By John H. Foote
Stephen King is now 72 years old, has written a staggering 58 books, and is worth over 400 million dollars. So wealthy is he, that when film students have asked for permission to shoot one of his short stories, he agrees to a fee of one dollar. He lives with his wife Tabitha in Bangor, Maine, in a Gothic mansion everyone knows upon site. King is easily the most prolific writer of his generation, of the last 40 years, and his novels usually start at the top of the New York Times best seller list. Movie and TV sales are done when the book is in galley form, the studios often do not even wait for the work to be finished, they just buy it. King maintains his favourite movie adaptations remain Stand By Me (1986), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Mist (2007), only the latter a horror film.
Everyone has their favourite King book, mine is Salem’s Lot, though his most frightening book is It. In Salem’s Lot, we learn a character named Mike Ryerson has died. A few pages later the words, “Mike Ryerson was lying on the bed” chilled my blood. That is the power he wields with images and words. Others think differently. They prefer The Shining, Cujo, Dr. Sleep, or Revival and there are more than enough books to go around. I have great emotion for Christine, as much about teenage friendship as it is a haunted Plymouth Fury. And the closing sentence of The Green Mile is perhaps the most haunting end to any book.
“We each owe a death, there are no exceptions, I know that, but God, oh God, sometime the green mile is so long.”
Parents were hit particularly hard by his 1983 book Pet Semetary, the themes including guilt and grief as a tiny child died on the pages, only to be brought back from the dead. The book was made into a weak film in 1989, and now here we go again with another version of the book. Straight up there are spoilers within, including a major change from the book that surprised me, though I understand why.
The Creed family has moved to Ludlow, Maine, escaping the big city to the country living of this small town. Louis (Jason Clarke), Rachel (Amy Seimetz), Ellie (Jete Lawrence), and Gage (Hugo Lavoie) look like the all-American family. Louis a doctor and they have money to afford the sprawling property the purchase. What they discover is that on their land is a very dark place known as the pet semetary, where people have been known to bury their cats and dogs, to have them return, different.
The moment we learn of the pet burial ground, we know their family cat is doomed, and sure enough a speeding vehicle kills the poor cat on the road right in front of their home. Jud (John Lithgow), their kindly neighbour, takes Louis with the cat to the place and, sure enough, the cat comes back, scruffy, mangy, hair matted, damp, ugly and with a nasty disposition.
Then an unspeakable tragedy befalls the family when their daughter is killed, a huge switch from the book but one I understand. The death of the toddler pulled many out of the film in 1989, and my brother, an actor, pointed out it would be near impossible for a true toddler to play the role. So they changed it to have the daughter die, which when they do what we know they will do, makes the return of the girl even more creepy than we think it might. At the heart of the book has always been a genuine portrait of heartbreak and grief, the sort of shattering, unbearable grief from which no one recovers. Refusing the natural order of things, they refuse to let go of what has been taken.
The filmmakers miss this entirely. ENTIRELY. So instead what we get is a slasher film that becomes a slasher film partway through, it does not start that way, and it never seems headed in that direction until we are there.
There were no moments that I found scary, in fact I snickered a few times when I should not have. Where the book explores parental dread, an exploration of a kind of pain no parent should ever go through, grief times a thousand. Not in the film, instead we get a silly slasher film and it is pretty easy to deduce who is swinging the knife.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”