace’s performance feel all the more real. Just as “Cujo” was being released, some associated with its production were keen to cut a scene where Donna snaps at her son as she grows tired of his crying out for daddy. This, however, would have been mistake as all parents lose their patience with their children. Seriously, just as my mom. I’m sure she has tons of stories she would love to share with you.

While I’m at it, let’s not leave out Danny Pintauro whose performance as Tad feels unbearably real at times. Seeing him weep and panic when the dog tries to get at him and his mother makes an already intense motion picture even more intense.

Teague and his collaborators which include composer Charles Bernstein, director of photography Jan De Bont, and editor Neil Travis clearly had more on their mind than giving us the average horror film with “Cujo.” While there is a conventional feel to much of what we see here, the filmmakers were more invested in the human element than the animal one. Lord only knows how this movie would look if it were made today, and I’m stunned it has not been remade yet. As this cinematic adaptation shows, horror movies can’t thrive unless we are emotionally invested in the characters to where they are not just stock or filler. This film may not be a masterpiece, but it proved to be far more effective than I ever could have expected it to be.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Creepshow 2’

Creepshow 2 movie poster

Creepshow” proved to be a great deal of ghoulish fun, and it’s a film which had me begging for a sequel. There are many other short horror stories worthy of a cinematic adaptation regardless of whether or not they are written by Stephen King. Plus, at the time, it seemed to be a given George Romero would have had easier luck in securing financing for this than for a sequel to “Day of the Dead.” And with the same gothic-looking title, what could possibly go wrong? Even if it’s not one of the greatest horror movies ever, we can still enjoy this sequel for what it is, right?

Well, perhaps you can, but for me, “Creepshow 2” is a serious disappointment. Sure, the three stories contained in it are based on the works of King, and Romero did write the screenplay, but this sequel suffers right from the get go. It falters due to a budget much lower than a horror film deserves, a cast of actors who emote more than act, a weak music score, and animation which just reeks of cheapness.

The movie’s prologue has a young blonde boy named Billy (Domenick John) peddling fast on his bike as he chases a delivery truck into town to deliver the latest edition of Creepshow magazine. The back of the truck opens up to reveal The Creep played by Tom Savini, but voiced by Joe Silver. The makeup on this devilish character is less than convincing, and he is nothing compared to the ghostly apparition from the first movie. Even worse, he is made to crack jokey one-liners which will have you groaning more than laughing. Clearly, this character is “Creepshow 2’s” answer to the Crypt Keeper from “Tales from The Crypt,” or perhaps even John Carpenter’s Coroner from “Body Bags,” but it would have been to this sequel’s benefit had it not featured a wisecracking character as this kind had already started to wear out its welcome back in 1987.

One other thing, if you are going to have Savini playing a ghoulish character, do you really have to put makeup all over him? The infamous makeup artist and actor has a wonderfully devilish look about him, and the mask he wears just takes away from him.

“Creepshow 2’s” first story, “Old Chief Wood’nhead,” is its weakest by far. George Kennedy and Dorothy Lamour play Ray and Martha Spruce, an elderly couple who run a general store in Dead River, a town which, as we can tell from its first appearance, is finally living up to its name. One day they are visited by a Native American elder named Benjamin Whitemoon (Frank Salsedo) who gives the Spruces turquoise jewelry, his tribe’s sacred treasures, to look after. Unfortunately, not long after Benjamin leaves, a group of thugs arrive at the store, killing the Spruces and making off with the jewelry. Oh yeah, the Spruces also have an Indian statute standing prominently outside of their store named Old Chief Wood’nhead, and it doesn’t take long for us to see he will avenge the Spruces as you don’t mess with Indian spirits, ever.

Directing “Creepshow 2” is Michael Gornick who served as Director of Photography on its predecessor. As this first story demonstrates, he doesn’t quite have Romero’s panache or wicked sense of humor as he can’t balance out the horrific aspects with the comedic ones, and everything feels off balance as a result. Also, he shows far too much of Old Chief Wood’nhead coming to life which was a mistake. Gornick starts off by giving us glimpses of this character, played by Dan Kamin, to where we can tell the Chief is more than just another statute. But as the Chief goes on a mission of bloody justice, the character becomes cartoonish to where his bloody revenge isn’t the least bit fulfilling.

For what it’s worth, Holt McCallany, who plays Sam, the leader of the thug gang, does have beautiful hair here, and seeing him show it off as he sees it as his ticket for making it in Hollywood makes him all the more drolly hilarious. Still, MCCallany has nothing on Melissa Leo as her hair was infinitely beautiful from one episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” to the next.

The second story, “The Raft,” is a bit of an improvement. Based on one of King’s scariest short stories from “Skeleton Crew,” it features our college kids who drive out to a predictably isolated lake, located a good 50 miles away from their school, for a swim. The lake’s only real notable feature, at first anyway, is a wooden raft in the middle of it. This raft, however, is soon upstaged by what looks like a slimy oil slick which begins to make its way over to the kids once they get in the water, and they soon find themselves stranded on the raft as the slick surrounds them.

“The Raft” has a lot of cinematic possibilities, and seeing these kids getting consumed by the oil slick provides “Creepshow 2” with some of its most horrifying moments. But in the end, it is undone as Gornick isn’t able to generate enough of a claustrophobic terror this story demands. Plus, the performances of Paul Satterfield, Jeremy Green, Daniel Beer and Page Hannah are weak as they are forced to emote more than act, and this just takes away from the situation and terror their characters are trapped in. Granted, this is not a movie which demands Oscar worthy performances, but it does need good acting to help bring you fully into such a terrifying story.

I do have to give the actors some credit though as they don’t have to do any acting when they first get in the water as it does appear to be very cold. Beer even said he almost died from hypothermia while filming “The Raft,” and keeping this in mind while watching this segment makes it even more unnerving. But despite a bravura conclusion, I came out of “The Raft” feeling like it could have been much better than it was. Perhaps this is partly due to having read King’s short story beforehand, and what he came up with couldn’t possibly be matched here.

The final story, “The Hitchhiker,” proved to be my favorite as it featured Lois Chiles, the Bond woman Dr. Holly Goodhead from “Moonraker,” in a strong performance as businesswoman Annie Lansing. The story begins with Annie leaving a hotel after having an adulterous fling with a gigolo, and she begins thinking of ways to explain to her husband why she is arriving home so late. But as she fumbles around with a lit cigarette while driving her expensive Mercedes down a lonely highway, she accidentally hits a hitchhiker played by Tom Wright. Did Annie kill him? She isn’t sure, and with oncoming headlights heading in her direction, she isn’t keen to wait around. From there, she goes from wondering how to cover up her affair to finding ways to justify leaving the scene of an accident, and then the hitchhiker reappears…

This story reminded me of the “Creepshow” segment entitled “They’re Creeping Up on You!” which starred E.G. Marshall as Upson Pratt, a ruthless businessman whose fear of bugs comes to haunt him big time. Like that segment, “The Hitchhiker” plays with your mind as you ponder if what you saw actually happened, or if it was all in the mind of the main character instead. On first glance, the story doesn’t make much sense as Annie keeps coming across this man she accidentally ran over for no real reason, but, in retrospect, perhaps the hitchhiker represents Annie’s conscience torturing her for hitting a pedestrian and failing to take responsibility for her actions.

This final segment for me reminds me of why I liked the first “Creepshow” so much; it’s a wickedly gleeful mix of horror and black comedy as Annie tries to kill off a hitchhiker who won’t stay ahead. In the process, she also lays waste to her precious Mercedes as her priorities shift from protecting her most valuable possession, a car, to defending herself from a crime which becomes something even worse. It is so over the top to where I was infinitely eager to see where the story would end up, and had the rest of “Creepshow 2” been like this, it would have been so much better. Chiles gets to show more life here than she got to in “Moonraker,” and she steals this sequel easily thanks to her unrestrained turn.

Horror movies in general tend to be made on low budgets, and this was certainly the case with “Creepshow” as Romero only had $8 million to work with. Gornick, however, had a budget half the size of that on “Creepshow 2” ($3.5 million to be exact), and he is unable to stretch it out the way Romero did. I’m always fascinated with what filmmakers are able to pull off creatively with little money, but this sequel shows that sometimes a low budget can be too low to work with. This has the appearance of a motion picture where the filmmakers were forced to cut corners at every turn due to limited funds, and it makes me feel sorry for Gornick as I’m sure he could have accomplished more if the budget allowed him to. While Warner Brothers distributed the first movie, the sequel was instead released by New World Pictures, a small independent production company which inched closer and closer to bankrupt around the time “Creepshow 2” came out.

I also didn’t care for the film score by Les Reed and Rick Wakeman as their themes came across as unbearably generic. Both are very talented musicians, but their music here just made me pine for John Harrison’s music from “Creepshow” as well as “Day of the Dead.” Back in the 1980’s, Harrison came up with some wonderfully creepy cues, but Reed and Wakeman have no such luck here.

“Creepshow 2” does have its inspired moments, but I came of it feeling like it could have been so much better. Instead of enjoying what I saw, I spent more time analyzing things which could have been easily improved. I do, however, have to applaud the filmmakers for including the following quote from Colliers Magazine in the end credits:

“Juvenile delinquency is the product of pent up frustrations, stored-up resentments and bottled-up fears. It is not the product of cartoons and captions. But the comics are a handy, obvious, uncomplicated scapegoat. If the adults who crusade against them would only get as steamed up over such basic causes of delinquency as parental ignorance, indifference, and cruelty, they might discover that comic books are no more a menace than Treasure Island or Jack the Giant Killer.”

This quote was from the year 1949, and yet all these years later many still seek scapegoats, be it comic books or Marilyn Manson, instead of dealing with things in a more rational manner. I loved that the filmmakers included this quote, but I would have loved it even more if they had opened the movie with it.

* * out of * * * *