Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jete Laurence, Hugo/Lucas Lavoie, Obssa Ahmed
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…introduces some surprises but ultimately feels like a series of effective scenes in search of an overarching theme.
In 1983, writer Stephen King published Pet Sematary, a pitch-black examination of grief hidden inside a fairly trashy horror novel featuring a zombie cat. In 1989, director Mary Lambert released a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the same, a quality flick that was let down by some ropey acting and moments of general ‘80s hokiness. Still, much like the source material, something of the dark and pervasive subtext shone through and made the film an uncomfortable watch, in a good way.
What with the current cinematic Stephen King renaissance, it’s no shock that Hollywood would eventually dig up Pet Sematary. In fact, the biggest surprise is that it’s taken this long. Enter Pet Sematary (2019), brought to us by directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, the duo responsible for indie horror darling, Starry Eyes (2014).
The story setup remains pretty much unchanged from the novel/original film. The Creed family, comprising father Louis (Jason Clarke), mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz), daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence), infant son Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) and cat Church (various felines), have moved from Boston to the sleepy little town of Ludlow, Maine. In their new digs the family find they have an agreeable old man neighbour, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) and a “Pet Sematary” in their backyard, where local kids bury their beloved deceased animal friends. Of course, there’s something even further in the woods, an ancient burial ground where things are said to return from death, but the Creeds need not worry about that. Until, that is, Church is killed and what a pity it would be if Ellie were sad about that…
For most of its runtime, Pet Sematary is an effective, albeit slightly redundant remake, going through similar motions to the original while offering better acting and more focused direction. However, in the third act the script goes rogue, abandoning most of King’s story beats, and pursuing a direction that is initially intriguing but ultimately a wee bit empty, even silly.
See, the book and original film, for all their respective flaws, had a great monster at the core: and that monster was grief. The entire point of the book was that grief unmakes us, tears away everything that matters and leave us as desperate, insane and unbearably alive. It’s why the actions of Louis in the original incarnations are so strong and desperately sad in their tragic inevitability.
Horror remakes are a dime a dozen, but that doesn’t mean they’re inherently bad. John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing introduced the concept of paranoia and distrust. David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly introduced body horror and “insect politics”. The 2019 version of Pet Sematary introduces some surprises but ultimately feels like a series of effective scenes in search of an overarching theme.
Pet Sematary is a well-made, well-acted horror film that will likely delight younger fans who haven’t read many (or any) Stephen King novels and haven’t seen the 1989 original. It’s a pity, however, that the talented directors didn’t dig a little deeper into the material and unearth something authentically disturbing to amp up the horror for modern audiences.