July 31, 2013

Castle Rock Cash-In presents... Pet Sematary Two

This is a tie-in to Angelle Tusa's Castle Rock Companion series, which explores the cinematic adaptations of the works of Stephen King. Her review of Pet Sematary can be found here.

While in the midst of shooting her latest film (a horror movie, of course), Hollywood starlet Renee Hallow (Darlanne Fluegel) is electrocuted to death as a result of somebody forgetting to say "Hey, we probably shouldn't put all of the power sockets right where a hose is puddling the floor of the set." Screaming from the wings is her teenage son, Jeff Matthews (Edward Furlong), who now goes to live with his recently estranged father, Chase (Anthony Edwards). Chase is a veterinarian, and after the paparazzi swarm of Renee's funeral settles, he decides to shift his business to the small town where she kept a summer home... the small town of course being Ludlow, Maine.

The two continue struggling with their grief, and never quite manage to connect with one another enough to help each other cope. At his new school, Jeff instantly gets on the wrong side of local bully Clyde Parter (an epic douche bag performance from Jared Rushton), but gradually befriends the overweight and frequently put-upon Drew Gilbert (Jason McGuire). Gilbert has troubles of his own as he has to come home everyday to the demanding machismo of his stepfather, Gus Gilbert (Clancy Muthafuckin' Brown!), the town sheriff who takes any opportunity he can to remind Chase he bedded the vet's late wife as the high school prom king.

While we mostly see it through Jeff's eyes, the bulk of the movie is actually centered on the relationship between Drew, who's getting exhausted of being a submissive punching bag and is on the verge of a rebellious streak, and Gus, who's trying to make a man out of another man's boy just so he can score points with the kid's hot mother whom he manly sleeps with each night like a man. Their tension is carried on through their pets, with Drew's dog Zowie always messing with the cage of Gus' prized white rabbits (who he likes to watch breed before he breeds with his wife because MAN), which culminates one night in a raging and armed Gus sending Zowie limping into the woods with a bullet in her side.

In the first film, only a handful of old folk still knew about the burial ground beyond the pet sematary, but rumors of what befell the Creed family have spread and set in as urban legend among the youth, and so Drew doesn't hesitate to bring his beloved dog up the mountain, and be uneasy around it once it returns. And it's not long before zombie!Zowie takes Gus out with a bite to the jugular, and Drew and Jeff are dragging the sheriff's body up the hill in the hopes it'll keep them from getting into trouble.

I understand why the story of Timmy Baterman was heavily altered in the truncation of the first film's adaptation, but it was still an unfortunate loss of what was a gloriously chilling segment of the book. Here, we get some of that back as, instead of going all psycho-killer upon his return, Gus just shambles back into the family home and flops around in a mimicry of his daily routine. He's increasingly bestial in the treatment of his wife each night, with their frequent sex turning into domestic rape, but Drew never sees this, settling into contentment as Gus is suddenly more docile at the dinner table, even outright goofy at times... when he's not sitting out back skinning and butchering his way through his once prized rabbits.

This is a film that should absolutely be seen, if only for one reason: Clancy Brown. His stumbling performance as zombie!Gus is an absolute treasure as he's pathetically adorable one moment, crap-your-pants disturbing the next. And when he finally does flip and go after his own family, wow. Just wow. If you thought a little psychotic toddler was terrifying in the first film, here we've got that same spirit in the 6'4" body of an undead Kurgan, and Brown knows when to camp and when to creep as he waggles his tongue, roars through a rictus grin, and utters lines like the one stuck in my mind from when I saw ads for this on tv at age 10, where he aims a power drill at someone's head and says, "No brain, no pain."

Angie pointed out in her review of the first film that the forces of the burial ground try to create daisy chains to keep bringing new victims to the fold, and we get that here as Zowie leads us to Gus, and Gus's first kill is someone he brings back to the burial ground (playing a little wobbly with the "You bury your own." rule, despite it being repeated here), and then digs up his old flame Renee and uses her to draw Jeff over to the dark side.

Edward Furlong is the top-billed star, yet despite being prominently featured, he's never really the lead of this story. He's our entry point, but then he's tagging along through Drew's tale as an observer, and once he sees what the burial ground is capable of, he sinks into an obsessive drive to bring back his mother, pulling her things out of storage to dress the house for her return, and donning the suit he wore at her funeral. The lead of the third act thus becomes Chase, who goes from gradually putting together the pieces of what's going on, to a brutal battle with Gus, to returning home to find his son curled up in the arms of his resurrected wife, who's completely unmarred until a fire melts away the wax the coroner used to mask her fatal wounds.

I've detailed the story here more than I expected to, because I feel a need to share just how richly built this screenplay is. Richard Outten (with some uncredited contributions by David S. Goyer) has crafted a character-driven story worthy of King which, while neither an evolution nor continuation of the events of the original, is a solid new story built on those foundations. The cat has been replaced by a dog, who's big enough on his own to kill humans. Drew gives in to the power so he won't get in trouble for his dog killing the man he always got in trouble with. Jeff goes from strong and capable to just wanting his mommy to hold him again. And Gus becomes a force strong enough to actively drive the burial ground's agenda instead of just being a cog in the motor. On top the all this, we get Drew's mom (Lisa Waltz), who's chosen Gus over her son and never defends the boy. And Sarah Trigger as a starstruck housekeeper whose fandom for Renee leads her to cross a few lines. And the escalating sadism of Clyde, which comes to bite him in the face... pun intended. And the teens throwing a Halloween night party at the sematary, complete with tales around a fire and beer. And Chase medically examining a resurrected pet, showing they aren't actually alive, and even freshly buried ones will gradually turn nasty as they continue to decay.

There's so much juicy stuff in this movie, all woven together into a solid web of a film. Lambert's direction is just as capable here as it was in the first, with strong camera work and editorial choices, and a great droning electric guitar on the soundtrack. Nobody on the cast rises to the level of Clancy's glorious lunacy, but they're still fine. Anthony Edwards is stiff up front, but opens up as he falls deeper into revelations and events. Jason McGuire was never an experienced actor, and only has two other bit parts to his name, but Drew feels like an authentic kid in his hands, and the moments where he tries to stand up for himself are just as realistically delivered as when he eventually deflates. Edward Furlong is... Edward Furlong. He's broody and glares and emphasizes points BY SUDDENLY SHOUTING IN HIS SHRIEKY VOICE, but he does fit the part well, and Lambert skillfully makes use of what he's got.

The only part of this film that doesn't entirely work for me is the climax. The battle between Chase and Gus is great, punctuated by a wonderful moment where a wounded Chase shambles out of the house, stops, shambles back in, and then we hear three more gunshots before he shambles back out. It's when he returns home that things fall apart a bit. The image of Jeff curled up to his mother is great, but once the fire starts, the staging and editing suddenly take a clumsy turn and a lot of the grand guignol tension is lost. Some of this feels like the product of reshoots, especially when zombie!Clyde shows up for a fight with Jeff that wasn't needed, and why was he even brought back again? Just for this?

So the second half of the climax is weak, but not to a degree where it kills the film. Which is good, because this is a very nice film and I would hate to have seen it fall apart so deep into its run. Out of all the Stephen King sequels I've reviewed to date for the Cash-In project, this is by far the strongest, and is absolutely a worthy continuation for those who enjoyed the first.

Castle Rock series index.


Angie Tusa said...

And I'm here to say I disagree. :)

I saw a lot of potential in this film, but I also felt like it was ultimately squandered. Jeff losing his mother in such a tragic way, Chase recently hoping to make amends with his wife before she died, Drew being bullied by his over the top evil stepfather who mistreats and finally kills his dog. This is also a solid cast, full of people who even if I don't know them by name, I've seen in other 90s films and enjoyed. It was what it chose to do with these elements that bothered me.

Not once but twice, the movie suggests that those brought back by the burial ground have some kind of psychic connection with those who resurrected them. Zowie appears out of nowhere to kill Gus when he's beating on Drew, and Gus appears to kill Clyde when he's bullying Jeff. Yet this protection element is apparently only a one time deal, and after that they just try to kill you. While it's consistent within the narrative, it's an angle that didn't truly make sense to me.

It seemed to me that the perfect thing that could have happened was for Drew to intentionally use Zowie to kill Gus. The fact that Jeff and Drew felt the need to resurrect Gus because they would get in trouble is a clear "because the movie needs it" element and not anything in logic. A man has an obvious bite wound from a dog he frequently abused in the past. No one is going to blame the teens. Evil stepfather is taken care of, problem solved.

They could even have taken that a step further and sent Zowie after Clyde who was repeatedly seen bullying both of the boys. After using the dog so often to their advantage, Jeff could think that using the burial ground for his mother would be a safe thing to do, his grief forcing him to completely ignore the dog's viciousness. Her return would of course have disastrous consequences that Jeff would be forced to pay for, possibly even having to kill his own mother.

Perhaps it's not fair to judge a movie against a story you can come up with yourself, but when I see a movie that's broken, I sometimes find ways to fix it.

I'm afraid I didn't find undead Gus anywhere near as scary as you did, mostly because the character was so over the top. And the latter half of the movie is just a complete mess, with Gus suddenly burying Clyde and helping Jeff bury his mother as if he's trying to create some kind of zombie attack on the town. The dreams of both Jeff and Chase showing Renee returning to them but then suddenly having Zowie's head come off as completely ridiculous, and the gratuitous use of animals being torn apart for the sake of shock value left me more disgusted than afraid.

As if I wasn't already frustrated with the mess of an ending, Renee calling out to Jeff "Dead is better!" as she burns, twisting the phrase to mean "it's better to be dead!" rather than "it's better to leave the dead alone" was the final stab in the back this movie committed to the original film.

NoelCT said...

They could even have taken that a step further and sent Zowie after Clyde who was repeatedly seen bullying both of the boys.

There's actually some great potential with this idea, of "a boy and his dog" relationship where the bullied kid uses the returned beast to start weeding through all the people who've given him crap over the years. Something very thematic similar to Christine.

I'm still fine with what we get, though, as the moment where Drew and his mother are killed is a great gut-punch that ends them on a sudden note. And the reason I'm fine with Gus's campiness is because that's the moment where it turns, where we hold on his face as it goes from funny to chilling in a "shit just got real" yank of tones. I love it when films do that. :)

The dreams of both Jeff and Chase showing Renee returning to them but then suddenly having Zowie's head come off as completely ridiculous, and the gratuitous use of animals being torn apart for the sake of shock value left me more disgusted than afraid.

All of which I found very effective. :P

Dang, and I thought this was one you might enjoy. :)

Angie Tusa said...

This is one of those movies where I feel so passionate about what went wrong because deep down I really did want to like it. :)

Bryant Burnette said...

I hate this movie. It's got interesting elements -- especially Clancy Brown, who is awesome -- but ends up feeling like three or four different movies rolled into one, all of them with different tones that are incompatible with each other.

All they're almost ALL incompatible with the first movie.

I can see why someone would like it, though, and I suspect that I myself might like it. I have two words which can help explain why I don't. Those words are "Edward" and "Furlong." I just loathe that guy as an actor. Even when he's in good movies -- like "Terminator 2" and "American History X" -- he sucks, and in a lousy movie like this, he is even worse. If, someday, he and Christian Slater (who I also detest) kill each other in a bar fight, I will begin celebrating that day as an annual holiday.

Not sure what I'll call it.

But I'll think of something.