Warning: this review contains minor spoilers for both the 1989 and 2019 adaptations of Pet Sematary.
“Sometimes dead is better,” muses a character in Pet Sematary, and they may be right. After months of teasers, a spoiler-laden trailer, and a well-received SXSW premiere, this new adaptation of Stephen King’s 1983 novel is a perfectly serviceable riff on Mary Lambert’s 1989 cult classic, but it has little new to say. Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (the duo behind 2014’s Starry Eyes) get plenty right – the effects are impressively updated, the acting is uniformly strong, and the story’s uneasy mix of grief, death, and reanimation is still as powerful as ever. But you may still be left wondering whether this remake was really necessary.
Bland every man Jason Clarke plays Louis Creed, a Boston doctor who relocates his family to a small town in Maine after accepting a job at the local university hospital. His wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) immediately senses something off about new house, while their kids – eight-year old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Lucas Lavoie and Hugo Lavoie) – embrace their new surroundings. Things take a nasty turn when the beloved family cat Church is found dead, and elderly neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) helps Louis bury the feline in a graveyard with powers to bring the dead back to life.
Aside from a major switcheroo with the kids’ roles and a completely new ending, Kölsch and Widmyer’s film is relatively safe and unambitious. Instead of digging into King’s novel for fresh ideas, the filmmakers opt to recreate and subvert some of the 1989 film’s most memorable moments, not always successfully. When a character is struck by a speeding truck in the original, Lambert expertly draws out the tension and dread by cutting back and forth between the aloof driver and the happy family picnic, culminating in the simple, haunting image of a bloody shoe rolling across the highway. Here, Kölshe and Widmyer timidly rush through the scene, and cheapen it with a hideous CGI shot of a truck barreling full-speed towards the viewer.
The 1989 film was shot in a rented family home in King’s native Maine, lending a warmth and authenticity that’s present in every frame. The house and the woods are important characters in the story, and Lambert treats them as such. The home in Kölsch and Widmyer’s Canadian-shot version feels less lived-in, and a bit artificial. And their vision of the creepy woods is even more hyperbolic and silly than Lambert’s, with cheesy fog effects and unnatural back lighting that constantly remind viewers none of this is real.
King’s book might be a bit too dense to cram into two hours, and both films suffer from pacing issues. The slow burn of the first hour is jolted by a series of truly batshit crazy events in the second. Lambert’s film packs more of a visceral gut-punch in the end, with its infamous “No fair”scene, and an outrageously bloody final moment. The new film rushes through its last act, leading to a genuinely surprising finale that comes off more mischievous than emotionally resonant. It also, unsurprisingly, sets up an inevitable sequel.
The endlessly sombre tone helps prevent proceedings from sliding into camp territory, though one more “spooky fog” canister in the woods might have pushed it over the edge. Ultimately,despite its shortcomings, the new Pet Sematary is a worthwhile update that respects the source material, while offering plenty of creepy atmosphere and a handful of fresh scares.
Pet Sematary | Directed by Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer (US 2019) with Jason Clarke, AmySeimetz. Starts April 3.
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