This grittier and more concise version of Pet Sematary supplants its predecessor.
The first film adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, penned by the bestselling horror maestro himself, exists in a liminal space between more artistic renderings of his work like De Palma’s Carrie and Kubrick’s The Shining and made-for-TV schlock like The Tommyknockers and The Langoliers. The 1989 incarnation makes for campy horror fun that nevertheless touches upon profound themes of grief, trauma and desperation, the poisoned wellspring from which the best horror flows. Thirty years later, it holds up, however creakily, largely because the idea of a grief-stricken doctor sinning against nature remains so compelling.
Starry Eyes directing duo Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer drain the camp from Pet Sematary’s cinematic forebear, resulting in a tauter, more crisply paced and psychologically weightier exercise in reanimating the dead in soil turned sour. Early buzz may have fixated to the decision to alter King’s story to pit nine-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) rather than toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) as the abomination that rises from the unholy place beyond the deadfall, but this remake’s most drastic change is in tone. Films based on King’s writing tend to treat death as a gimmick, a haunted house trapping as ubiquitous as cobwebs. Kölsch and Widmyer imbue their film with a respect for the gravity of death that’s uncommon in the genre until recent years, though it stops short of dredging the murkiest depths of tragedy and despair as found in last year’s Hereditary, which will probably make it less polarizing with audiences as a result.
Despite often charting its own path, the film also maintains loyalty to the original, with the handful of knowing winks to the audience landing solidly and not seeming contrived. When Louis and Rachel Creed (Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz) move their young family to the countryside to “slow down,” their new property still borders a treacherous stretch of speeding tanker truck-frequented highway and a generations-old animal graveyard, beyond which hellish earth with an ancient Native American history of bad vibes lies. The kindly, inveterate townie Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) still lives within a stone’s throw, and is the man responsible for introducing Louis to the sinister soil when the beloved family cat, Church, ends up as roadkill. But here, Jud’s much more remorseful about giving in to the pull of that accursed patch of ground. The 1989 film cast some ambiguity over Jud’s intentions, but this time around Jud’s simply a lonely man who wanted to make a young girl happy again by bringing back her cat.
Lithgow’s got big shoes to fill as Jud, given Fred Gwynne’s memorable performance and handful of iconic lines. But like all the characters in this remake, Jud’s much more human here, more believably conflicted and far less cartoonish. Rachel’s childhood trauma at having witnessed the death of her spinal meningitis-contorted sister is amplified, and Seimetz’s poignant performance makes Rachel a more three-dimensional character in this version. And yet, though effective throughout the film, Clarke’s turn as Louis doesn’t quite exude the same level of despair as found in the original film. He’s more calculating, though, drugging Jud so he doesn’t interfere with his exhumation and reburial of Ellie’s corpse, and embodying the white male sense of entitlement to unilaterally making all decisions about life and death.
Ellie was perhaps the weakest link in the original film, a role poorly acted and played for sentimentality, yet still remaining superfluous enough that she’s not even present in the climax when the resurrected Gage, Rachel and Louis all collide. Conversely, she’s the strongest character in this film, with an older child better able to disturbingly express the sensation of having died and returned unnaturally. Whereas evil Gage immediately set about slaying in the original film, here the undead Ellie is given enough pause to contemplate her situation and to allow the unsettling implications of Louis’ actions manifest more gradually, though there was perhaps the potential to dig even deeper. Still, by tightening up the narrative, and building toward a shockingly bleaker ending than found in any King adaptation not called The Mist, this grittier and more concise version of Pet Sematary supplants its predecessor.