We needn’t be told that blood and fire await in the 2019 remake of the iconic 1989 film Pet Sematary, but that happened anyway in its opening shots. Then things predictably revert to a cheery beginning that will appropriately stand in stark contrast to the forthcoming horrors.
To its credit, Pet Sematary does try to be something other than a rehash. To some extent it is, taking major risks by deviating greatly from both the Stephen King book and first film adaptation that are its source materials. The usual catalyst for a family coming under otherworldly pressure is present, as the close-knit Creeds move from the big city to rural Maine.
Their new home creeps out from the start, as 9-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) sees a bizarre funeral procession — for a deceased dog — comprised of a few kids in animal masks. They are heading out to the cemetery where the town’s children have been burying their beloved pets for generations. Creepy, sure, but far less chilling than it could be since this brief glimpse of the ritual is all we get, despite it being featured prominently in all the film’s marketing. It’s not the last time something of great potential is squandered.
Perhaps it’s because this version of Pet Sematary has a less appealing agenda, that of humbling Louis (Jason Clarke, once again playing a not-so-good husband) for his lack of belief in any kind of afterlife. The original sources of this unnerving tale were meditations about death and how grief can twist and warp even the best of us. The bloody judgment comes not from any kind of traditional moralizing per se, but because of an action that violated every natural law. Part of the horror comes from recognizing that any one of us might do the same thing if our child, or loved one, died. Wouldn’t many of us also take the chance of tapping into a power we recognized as evil, but also offered the hope of seeing them again, regardless of the form they took?
That the 2019 film seems uninterested in exploring these questions is more bizarre than any of the twisted events that occur in it. This is a story that doesn’t just beg to explore these questions, it was built on them. Louis was always the central character, but previously it wasn’t at the expense of his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz, wasted playing another eternally supportive spouse), who in many ways is far more interesting, and not just because of her tragic history. Instead, that history is played for cheap scares, while Louis and his issues quickly become the focus.
He finds himself shaken early on when a patient who dies under his care delivers a warning to him, then returns one night to warn him more explicitly about the Pet Sematary and what lies deeper in the woods. But Louis hasn’t even been to that place yet, so the warning not only doesn’t have much of an impact, it makes little sense. Oh well. When have people ever refused to eat the fruit that was forbidden, kept the box they were warned not to open firmly shut, or avoided a place they’ve been specifically warned about going to?
So the ball gets rolling when Ellie’s cat Church gets killed and their creepy elderly neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) takes Louis to the ancient burial ground in the woods that can resurrect whatever is buried there. Church does indeed return the next day, but as an unsettling and meaner shell of what he was. The movie’s trailer makes no secret that this is not the last death or resurrection that will occur in this unfortunate family, and sure enough, both Ellie and her toddler brother Gage (Lucas and Hugo Lavoie) soon find their lives imperiled. Louis is able to save Gage, but Ellie perishes, and Louis decides to bury Ellie in the Sematary, despite many more warnings.
The fact that most of this isn’t too frightening is partly due to the inept direction of longtime collaborators Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, who rely on CGI rather than any kind of atmosphere, with the Pet Sematary itself owing much of its artificiality and mundanity to this decision. The direction is so cheesy that there’s literal thunder and lightning pretty much every time some creepy event is afoot, and the scenes that are supposed to be the most unnerving come off as laughable, or so illogical that it’s nearly impossible for any sense palpable menace. The setting is also remarkably bland, with little to distinguish it from any other suburb. The houses are too close together for the family’s home to exude any kind of wildness, but there’s also no sense of claustrophia, as if the woods were pressing in.
Screenwriters Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler also seem to share the directors’ interest in cheap scares. The setting isn’t the only thing that’s bland; many of the characters are barely allowed to become characters. Lithgow tries to imbue Jud with enough warmth to make for a kind of pathos, but mostly he’s stuck in the role of creepy old man. Even Rachel’s childhood trauma is sanitized to not jeopardize her likability, although Louis manages to squeeze in some mansplaining about how this is at the root of all her issues. It’s also baffling as to why this family chooses to stay in a house that’s not only creepy, but is practically trying to force them out.
One thing Pet Sematary is pretty good at is including plenty of callbacks to the original that manage to become building blocks for a whole new series of events and a radically different — but horror-diminishing — ending. Still not scary, but at least there are a few surprises. Generally creepy kids are as easy to sell as cute ones, but Laurence does unnerve in a way that is entirely her — and the movie’s — own. It doesn’t do its inspirations justice, but Pet Sematary at least makes the story its own in a world full of reboots and remakes.