It’s time to raise the dead.. again. Whether you walk on four legs or two, it’s hard to deny Stephen King is the reigning source for the 21st century. He’s still churning out pageturners at every opportunity, and Hollywood has eagerly latched its content-hungry claws into King’s back-catalog – with no plans to slow anytime soon. Just one of the several King adaptations slated for 2019, is Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s adaptation of Pet Sematary.
Escaping the hustle and bustle of city life, Doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) moves his young family to a farmhouse with an expansive property in the quiet woods of rural Maine. They’re soon introduced to well-meaning neighbour Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), whom daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) meets whilst wandering in the back woods. It is there she stumbles across the eerie and foreboding Pet Sematary, which in turn sparks some rather meaty conversations back at home.
Mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz) wants to tread lightly around the topic of death, after having experience the traumatic death of her older sister during childhood, she wants to spare Ellie from premature anguish and fear. Father Louis is more frank, opting for the clinical, doctorly method of ripping off the band-aid swift and one-hundred percent. He believes there is nothing awaiting after death, and death in itself is a natural process of life. Something something metabolisms. But after Ellie’s beloved (and adorable) cat Church gets hit by a car, we learn Louis’s bark is worse than his bite. Death is something to be very, very afraid of. Something to prevent at all costs.
If you’re a Stephen King fan, you’ll likely have read the Pet Sematary novel this film is based on. You’ll also likely have seen the 1989 Pet Sematary adaptation from Mary Lambert, which is a much beloved favorite among the genre community. Thus, the 2019 iteration was doomed to comparison. It should be said that I myself am not the hugest fan of sequels slash remakes – but I believe every film deserves a shot. I genuinely try to enjoy and appreciate everything I see, and I especially try not to compare films to their predecessors – but it is inevitable.
And unfortunately for this film, it became nearly impossible after the filmmakers leaned into that realization, and to the film’s ultimate detriment. Little Gage (Lucas and Hugo Lavoie) the youngest member of the Creed family, was impeccably cast to resemble 1989’s Gage (Miko Hughes). This was quite the feat in itself, but in turn sparks even more scrutiny to the other aspects and decisions made. This film is aware and conscious of a judging audience, and that consciousness is played out on the screen – toying with our awareness and expectations of the material that preceded it. We know where the jumps are, and it tries desperately to surprise us. And in doing so, Pet Sematary (2019) lessens its justification in being a warranted remake. How can one argue it a deserved stand-alone film whiles it so frequently references an existing version?
Though this film treads well worn sour soil, I will gladly admit, Widmyer and Kölsch have an eye for terror. Dreamlike sequences are bookended by seamless scares, and the entire Zelda subplot is alive, well, and freshly frightening. Fog oozes, rain pours, and sound booms from impossible places. The practical effects, though heavy in the beginning and pretty sparse on gore as we truck on through, are visceral and disgusting. (Disgusting is a compliment, I assure you.) The lore is revived with hints at a supernatural history – that still remains unexplored, but has me begging they return to grave digging, pronto. Pet Sematary has never been so frightening.
But the scares, though wonderful – don’t quite stitch together in the end. We are given plenty to shudder at, but my plot and character qualms from the previous film remain intact – Zelda is terrifying, but she doesn’t affect the journey of Rachel’s grief. Rachel expresses and experiences it.. but there’s no story here. Nothing is gained or learned. Spooks just come out of the closet. Louis is haunted by ghosts of his own, which aren’t really present enough to be anything other than a manifestation. Is this a metaphor for his inability to deal with death? How does escaping the hustle and bustle of an emergency room – and death – in Boston relate to the very first death in his new, quiet, supposed-to be safe practice? I wish this film gave something up enough to delve.
Pet Sematary is a spooky update to a beloved Stephen King story. Go for the ominous and omnipotent Church the cat, an appearance from the always endearing John Lithgow, and don’t expect much explanation behind those cat masks. As a standalone, this film falters in seeking its independence and wow-factor, but if you haven’t revisited the story in a while, this one’ll spook ya.