Pet Sematary, 2019.
Directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer.
Starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, Obssa Ahmed, Alyssa Brooke Levine, Sonia Maria Chirila, Hugo Lavoie, Lucas Lavoie, and John Lithgow.
Dr. Louis Creed and his wife, Rachel, relocate from Boston to rural Maine with their two young children. The couple soon discover a mysterious burial ground hidden deep in the woods near their new home.
Of all the little tweaks and major third are changes that directing duo Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) have made to Stephen King’s novel and Mary Lambert’s original chilling adaptation (much was certainly lost in translation, but it certainly still stands as one of the better and most terrifying takes on one of the famed author’s novels), one that works most in this modern spin on Pet Sematary is the idea of making young Ellie (played by Jeté Laurence receiving her first key role and impressing with it far beyond whatever expectations can be made for a child actor) a ballerina in training.
Early on is a shot of the Creed family and their new friend Jud Crandall (John Lithgow plays the knowledgeable. cautionary old man that succumbs to his own emotions by revealing to the family the ancient Indian burial ground beyond the local titular pet cemetery) serving as a small yet unparalleled caring audience to Ellie practicing to Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Now, before continuing on, I’m going to give a spoiler warning even though this is clearly not a spoiler to the filmmakers (rather boldly and questionable, the second trailer openly shows off part of what I’m going to talk about), so with that out of the way, Ellie tragically dies and is eventually reanimated by the spirits lurking in the haunted graveyard. Soon after, there is another scene of her dancing, although this time the movements are more spastic and feral (not to mention resembling the undead), and it’s a subtle juxtaposition that actually shows some kind of character transformation grounded in the contrast between being alive and undead. It’s one of the only moments in the remake that feels unsettling to watch and think about.
The rest of what’s altered is done so to make way for bombastic loud scares, unnecessary changes that lamely play off of nostalgia, out of place dark humor (one or two jokes do work, but the ending shot is basically the cruelest joke imaginable this movie can end on, which would be fine if it didn’t feel like it should end on a horrifyingly sad note), and a largely revamped third act that is, again, more action-oriented in a blockbuster horror way than scary. Even before then, Kolsch and Widmyer can’t help but turn the speeding trucks blasting down the usually empty roads of the small Maine town into a cliche audio cue meant to jolt your heart, and when it does come time for the truck to take a life, well, it’s done so in a way that brings to mind Michael Bay more than Stephen King. And then it’s time to bury the body… which looks as if a truck grazed it, not crushed it. To be fair, the original never touched the graphic depictions of the reanimated corpses found in the novel either, but I also expect more when the directors essentially say that more can be done with the change in character death, and generally because the industry has advanced 20 years since then.
Despite these frustrations and so many, many more (how do you introduce Zelda, the grotesque sister of Rachel burdened with spinal meningitis seen in flashbacks not even 10 minutes into the movie, and then do nothing interesting with the whole dynamic in favor of a running jump scare involving dumbwaiters), there are things to enjoy in this version of Pet Sematary. In some ways, it admittedly it is better than the original, which is certainly one of my personal favorite horror movies of all time although certainly no masterpiece. Those two distinctions contain very different implications.
For starters, this interpretation actually has strong acting that allows the motifs of grieving and death to land with an emotional impact closer to the book. In particular, Amy Seimetz is given the heaviest material, saddled with PTSD from the experiences of caretaking her terminally ill sister Zelda along with her untimely death. It doesn’t matter how convenient to the plot it is for her to snap into spacing out reflecting on the day of her death, she does a fantastic job selling it for all it’s worth. She’s mentally unwell but simultaneously the only one here with a sound moral conscious. It’s more than grief and guilt that define her character. Jason Clarke also taps into atheist father and doctor Louis’ growing obsession with the supernatural powers of the burial ground, and you can see it in his eyes that for a good stretch of the movie the character has not slept in about two days. As already mentioned, Jeté Laurence cements herself as more than an all-timer as far as horrifying scary children go, but a star in the making period.
And then there’s Church the cat, who benefits the most from no longer looking like a ridiculous stuffed animal. Whenever he growls as a result of one of his undead mood swings, it actually makes for a scary image. Give all of the cats responsible for playing him a round of applause and many treats.
The filmmakers can also thank their starry eyes for having such strong source material to work from; even if the film feels rushed as it goes from plot point to plot point, defining characters as little as possible alongside never really allowing the story to breathe, it still works on a scene to scene basis; when you’re plucking so many memorable moments from masterfully personal writing, by extension, everything translated to screen is bound to be a winner in one way or another. That’s not to say anyone can direct Pet Sematary (there is certainly some craft in building and maintaining dread, guiding these actors in the right direction, and some skill behind the jump scares for as much as I hate them), but it’s hard to imagine someone making a genuinely terrible movie out of it unless they extremely deviate from the novel.
In some ways, Pet Sematary is an incredibly frustrating movie to write about; it’s technically good and gets the job done expressing the core themes of grieving and guilt in a way that numbs viewers just thinking about potentially being in the shoes of these characters. Similarly, no one is going to have anything bad to say about the performances. But for as much as I respect and encourage a remake (especially when a good adaptation already exists) to do its own thing, Pet Sematary comes dangerously close to losing sight of everything Stephen King’s novel stands for. For clarification, this has nothing to do with Ellie (the film uses the switch to restore some of Gage’s most disturbing lines and actions in the novel), but more so the wobbly route to its overcooked ending, an ending that honestly could have been as scathingly brilliant as the original with some minor changes.
It’s also simply nowhere near as scary as the original; none of the cast members or crew wanted to eat lunch by that film’s rendition of deceased hospital patient Victor Pascow, and Zelda was pure nightmare fuel. This Pet Sematary reduces them to footnotes that I disappointingly have very little to say about. If the source material was not so classic, one of the greatest novels of all time, this remake might have struggled to reanimate. There’s nothing offensively terrible about Pet Sematary, the performances are grand, and it does find ways to improve upon the original. At the same time, there are just as many pitfalls, and mirroring the original film, it never comes close to being on the level of the novel.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com