Growing up I was never necessarily the biggest fan of “Pet Sematary” although I did find it sufficiently scary and very much enjoyed the concept. I actually preferred the sequel which scared the living crap out of me and was a completely original screenplay. All the same, the original film made my list of Top 10 Stephen King Horror Movies last year. When a remake was announced I honestly thought it was fitting. Personal loss is a powerful emotion that lends itself to all kinds of creative horror concepts. The original “Pet Sematary” was fun to a degree, but today it does feel rather dated so I thought maybe a new coat of paint would allow this story to shine even more. We got that remake this weekend putting a modern spin on the story in an era where King’s works seem to be shining brighter than ever. “It”, “Gerald’s Game”, and yes even the remake of “Carrie” (in my opinion anyway) have all proven to be great modern horror gems that compliment past classics like “The Shining”, the original “Carrie” and “Misery”. So it stands to reason that a new perspective could help further cement “Pet Sematary” in that illustrious group of modern King classics. So is the remake a superior effort to the original or should “Pet Sematary” have been left to die in peace? Let’s find out. This is my review of the 2019 remake of “Pet Sematary”. A WARNING going into this review, if you have seen the previous movie and are unaware of the changes made to the remake this review MAY include some minor spoilers so you have been warned but I will be doing my best to be vague in my assessment.
“Pet Sematary” is based on the 1983 Stephen King novel of the same name and follows the Creed family consisting of father and doctor Louis (Jason Clarke), stay-at-home mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz), daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence), young son Gage (Hugo and Luca Lavoie) and their cat Church who move from Boston to Ludlow, Maine. The family discovers that a pet cemetery (spelled sematary on a sign) is located in the nearby woods. They also meet a neighbor named Jud (John Lithgow) who is well versed on the history of the cemetery and local legends. Louis begins to experience vivid dreams warning him not to venture past the cemetery. After an accident leaves Church dead Jud leads Louis to an area beyond the graveyard to bury the cat who appears the next day alive again only significantly more aggressive. After another family tragedy, Louis is enticed to visit the burial ground once more threatening to open the world up to an evil beyond his control.
Alright, so there’s a lot I liked about this movie and a lot I didn’t like. I’ll save my comparison to the original for the end of the review. Starting with the performances I wasn’t really all that impressed. Jason Clarke is a proven talent with films like “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Everest”, and “First Man” under his belt, but man when he gets it wrong he’s just so damn annoying. His performance as Louis in this film is on the wrong end of his performance spectrum. I mean he’s not horrible. It’s far from his worst work, but the whole film it feels like he’s either trying way too hard or not hard enough and, up until the final act, it’s really hard to get a read on his character’s emotional state. A lot of times it feels like Clarke is just rolling with the motions while sometimes he does a genuinely good job of displaying the moral conflict that makes up the core of his character’s story arc. I just found him unconvincing and uninteresting and since most of the film focuses on him that made for a slightly frustrating viewing experience on my end. Other performers aren’t near as bad, but still aren’t what I hoped for. Amy Seimetz does a much better job representing her character Rachel’s inner struggle but the screenplay does her no favors and she’s much more convincing when she’s afraid then when she’s dealing with her inner demons. John Lithgow does a fine job with his character Jud, but I don’t feel like we get a lot of time to truly understand him. He feels relegated to the token elder character. So when it comes to the main performances sometimes they’re lacking because of the performers and other times it’s because of the writing, but rarely both which definitely affects the pace, tone, and quality of the film overall.
Okay so this is where the potential SPOILER comes into play so feel free to skip this section if you want to avoid it. If you’ve seen or even know of “Pet Sematary” your aware that one of the Creed children die and comes back to life courtesy of the cemetery, kickstarting the final act and driving home the horror elements of the story. The child antagonist is an absolute joy to watch. They provide the film’s scariest moments and while it does take a while for “Pet Sematary” to truly delve into fear-inducing territory once it hits that mark it’s spectacularly effective especially with its child villain. This is what the film and story are meant to represent, not just the bonds of man and animal but the bonds between loved ones that are so hard to break. Once the “resurrected child” plotline comes to pass that is when “Pet Sematary” really becomes a great horror feature touching on themes of loss and grief and how letting those elements of life control you can be extremely harmful if handled in the wrong way. Seeing a child, once a sweet and innocent member of the family, come back to life and go on a murderous rampage makes for a truly uncomfortable viewing experience in all the right ways and I think all of the film’s potential is wrapped up in the last half hour or forty-five minutes when we finally see everything the story has been building towards come to pass.
One thing I have to say about this film is that I can respect its attempt to do something all its own when compared to the previous film. Not only are major changes made to the child resurrection plot, but the ending is significantly altered to give this version of the tale its own unique conclusion. Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer and writter Jeff Buhler, as well as story writer Matt Greenberg, take the “Pet Sematary” formula and make a legitimate, and mostly satisfying, attempt to make the story their own. The conclusion serves as a subversive ending of sorts that is completely different from both the book and the previous film and may surprise many viewers who are expected the same kind of closure provided by the source materials. It’s worth noting that the new ending does lack some of the emotional punch associated with the original’s final moments, but it works in its attempt to capture the dark and depressing consequences of its plot and helps justify this film’s existence by giving us something new and fun to avoid feeling like a complete rehash.
Now, this all applies to the second half of the movie, the half worth experiencing. The first half was an absolute bore for me. The lead up to the resurrection feels slow and melodramatic with some odd side stories that are never explained nor ever really figure into the plot. We’re given the traumatic backstory of Rachel’s past but it never really serves much purpose save for a devious moment with the resurrected child. This film also continues the appearance of Victor Pascow, a patient of Louis’ that appears in ghost form to warn the family of their impending doom, but like the original we’re given very little explanation behind his appearance or relevance to the story. The parts that do actually help build on the main plot are presented in such a dry buildup that I found myself begging for the movie to get to the point by the halfway mark, which ironically is about when the story finally does take a turn for the better. The whole first half of the movie felt like a drawn-out slog heading towards something bigger and better with a few easy and simple jump scares worked in to try to keep you on your toes. To put it simply, it was a boring ride to a satisfying finish. As an overall product it feels like an mess, but an inspired mess with greater aspirations than anyone involved could have probably been able to meet.
So if I were to compare the new “Pet Sematary” to the old, I honestly don’t know which one I’d say is better. It’s probably something I’ll consider exploring directly down the road in a Versus match but in the moment, after watching the newer film I think it has some merits that help it stand on its own even if it may ultimately lack enough to definitively overshadow its predecessor. For me, I found it an uneven experience with some performances that were passable and others that were downright annoying and a first half that seemed to drag before the second half finally captured the terrifying possibilities of its theme. It’s nothing special, but it does feel inspired. It at least tries to do some new things to keep you engaged and interested even if you’re familiar with the book or the original movie. In the end I could take it or leave it. I wasn’t necessarily disappointed, but I wasn’t thrilled with the result either. It’s one of those movies that you’re either going to love or hate depending on what you appreciate more from a horror experience, the atmosphere and buildup or the payoff. Either way, it might be worth judging for yourself but for me it’s a middle of the road horror film at best.