Pet Sematary | Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer | April 5, 2019
The Stephen King revival continues with a remake of the 1989 adaptation of King’s novel Pet Sematary. With the success of 2017’s It, a large number of Stephen King novels have been recently adapted or are currently in development. It was a worldwide success, which made a case that other revamped King stories could probably use an updated iteration. There were some original Netflix and Hulu adaptations (Gerald’s Game, 1922, Castle Rock) that were honestly pretty good. The original Pet Sematary turns 30 this year, so it made some sense to revisit it. The 1989 version, while creepy and dark, has some problems. Certain scenes, and particularly the acting, don’t hold up. I still enjoyed the film during a re-watch a few years ago, but it’s certainly dated.
I felt cautiously optimistic about this 2nd go-around to tell the story. This new version of Pet Semetary has some tense moments, but it ultimately feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity to differentiate itself from the 1989 film. Jason Clarke plays Dr. Louis Creed, a Boston doctor who moves to a quaint Maine country home for a new job with his wife Rachel (Alien: Covenant‘s Amy Seimetz) and two children Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie). Along with them is the family cat, Church – short for Winston Churchill. Louis and Rachel want to settle down with their kids and live life at a slower pace. Anyone who’s seen a horror movie knows that moving to a quiet home near the edge of a forest is never fun. Once they arrive, strange events begin to occur. Rachel’s flashbacks to her older disabled sister Zelda, who died when they were young, start to get worse. Anyone who has seen the 1989 version knows who and why Zelda is terrifying.
Louis begins practicing medicine at the local hospital, where a young boy is brought into the ER and quickly dies. Louis, as a doctor, doesn’t seem too rattled, until the boy starts appearing to Louis in nightly visions. Ellie is also unsettled when she wanders off into the woods and stumbles upon a cemetery for dead pets. The family’s new neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) follows her, warning her that the woods aren’t safe for children. The buildup of Pet Semetary is no secret to anyone who’s read or seen the source material, and it’s set up nicely here.
Lithgow does a fairly good job with playing Jud. He is caring, but also cautious and demanding when necessary. The Creed family quickly bond with Jud after learning that he lives alone. After Church is unfortunately hit by a car and killed, Jud tells Louis that they need to bury the cat the same night, and Jud leads him into the woods, past the cemetery, and into a nightmarish burial ground deep in the forest. Once they bury the cat, Louis obviously asks “Why did we come all the way out here to do this?”.
The next morning, Church returns home re-animated, but different. He’s more aggressive and bears a sinister look. This is where Pet Sematary’s plot really starts to move. Louis questions Jud, leading to an explanation which, along with the folklore, is much better fleshed out in this version and is truer to the novel. The next 45 minutes, however, do take some liberties. There are some alterations to the story that were included in the marketing campaign for this new Pet Sematary. Mostly, it works. However, those small changes alone aren’t the only reasons that this Pet Sematary feels different. Even as its own film, it’s certainly hard to not compare it to the 1989 film. It’s better to go into a film like this not having seen the previous version or read the source material.
Mary Lambert’s take on the material 30 years ago, while certainly cheesy at times, had a particular nastiness to it. The final scene is one of the scariest and most disturbing in all of horror cinema, as far as I’m concerned. While 2019’s Pet Sematary certainly has a dark tone, I just didn’t feel that pull towards the usual King terror. Jason Clarke does a fine job with his character’s lines, but Louis doesn’t act as genuinely crazy or disturbed. For a film that’s supposed to be about grief driving someone mad, it does this rather quietly. Last year’s Hereditary did a much better job.
That’s one of the reasons why I felt like this version wasn’t what it could be. It tries to say something about how grief can cause anyone to act without a semblance of reason, but never quite gets there. Once Louis visits the burial grounds to bury something else, the plot almost moves too fast. There’s a scene with Louis and his daughter Ellie that’s twistedly funny, but then the plot just moves at a breakneck speed at the sacrifice of character development. I’m curious to see if there will be a directors’ cut because it feels like certain scenes may have been left out.
With it being a horror film, there’s blood and frightening moments, for sure. Church the cat is definitely more sinister and threatening in this version. That’s the most frustrating part of 2019’s Pet Sematary, though. Certain changes to the story turn out great, but at a cost of characterization and buildup. The plot and the theme of grief overwhelming logic gets overshadowed by typical horror tropes. There’s maybe only one real surprise towards the end of the film. While the ending is certainly Stephen King-esque, I still feel like the original’s ending is much more twisted and disturbing. I really tried to not compare the two films, but there were certain beat for beat moments that made it impossible. Overall, Pet Sematary does a fine job of being tense and creepy in certain moments. The acting is much better, and there are quite a few scenes that make for prime Halloween viewing. I’m just not sure if that was reason enough to bring it back to life.