The original 1989 Pet Sematary was directed by Mary Lambert and has become an undying cult classic and Stephen King’s novel obviously has legions of dedicated fans. With the recent rush of popular King films and shows– from The Dark Tower to Mr. Mercedes to It to Netflix’s 1922 and Gerald’s Game— it was only a matter of time until Hollywood dug up Pet Sematary once again.
In line with many of the recent adaptations, this Pet Sematary, which is brought to us by Starry Eyes directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, is a stylish, disturbing and ultimately welcomed revival of the classic horror story that finally comes to life in its second half.
The story of Pet Sematary is pretty widely-known at this point, though there are a few changes made. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), an emergency physician, and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) are relocating along with their nine-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (dually portrayed by Lucas Lavoie and Hugo Lavoie) from the bustling suburbs of Boston (Chicago in previous iterations) to Maine (the paranormal epicenter of the King-verse), a sleepy town called Ludlow.
As with every family in a horror movie that moves to the country to spend more time together (all of them?), the Creed’s soon realize that not everything is as peaceful as it appears.
Not far from their new house, Ellie stumbles upon the titular Pet Sematary, a makeshift burial ground for deceased neighborhood pets. If that wasn’t creepy enough, a jump scare— one of many– introduces Jud (John Lithgow), the disheveled, elderly widower who lives next door and miraculously appears in the woods behind Ellie as if on cue.
At first, the Creeds aren’t sure how to feel about Jud. He’s a bit odd and seems to know more than he’s letting on. Still, they quickly become buddy–buddy with their new neighbor, laughing it up over a homemade Creed family diner. It’s a crucial development, but one that feels jarring and contrived inside a generally choppy first act. As a result, the relationship between Louis and Jud suffers and their scenes together later on aren’t as impactful as they should be.
Eventually, Church the family cat gets run over. Instead of breaking the bad news to their kids, Jud has Louis bury the cat in a secluded swamp well beyond the Pet Sematary without ever mentioning why. The very next day, Church shows up back home, looking like his normal self. But is he?
Confounded, Louis confronts Jud, who reveals that there is “something” in the woods that brings things back.
Up to this point, Pet Sematary stays largely faithful to past iterations. The biggest change comes when Ellie, not Gage, gets struck by a truck and dies. It’s a smart divergence on the part of the filmmakers that allows Ellie to partake in more profound philosophical discussions with her parents regarding death and what comes next, both prior to and after she’s resurrected.
You see, Louis is not yet ready to let go of his little girl and decides to dig her up and re-bury her beneath the cursed soil that earlier revived Church. As disturbing a scene as it is, I couldn’t help but want to live in it for just a few minutes more. It’s a unfathomably tough moment for Louis the dad and one I wish the film waited a while longer to let that fact soak in.
Ironically, this is about where Pet Sematary truly comes to life and begins leaning into King’s signature torment, both physical and psychological. Things go from bad to worse for the Creed family, during which Louis struggles to accept that the monster he brought back by burying Ellie in the sour soil is not his daughter. All the while, Jason Clarke painfully evokes Louis’s heartbreaking epiphany. It is as if Kölsch and Widmyer were finally freed from an entire first half of setup.
Amy Seimetz is a revelation as Rachel who, despite her kind and loving disposition, is internally waging a war on her own personal demons. If you’re familiar with the story, then you know that when Rachel was a kid, she was forced to care for her spiteful sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine), who suffered from spinal meningitis which horrifyingly mangled her body. The 2019 Pet Sematary takes this even further than the ’89 film, essentially portraying Zelda as the monster that her little sister saw and left a nightmarish scar on Rachel’s psyche.
John Lithgow is as magnetic as ever here. His presence adds a sense of urgency to the otherwise underwritten role of Jud.
It was Jeté Laurence, however, who made the biggest impression on me. At first, I thought her work was stiff; however, as the characters start opening up to each other, I found her quite charming, which made it even worse for me when she wanders out into the middle of the road on her ninth birthday. Laurence gives an upsettingly polar performance once she returns from the Pet Sematary and it’s fascinating to watch as Ellie recalls what happened to her and contemplates her new role in the natural order. As the true nature of this Ellie comes to light, Laurence’s looks and line deliveries slowly become more reminiscent of Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
Though I enjoyed Christopher Young’s score at points, his music often over-accents certain moments and winds up distracting from the film far more than adding to it.
Despite some inconsistencies, a consistent air of dread permeates throughout Pet Sematary, which is in keeping with the tone of its source material and always had me sitting that much closer to the edge of my seat at all times. A lot of thanks is due to cinematographer Laurie Rose, who also helped make Pet Sematary one of the prettiest-looking pictures of 2019 so far, even in the face of its grim themes and often gory content.
Well into the third act, Pet Sematary had won me over. After a slow and sloppy first act, the build-up started paying off once the storytellers embraced the singularly bleak and brutal essence that defines Stephen King’s story, on its way to a shocking and unforgettable ending.
⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2 (out of five)
Have you checked out Pet Sematary yet? If so, what did you think? And if not, do you plan on doing so? Sound off in the comments below and let me know!