Movie Review: Pet Sematary
By Matthew Huntley
April 17, 2019
The 2019 version of “Pet Sematary” is about on par with its 1989 predecessor, meaning it’s still just “okay.” Like the original, it gets progressively creepier and more unsettling as it goes along, but it’s only able to stretch its resources so far before it plateaus and settles a bit too comfortably into the horror genre without emerging as anything terribly special.
If you’re at all familiar with Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation, then you more or less know what you’re in for with Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s remake, although the duo directors’ update has one major plot difference, which I’ll not reveal, but it puts a fresh, unexpected spin on the tale.
Both versions are based on Stephen King’s 1983 novel and considering King himself wrote the screenplay for the 1989 film, it’s safe to assume neither screen story strays too far from the source material. It opens with the likable Creed Family—husband/father Louis (Jason Clarke); wife/mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz); 8-year-old daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence); and cute toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie)—driving from Boston to Ludlow, a peaceful, quiet town in rural Maine with lots of woods for camping, hiking and fishing. Louis is a doctor and he’s moved the family to Ludlow to head the medical clinic at the local university.
All seems pleasant enough until Ellie wanders off and finds the pet sematary [sic] quite literally in their backyard. “They spelled cemetery wrong,” the chatty, inquisitive Ellie remarks. She and Rachel even witness a procession taking place as local kids, wearing eerie papier-mâché animal masks, wheel their dead dog down the path for a proper burial. This sparks a conversation Louis and Rachel have with Ellie about the after-life and what happens to people—and pets—when they die, with Louis offering an agnostic explanation and Rachel pushing for a more calming, reassuring idea of God and Heaven. This is understandable, considering Rachel still feels enormous guilt for the way her handicapped and bedridden sister suffered when Rachel was a child, so it makes sense she’d like to think people and their souls find peace once they pass on.
One day, Ellie decides to explore the pet sematary even more, attempting to climb over the large pile of sticks that’s obviously blocking the path from something off limits. She gets stung by a bee and meets Jud (John Lithgow), their kind, old-timer neighbor who looks as though he’s been wearing the same flannel shirt and overalls for decades. Jud has lived in Ludlow his whole life and knows all about the supernatural dangers that lurk beyond the woods.
Of course, this being a horror movie and all, it’s only a matter of time before Louis and his family encounter those supernatural dangers, in one form or another, which Louis is first made privy to when the corpse of a student (Obssa Ahmed) who recently died in his care visits him in a dream—or was it a dream?—and warns him not to “venture beyond.” Where and what “beyond” is, I leave for you to discover, but needless to say, Louis goes there, because legend has it death can be overturned, although Jud warns him, “Sometimes dead is better,” especially, as we’ll soon see, when it comes to people.
“Pet Sematary” is a horror movie that strives only to be a horror movie, nothing more, nothing less. In fact, its qualities are what come to mind when we think about the typical horror movie: dark, ominous woods; a dilapidated cemetery; grave diggings; walking corpses; evil animals; gory stabbings; lots of blood, etc. You know the routine.
But the movie being an exemplar of the genre is also its shortcoming, because it is, after all, mostly routine. Perhaps the 1989 version was fresher in its day because, well, it was 1989, and at the time audiences weren’t as bombarded or tired of all the horror conventions and gimmicks that were still being forged by inane series likes “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Halloween,” along with some higher-quality standouts like “Hellraiser,” “Child’s Play,” and “Angel Heart.” The original “Pet Sematary” fell somewhere in between silly and unnerving.
To be fair, the new “Pet Sematary” isn’t silly. It involves us and holds our attention. We watch it without feeling the urge to laugh at it or brush it aside as something cheap, and that’s because the filmmakers take the material seriously. The same goes for the actors, whose strong performances don’t go unnoticed. Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz bring unexpected nuance to their roles as a wounded husband and wife trying to make sense of and control death, while Lithgow, unafraid to look disheveled, emits his usual screen presence.
The real breakout, though, is young Jeté Laurence as Ellie, who I have a feeling is bound for greatness. She navigates her character through a dark, twisted transformation, and the fact she’s able to so seamlessly makes the film all the more terrifying and believable, which I’m sure is what Kölsch and Widmyer were hoping for. And they, too, should be commended for their direct, focused storytelling. “Pet Sematary” is a lean, succinct horror film, one that doesn’t dawdle and seeks only to scare us.
But, in the end, it just doesn’t do that, or at least not enough. It rattles us a bit, but to me the movie’s devices are too antiquated for this day and age and it doesn’t divorce itself enough from its predecessor to convince us a remake was necessary. In 2019, the standards of horror are higher than they were 30 years ago and it takes more than just “a dark and stormy night” or the raising of the dead to really frighten us. Even if you don’t have knowledge of the original, odds are you’ll think the new “Pet Sematary” is too old-fashioned to be worth your time. It’s not a bad movie, and it has some notable qualities, but we’ve seen this kind of stuff before—some of us quite literally, 30 years ago—so why see it again?