Directors: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer
Writers: Matt Greenberg, Jeff Buhler, based on the novel by Stephen King
Composer: Christopher Young
Starring: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow
Genre: Horror, Thriller
First released in 1989, the original film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name opened to mixed reviews. Some found it to be cliché, while others thought there were some bad casting choices. However, what has slowly turned it into a classic today, cementing itself as a cornerstone of horror, is that it was a simple story told well.
Stephen King’s stories don’t always translate well onto the screen. I theorise this is because King’s works aren’t always narratively tight, and he has a penchant for exploring cosmic horror which is notoriously difficult to portray on film. However, Pet Sematary is a different beast. Beat for beat, it’s a fairly straightforward and somewhat of a tragically predictable tale. Its themes of grief and the difficulty of letting go are universal, with many being able to relate to the father’s seemingly innocent motives. If done well, then there are no reasons it shouldn’t make for a neat horror film, as the foundations are solid. Yet will this remake, directed by relative newcomers to Hollywood, have what it takes to make this uncomplicated story shine?
Violence/Scary Images: This is a horror film; it’s a movie that intends to terrify the audience through violence and scary images. The story focuses on the resurrection of corpses. Lots of blood and a few gory scenes. A car crash victim is seen with terrible injuries; their skull scrapped off on one side of their face, revealing their pulsating brain underneath. Close up of injury sites, including the bone of a compound fracture. Multiple characters are stabbed or slashed throughout the film, with close ups on the point of entry.
One character suffers from spinal meningitis. She is grotesquely depicted, with a twisted bony body, jaundiced, sweaty, and groaning whilst bed-ridden. There are many eerie sound effects throughout the film. A dead cat is shown, body limp and covered with blood. The body of a dead dog is seen briefly in a wheelbarrow. A cat is frequently shown being aggressive towards humans. Euthanasia is discussed (and not always in the context of animals). A character is hit by a semi-trailer; the film doesn’t focus on the injuries.
Language/Crude Humor: Infrequent dropping of the f-bomb and the s-word. D*mn is said three or so times. God and Jesus’ names are used in vain infrequently.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters are seen drinking alcohol. A drink is spiked, causing a person to pass out. There is a conversation the following day about how they must have been hung over/consumed too much.
Sexual Content: A married couple kiss in bed, but just as they change position to initiate more intimacy, they are interrupted.
Spiritual Content: While no particular religion is specified, there is a significant amount of conversation centred on the afterlife. One character likes the view that people’s souls go to heaven, whilst another takes an atheistic stance where nothing happens. There is mention of Hell-like imagery. Characters frequently cite a fear of death. The legend of the Wendigo is briefly mentioned, along with ancient places that contain supernatural powers. A cult-like procession is performed when a pet is buried; a local ritual/tradition.
Other Negative Content: A character texts while driving. The debilitating illness, spinal meningitis, while never directly mentioned, is horribly misrepresented, with the sufferer being depicted as a monster. A child is negligently left alone by their irresponsible parents to look after a sick older relative. The film subconsciously suggests a belief in the afterlife is merely a person wanting to sugar-coat the topic, avoiding the finality of death. It’s seen as a phobia and not a legitimate viewpoint, despite the narrative eventually exploring life after death.
Positive Content: The film provides multiple warnings about the dangers of going against the natural order of the world. It promotes an acceptance of death and the need to be open about its existence, and while it can be feared, it’s certainly better than other alternatives, or lying/avoiding the topic.
“They don’t come back the same,” Jud says. The enigmatic older character, played brilliantly by John Lithgow, not only serves to deliver exposition for the story, but also unintentionally sums up this remake nicely. The 1989 film, while it had its moments, has mostly been relegated as one of Stephen King’s mediocre adaptations. Buried in the past, but not forgotten, this narrative has now re-emerged decades later, and thankfully it’s a lot creepier.
Pet Sematary is a rare film that not only demonstrates remakes can be an improvement, but also sometimes straying from the source material is a wise decision. It achieves everything one could ever want out of a B-Grade horror flick. There’s a sense of foreboding that lingers throughout the film’s entire runtime; an aspect now lost in the original movie due to its dated film techniques.
The ability to create this mood throughout the piece is considerably impressive given Pet Sematary does not have the element of surprise on its side. Annoyingly, the trailers reveal not only the entire plot, but also the changes from the original source material, and even one of the deaths. For those not familiar with the story, please, go in blind. For everyone else, unfortunately nothing will combat the movie’s predictability. However, the film’s technical elements are strong enough to make it a spooky ride regardless.
Wanting a better work-life balance, Louis Creed moves his family to the small rural town of Ludlow, Maine (an American state that should come as no surprise for King fans). Save for the misspelled pet cemetery out of the back in the woods, the house itself is surprisingly normal for a horror film. It’s the cinematography that sets the tone of the piece. It effortlessly twists and winds through the homely architecture, making the most innocuous spaces feel slightly off.
Yet the real hero of the film is the sound design. Ear shivering groans and scrapes creak through the walls, stirring the audiences’ imaginations into a panicked frenzy. Entire scares are based not on visuals, but around what is heard.
This doesn’t mean the visuals are lacking. There are two hauntings in the film that ramp up the gore, making the scares within the central plot seem tame in comparison. As gruesome as they are, they do feel out of place. These side-plots pop in and out of the narrative, interrupting the movie’s flow. A film’s editing process should be invisible, though it’s rather jarring here, where some scenes don’t feel connected to the next. While it would mean straying even further from King’s novel, a different sequencing of events, or cutting one of the hauntings entirely, may have been an improvement.
Tweaks to the story have made room for greater performances from the cast. The switching of roles is by far the wisest decision made by the screenwriters, as without it, the 2019 movie would fall victim to the same casting issues as the original 1989 film. Purists may hate any deviation from the novel, though cinephiles will appreciate their necessity. Never fear: Fans will notice several nods to the 1989 film, while keen-eyed viewers will enjoy an IT easter egg.
Unlike the original movie, the cast cannot be faulted. They all deliver solid performances, including the child actors. Even the cat is great! There is no weak link here. However, it’s the lack of character development that lets the film down. Rachel, played by Amy Seimetz, is by far the most interesting character thanks to her backstory. Yet even then her arc feels incomplete and unresolved, which could be attributed to the fact she’s not the protagonist.
Instead, we follow Louis; blank with a backstory, his motivations are either rushed or underdeveloped. Jason Clarke does his best with the role, though even the best actors can’t add layers to two-dimensional figures. This is ultimately what separates Pet Sematary from the greats of the horror genre. It bottoms out far too soon, never reaching its full emotional potential.
Objectively, there’s nothing gravely wrong about Pet Sematary. It’s perfectly serviceable and will satisfy most viewers. From start to finish, it’s a sturdy horror, playing that one emotional note. Though while it plays that note beautifully, it is a narrative that demands an orchestra of different feelings. Pet Sematary is a story that has the capacity to delightfully reel back and deliver a tragic gut-punch, flipping the warm moments of life to icy desolation.
This is an odd criticism to make, but maybe the reason why Pet Sematary films fail to elevate themselves higher than mediocrity is that they explore the wrong genre? Both films do marvelous jobs at showing the darkness of the human soul, but in order to appreciate its descent into depravity, it must be starkly contrasted with the highness and fullness of love.
It’s risky. Swapping genres partway through a film is difficult to accomplish. However, Hereditary demonstrated how family dramas can disintegrate into sheer terror, and likewise, Pet Sematary’s story screams for the same treatment. We need to feel that family bond; the unbreakable love between parent and child; that ache for companionship; and even the desire to care for a neighbor, no matter how misguided the intention. Pet Sematary instead just plays straight into the horror. If it changed the tone of the opening act and explored the positive aspects of life, then maybe the film would have hit the emotional highs and lows the narrative craves.
Or maybe we’re giving this story too much credit for its potential emotional impact. In the end, Pet Sematary is your traditional schlocky horror film, where this latest iteration does well in setting the mood. For those wanting more, a quick look around the cinemas will find Jordan Peele’s intelligent offering with Us, along with the surprisingly tense white-knuckle thriller Hotel Mumbai. Pet Sematary will be far from the worst horror movie to be released this year, but it won’t be different enough to be particularly memorable either.
The Bottom Line