For me, Pet Sematary has always been one of Stephen King’s scariest novels. When I first read it nearly thirty years ago, it really got under my skin. I also enjoyed the 1989 film adaptation of PET SEMATARY.
While I didn’t really see the need for a remake, considering the source material, I felt, well, why the heck not? So I went into the theater to see this one with fairly enthusiastic expectations.
PET SEMATARY (2019) tells a tale that remains chilling today. Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) relocate their family— eight year-old daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence), three year-old son Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) and cat Church— from Boston to rural Maine in order to slow their lives down and spend more time with each other.
Not long after they settle in, Ellie discovers a strange “pet sematary” in the woods in the back of their property, and their neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) explains that it’s been there for years, a place where the local children bury their dead pets. Cemetery is spelled “sematary” because in the past the children had misspelled the sign.
In front of their home is a rural road where huge trucks roar by at speeds which seem to rival supersonic jets. These rigs also don’t tend to make any noise until they’re right on top of the property. Not very realistic. I live on a rural road. You can hear the rumble of trucks coming from a distance.
Anyway, when Church is killed on that road, to spare Ellie heartbreak, Jud shows Louis another cemetery, this one located deeper in the woods behind the pet sematary, and advises Louis to bury the cat there, without telling him why.
The next day, the cat returns, alive, but very different, aggressive, and not very agreeable. Jud then explains to Louis the secret of the second cemetery, that things buried in the soil there return. Of course, they don’t return the same.
Later, when Ellie is tragically killed by one of those monstrous rigs racing along the rural highway, Louis decides his daughter has been taken from him too quickly, and against his better judgment, buries her in the pet sematary, knowing that she will return.
Oh, the things that parents will do for their children!
As I said, Pet Sematary has always been for me one of Stephen King’s scariest novels, mostly I think because of the pain of the parents’ grief and the knowledge that what Louis is about to do will end badly for everyone involved.
One of the biggest weaknesses of this new movie version of PET SEMATARY is that somehow, in spite of the frightening source material, it’s simply not that scary. Part of this is the changes made to the story. Then there’s the dialogue which isn’t very sharp, and lastly the film simply fails to capitalize on the true horror aspects of the novel.
Let’s start with the first half of the film, before anything or anyone is buried. Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer don’t really take advantage of the natural creepy elements here. When Elle first discovers the cemetery, she initially sees some local children wearing masks taking their pet there, images which should be weird and creepy, but they hardly register as such since we see them so briefly.
When Louis fails to save a dying student at the clinic, a plot point that is critical in the novel, the victim Victor Pascow returns numerous times to warn Louis against his involvement with the sematary. These scenes also barely register here. Neither do the flashback scenes with Rachel and her sister who was suffering from spinal bifida. These scenes were unnerving in the novel. They’re rushed and glossed over here in the movie.
Once Louis learns about the pet sematary, and after seeing how disastrous the return of Church proved to be, it really strained believability that— regardless of how much he missed his daughter— that he would bury her there. He’s gotta know how she will be when she returns. The film failed to convince me that a grieving father would feel this is a good idea. It’s not like there’s a chance she’d come back normal. The film makes it abundantly clear that it’s not going to happen.
The change here having Ellie killed and resurrected rather than Gage didn’t really add anything new to the story, other than giving Ellie a bit more to do when she eventually comes back.
I can’t say I was all that impressed by the screenplay by Matt Greenberg, based of course on the Stephen King novel. I could give or take the changes made to the story, including the ending, as nothing new here did all that much for me, and the parts that stuck to the original simply weren’t told with any sort of conviction. There was something very flat about the whole production.
Jason Clarke, who’s been in a ton of movies, including an excellent performance as Ted Kennedy in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018), is an actor I like a lot. He’s very good here as Louis Creed, although again, I simply did not believe he’d think burying his daughter in the pet sematary was a good idea. Clarke also turned in notable performances in the genre films TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015) and DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014).
Amy Seimetz is okay as Rachel, but as written, the character strangely doesn’t figure as prominently in the story as one would expect.
Young Jete Laurence is very good as Ellie, and she is admittedly rather creepy when she returns from the grave.
John Lithgow is sufficiently earthy as lifelong Maine resident Jud, but one of the highlights from the 1989 film was Fred Gwynne’s performance as the character. Gwynne, who was forever typecast and remembered as Herman Munster on THE MUNSTERS (1964-66) delivered an outstanding performance in that 1989 film that was one of the best parts of the movie. Lithgow here did not make me forget about Gwynne.
I can’t say that I liked this new version of PET SEMATARY all that much. It’s not as good as the 1989 film, and it’s nowhere near as scary as King’s novel. It’s passable horror entertainment, but since it fails to convince its audience that its main character would indeed take the drastic steps he does to resurrect his deceased daughter, the film never really resonates or becomes more than just a standard by-the-numbers horror vehicle.
Stephen King fans deserve better.