Pet Sematary Review
We are experiencing a new age of Stephen King adaptations and I really couldn’t be happier. It, Gerald’s Game, Mr. Mercedes, Castle Rock, and the upcoming It: Chapter Two, Doctor Sleep, The Long Walk, and From a Buick 8, it really is a great time to be a fan of the master of horror. Well, there was also The Dark Tower, but hopefully the also upcoming Amazon series will wash away that particular stain on the mind. It’s not like there is a shortage of works by King ripe for adaptation, but still Hollywood can’t resist going back to a few of the ones that have been tried and tested by adaptation before. 1989’s Pet Sematary directed by Mary Lambert and with a script written by King himself is an effective film that if I’m being honest does feel a little dated around the edges. Can directing duo Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, whose previous movie Starry Eyes presented a twisted Faustian vision of Hollwood fame, bring back one of King’s most famous stories effectively, or with this Pet Sematary would dead really be better in this case?
Doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his family have moved to the small town of Ludlow, Maine. Here they can enjoy fresh air, beautiful woodland, and a charming little memorial to the dead pets of the town. Daughter of the family Ellie (Jet Laurence) makes friends with their neighbour, the gruff Jud (John Lithgow) while wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) is haunted by an incident from her past. When a patient of Louis’ dies it sets in motion a chain of events that will bring a series of tragedies to the family, and there is a power beyond the pet sematary in the depth of the woods that can bring those tragedies back in a much more terrible form.
The book Pet Sematary is easily one of King’s most disturbing works, perhaps because it was derived from a few of his own personal fears and also events including his own children; his daughter’s fear of her pet cat dying, and an incident where one of his sons ran into the road and was nearly hit by a truck. The death of children is one of the most devastating, world shattering, things a family can experience and the book is an exploration of dealing with death and the extreme lengths people will go to in avoiding facing it. Pet Sematary the new film is not that, at least not to the same degree. If anything, it ends up more silly than scary with moments that seem to be aiming for terror just end up eliciting chuckles instead. The original film had its unintentional humour, as much as I love the film it is very hard to take the final fight between Louis and undead Gage seriously, but it still got across a sense of everyday dread and the idea that even in happy family moments, death was always very close. Here it’s more like a funhouse, throwing the jump scares, spooky atmosphere, and foggy woods at you as much as it can. That’s absolutely fine and a valid horror experience, but I am unsure if it was the best match for the story here. Also, I must confess that I found the cat to be far too cute to really be sinister. The only moments that really managed to fill me with any dread were the very ending, which were chilling in the potential implications. It’s effective and will stay with you.
One of the big things in the trailers is that it revealed a major change to the plot of the novel; Ellie, the older child, dying and coming back instead of toddler Gage. In fact, much of the film is focussed on Ellie as it is she who finds the titular “sematary” and first encounters Jud, and it is her beloved pet cat Church who is brought back from the dead, so having her as the child who dies and comes back makes sense from a narrative standpoint. Whilst the change in plot creates opportunities to cover new ground whilst still being true to the themes of the novel, after all having it be an older child means that the malevolent force behind the burial ground has more of a voice and that could be really interesting and sinister, and in a couple of moments it is, I still can’t help but wonder if the change was made because the filmmakers didn’t have the guts to kill a toddler in a mainstream horror movie. Still, it works so that can be put aside. Other changes aren’t quite as effective though. Those Wicker Man looking kids in the masks that appear in all the trailers and posters? Yeah, they don’t really have anything to do with anything apart from one scene where I’m not entirely sure they were supposed to be real. It seems to just be there so that one of the masks can come back into use later to try and be creepier. The wendigo, a Native American evil spirit that in the book is the driving force behind the power of the burial ground, is given a brief mention but little else and ultimately adds nothing. Changing things is fine, but don’t waste an opportunity after putting in the setup.
The acting is one of the films that really holds the film together. I was unsure going in about Jason Clarke. I knew he would be able to portray the later madness and desperation of Louis Creed well but didn’t know if he could carry the quieter domestic moments. I was glad to be wrong as everything Clarke does in the film is very genuine and emotional; a man out of his depth and doomed by forces that he has no control over. One moment of haunting grief towards the end actually floored me with how well done it was. Rachel is a character that is much better served here than the previous adaptation. Her aversion to death and her trauma and guilt at the childhood death of her sister Zelda is addressed and dealt with throughout and adds to the overall theme of death from the very beginning. John Lithgow is also brilliant as Jud. Much more gruff than the personable, but also excellent, Fred Gwynne from 1989, but that just means we can believe it just that little bit more when he talks about the possible horrors of the woods. It also makes his connection with Ellie that much sweeter and makes sense that he would suggest necromancy over going to a nearby shelter after Church the cat dies.
The moments where it plays with the audiences familiarity with the story, and particularly the 89 film, are well done as little misdirections and references to play with your expectations. One I particularly loved is that in the book and original film the driver of the fateful truck is distracted listening to the song Sheena is a Punk Rocker, whereas here he’s distracted by a call from a girl named Sheena (whose status as a punk rocker is as yet unknown). It’s a nice little touch and shows that Kölsch and Widmyer do have a degree of affection for what has gone before.
But all these great little things don’t really make up for that fact that I didn’t find it as scary as I wanted it to be. Yet despite any issues with the film, I can’t deny that I was very entertained by it and it was well made. People who enjoy a fun horror popcorn outing with friends will find Pet Sematary to be a good time, it’s just not going to stop me talking a walk in the woods any time soon.
Pet Sematary (2019)
Dir: Dennis Widmyer, Kevin Kölsch | Cast: Amy Seimetz, Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Naomi Frenette | Writers: David Kajganich (screenplay), Jeff Buhler (screenplay), Stephen King (novel)