Based on the novel by Stephen King
Screen Story written by Mark Greenberg
Screenplay by Jeff Buhler
Directed by Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer
Starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jeté Laurence
Di Bonaventura Pictures | Paramount Pictures
101 minutes | Rated R
Release date: April 5, 2019
Nostalgia is a powerful drug. I saw Mary Lambert’s 1989 big-screen interpretation of Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary as a child and it was one of the first films to truly horrify me. I will forever be haunted by the ghastly performance of Andrew Hubatsek as the spinal meningitis-stricten Zelda. And the achilles tendon scene made me wear high-top sneakers throughout middle school. Having recently rewatched it as an adult, it’s a very flawed film. The 2019 remake/reimagining directed by Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) is a much better overall film, although one that will likely not leave the lasting impression of the original.
Where the new iteration of Pet Sematary flourishes is with its stellar cast. In the original, Fred Gwynne’s Jud was the only real acting highlight. Here, the entire cast shines. The Creed family is portrayed by Jason Clarke (Terminator: Genisys, Zero Dark Thirty) as Louis, a Boston doctor who moves with his wife and two children to a large house with sprawling acres of land in the small town of Ludlow, Maine. Amy Seimetz (The Girlfriend Experience) plays Rachel Creed, a wife and mother battling personal guilt over some undiscussed but certainly hinted at rifts in their marriage, as well as the death of her sister. Standing in the shoes of the late great Gwynne is the incomparable John Lithgow, who at 78 still possesses the emotional presence and physical grit to pull off a modern Jud Crandall. But the real star here is young Jeté Laurence as Ellie Creed. Fans of the 1989 original remember Miko Hughes as little Gage, but this time, the main child focus is reversed to older, wiser Ellie’s story and it is the film’s strongest attribute. Between her star turn here and other smaller roles in thriller The Snowman and indie punk horror film The Ranger, we could have the makings of a new Scream Queen on our hands.
For those who never saw the original, the title refers to a misspelled sign over an actual pet cemetery in the woods behind the Creed’s new home. However, far beyond and above that final resting place for cherished four-legged friends lays a darker “sour” area to bury your dead. Burying them here has consequences, though. They come back, but not the same. As Jud says, “Sometimes, dead is better.” It’s Jud however who shows this to Louis after Ellie’s cat Church is run down by one of the many mac trucks that frequent the road in front of their home.
Lithgow and Clarke are great in their scenes together. Jud has been through this before, but he can’t help but show Louis. After all, maybe this time it will be different. Early in the film, the parents have an awkward disagreement about how to explain death and the afterlife to Ellie, who is approaching 9-years old. I have a daughter approaching 9-years old. This part was all too realistic and it’s a credit to the writers and actors. Kids question us, and they are smart… they know when we’re feeding them BS to placate them. The film does a great job at compartmentalizing grief through each of the characters. Church returns, but, as predicted, is different. Sometimes, dead is better. But when tragedy strikes again, Louis decides to give the Pet Sematary one more chance.
If you’re reading this thinking this all sounds similar to the original, you’d be right. The first two acts are almost in lockstep with the original, albeit with more improved overall acting quality and better general filmmaking. Kolsch and Widmyer know how to craft eerie visuals and turn up the tension, but frankly I was hoping for something more out there and unique. There is a scene early on that has been heavily marketed in previews and TV spots of a group of masked youngsters in a funeral march in the woods. That awesome visual is used once and never furthered. They hint at the presence of the Wendigo, an evil force of Native American lore who were featured in the novel. Alas, again, we come up empty. The third act finally deviates from the original’s narrative and I enjoyed its twists and turns, but wished there were more and that they happened more routinely throughout the film.
In the end, I return to where I started: nostalgia is a powerful drug. I feel the directing team and the writers stayed too close to the original for too long and thus as someone who grew up scared of the original, I found myself doing inevitable comparisons. Lithgow is great, but I am a Fred Gwynne devotee. I was rarely scared by this film’s Zelda, whereas the original’s still induces nightmares and I’m near 40! Like Andy Muschietti’s 2017 It, I fully acknowledge that is a better made film with higher quality acting than the original King adaptations. However, I just don’t know if they’ll have the same generational staying power.
Pet Sematary was good, and you should see it. But a few bolder choices by the two directors could have bumped this into crazy, all time territory.
3½ out 5 stars
P.S. Stay as the credits role for a great throwback song… you’ll probably figure it out.