Arts and Popular Culture Opinion

Sometimes dead is better: Hollywood looks to resurrect Hellboy and Pet Sematary

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Old Jud’s message is clear in the original Pet Sematary: “Sometimes dead is better.” Hollywood doesn’t show any signs of heeding this advice. It’s latest resurrections Pet Sematary and Hellboy. Which one will be the stinking dead cat?

Although very different films, Neil Marshall’s Hellboy reboot and Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Pet Sematary share a few superficial similarities. They are both based on much-loved pieces of pop-literature and both have well-received film-series preceding them.

As such when casting a critical eye on both films it’s hard to draw comparisons to these previous films — as unfair as that may be. 

Hellboy — the road to hell is paved with good intentions

Harbour is great as Hellboy — that’s about it

In this regard, it’s very clear that Marshall’s Hellboy — starring David Harbour as the titular infernal paranormal investigator — has the uphill struggle. Whilst the first entry into Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy series was so-so, the Mexican director cut loose with its sequel — creating a heady mix of dreamy fairy-tale and infernal romance. 

Sadly, despite being clearly cued-up, a third entry in the series never happened. Interestingly, this reboot initially started as a third Hellboy film to fit into the series, and frankly, it would have been better served as such.

This version of Hellboy (David Harbour) sees our hero dragged into a plot by the Blood Queen to establish a kingdom of magic and monsters on Earth. King Arthur and Merlin aren’t around to imprison her so it’s to Hellboy’s BRPD allies to do it…

The film has had a wave of negative press and reviews and to my knowledge, director Neil Marshall has done his best to distance himself from the project. The film is a mess frankly, but it does have some laudable moments before an absolutely abysmal third act dooms it entirely.

The film stinks of a project with a strong underlying vision that has suffered endless interference from a studio. I have enough faith in Marshall’s artistic vision to believe this is not the film he intended to deliver. I also suspect that vision was too far away from Del Toro’s, with its foul mouth scouse demons and all–I suspect the studio may have got cold feet.

As this is a reboot, Marshall and screenwriter, Andrew Cosby, are almost duty bound to retell Hellboy’s origins. And the fact that this is almost an obligation for the director shows — with him producing a pale-imitation of Del Toro’s origin story. The flashback to the ritual in which Hellboy is summoned is only saved by a cameo from Thomas Haden Church as Nazi-bashing Lobster Johnson — a creation that is straight out of a Mike Mignola penned Hellboy comic-book.

Aside from the director, it is Habour who has to shoulder much of the responsibility for the audience’s acceptance of this new Hellboy. Stepping in the horns and tail of Ron Pearlman must have been daunting for the Stranger Things actor — Pearlman, for many, will always be the epitome of Hellboy. His performance was near perfect.

Harbour himself does well — if not eclipsing Pearlman, he at least does enough in his opening scene battling a monstrous vampire creature that was once a colleague in a Mexican Luca Libre wrestling ring to convince he has the chops for a role that he is clearly enjoying.

Its action like this scene that the film needs more of, desperately. At points, the film feels like a White Zombie album cover — a heady mix of monsters, wrestling matches, witches, blood and gore… not high-brow stuff… but it works. Backing these scenes up a stomping sleazy-rock soundtrack including a great Spanish version of the Scorpion’s ‘Rock you like a Hurricane’. 

The Baba Yaga a Sam Rami like creation which wouldn’t have been out of place in a cellar in Evil Dead 2

Another aspect of the film that really succeeds is the moments of Grand Guignol gory horror. Anyone who has seen Marshall’s masterful and claustrophobic ‘The Descent’ will know the man has great horror instincts. An encounter between the villainous witch Baba Yaga and Hellboy in her house which wanders around on chicken legs — is Marshall channelling pure ‘Evil Dead 2- era Sam Rami — and it’s wonderful for it. Easily the film’s stand-out scene.

Hellboy is visceral and gory  and genuinely shocking at points— even the act of communicating with the dead is not a bloodless affair in this world.

Unfortunately, that’s about all the positive things to say about the film. 

In regards to the rest of the cast, Ian McShane is terrible. I don’t know if he was a late addition, but every line sounds like a table read during the first week of rehearsals. 

Also, he and Harbour fail to capture the father-son dynamic that John Hurt and Ron Pearlman created so impressively in the first Hellboy. This wouldn’t be such an issue if it weren’t for the fact that the emotional denouncement of the film hinges on this relationship. 

The lack of rapport — and a laughably awful piece of CGI that frankly must have been a late addition to the film as it’s clearly unfinished — means that the climax of the film falls completely flat. In fact, I had to stifle a laugh, definitely not the intended reaction!

The story itself is contrivance central. Events seem to happen only to get Hellboy and company to the next place some story will develop and an action set-piece will occur. Each time the audience has a tonne of exposition dumped on them. 

The worst example of this is when one of Hellboy’s colleagues’ lives are threatened. The cure, we are told is to visit Merlin. Hellboy does so, only to have the cure instantly delivered and never mentioned again and for Merlin to drop a major plot-point on Hellboy’s horns. To call this storytelling ‘clumsy’ is a vast understatement.

The idea that Hellboy is an heir to King Arthur and needs to wield Excalibur to defeat the villainous Blood Queen is — like the mythical sword itself — snatched from mid-air at the end of the second act. I got the impression that the Arthurian themes would have been developed further by Marshall had he not been forced to retell Hellboy’s origins. 

As for Milla Jovovich’s Blood Queen, the character is painfully one-dimensional. This is a problem for the film as a whole as we are clearly supposed to question whether Hellboy may actually choose to side with the Blood Queen and embrace his monstrous nature.

As the main character’s arc, it flops because Jovovich is so unrepentantly evil that we never suspect for a second the main character will side with her.

You might remember that the early films from Marvel Studios were heavily criticised for bland, uninspired villains. In recent times, Disney/Marvel has upped its game considerably. Like them or hate them, Killmonger, Thanos and Hela can hardly be described as one-note — especially impressive considering one of those characters is totally CGI.

The Blood Queen fits neatly alongside comic book villain failures like Doomsday and Steppenwolf from DC’s ‘Batman vs Superman’ and ‘Justice League’ respectively. Criminal, when you consider you’ve got a seasoned actress in the role, clearly visible, not a lump of CGI. 

The rest of the supporting cast are serviceable but mostly serve to dump exposition on Hellboy and the audience like a clumsy waiter. Sasha Lane is great as Alice Monaghan and the friendship between the psychic medium and Hellboy should have served s the emotional anchor for the film rather than the father-son rapport that it fails to build.

A bitter disappointment. I doubt we’ll get to see Harbour as Hellboy again but the actor should consider elements of the performance for his audition for another comic-book character — I wonder if I’m the only person who thinks he’d be a fantastic and more comic accurate Wolverine? 

Pet Sematary: A worthy resurrection?

Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have a much easier task rebooting Pet Sematary. Firstly, the fondly remembered original is much older than Del Toro’s Hellboy films. Secondly, the sequel to the 1989 original wasn’t an improvement on the original as ‘Hellboy: Golden Army’ on its predecessor. Rather, it was a straight to video flop which only reappears on occasion to be rightfully mocked by Youtube movie reviewers.

Also working in its favour is the fact that the artistically and financially successful ‘IT’ reboot has created a horror-audience thirsty for Stephen King adaptations. 

All this, coupled with the fact that the directors are coming off the criminally under-appreciated and under-watched 2014 horror ‘Starry Eyes’ and that I love the original book, gave me high hopes for this adaptation. 

What I found was a mixed bag of a chiller, that works more often than it doesn’t. 

The plot sees the Creed family move to rural Ludlow, Maine, for a quieter life, and as is always the case in horror, that doesn’t go according to plan. 

The family’s new home is penned by two oppressive forces; the Ludlow road sees 18-wheelers race passed the house at regular intervals — an ever-present physical danger. Meanwhile, the boundary beyond the Pet Sematary behind the back of the house provides a metaphysical threat that promises to swallow the family. 

One of the more impressive things about the film is the way it plays with ideas of space. Locations that should be far apart are linked by opening cellars doors or bathroom cabinets — this means that it feels that family never feel quite safe. Their haunting can intrude on them at times and in places, they should feel safe. 

Particular effective in this regard is the terrorising of Rachel Creed — played by Amy Seimetz — by the sounds of her sister Zelda, who no-doubt gave viewers of the original nightmares — pulling herself across the upper floors of their home — even though she is long dead. 

Also commendable are the filmmakers tackling themes of ownership and responsibility — Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) places the family cat in the cursed soil beyond the barrier meaning he has to own what results. When he attempts to absolve himself of this burden, tragic circumstance ensue. 

Likewise, the act of burying Church the cat passes the guardianship of that cursed ground — which the filmmakers make us question is a physical place at all — to Louis from Jud, a lifelong resident of Ludlow — played wonderfully by John Lithgow, who replaces the marvellous Fred Gywne in the role. 

Lithgow warrants particular praise in my eyes. Jud, as played by Gywne — better known as Herman Munster — is one of my favourite horror characters and a great example of how exposition dumps don’t have to painful and boring (looking at you Hellboy). Lithgow is every bit as good, if not as warm. 

What I particularly enjoyed was the way Jud goes from being the barrier’s keeper to being Louis’ in a way. The furtive glances between them in the second act, Jud knowing exactly the terrible steps that Lewis will take to rewrite a wrong, are a fantastic touch — communicating volumes about the dynamic between the pair and the terrible burden Jud has shared.

Unfortunately, it’s the places where the film-makers have chosen to deviate from the source material where the film falters somewhat. Anyone will tell you that King’s original novel is extremely bleak and hopeless. Even for a work of horror, Per Sematary the novel offers little hope and presents an ugly picture of grief and bereavement. It’s almost nihilistic in its tone.

The filmmakers do capture some of this atmosphere, but when it comes to capturing the film’s most nihilistic and bleak beat — they swerve (pun intended) and take the story in a different direction. 

On one hand, the filmmakers should be applauded for taking a risk and justifying this movie even existing. Clearly, the directors have the worthy and all too lacking conviction that movie remakes have to deliver something different. 

My complaint arises from the fact that the direction the plot takes robs the sour-ground of beyond the barrier of some of its mystery. Suddenly it almost has motivation and animus through the characters it reanimates. More-so it and the characters it brings back have a distinct plan. 

The novel and the original 1989 movie give us lots of accounts from Jud of what happened to Ludlow residents when they toyed with nature beyond the Pet Sematary. We can see that the Creeds’ tragedy becomes part of this folklore.

In this reimaging, the incidence seems to be the start of something bigger. That’s fine but it leaves us to ask if this ancient evil has a ‘plan’ how has it failed to implement it over 1000s of years. 

In the end, Pet Sematary (2019) provides horror fans enough scares to warrant a trip to the cinema. But unfortunately, it’s unlikely to embed itself in the memory long-term like the remake of IT did. 

Fun, but forgettable. 

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