Pet Sematary comes back from the dead [review]

Commentary, Film and Television

Raising the dead rarely ends well. That’s the message I got from Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s grisly take on Pet Sematary.

The plot will be familiar to fans of the classic Stephen King novel of the same name. Parents Louis and Rachel Creed move with their two adorable kids into a farmhouse that lies perilously close to the highway, and which backs onto at least one mystical burial ground. After their beloved daughter’s cat winds up dead on the side of the road, a kindly neighbour introduces Louis to an old folk legend – things interred in the ancient graveyard behind the cemetery come back. The cat is reanimated, but it comes back different. And the next life lost to the highway isn’t a cat.

The tragic tale was first adapted by director Mary Lambert in 1989, and her influence is plainly visible in this remake. Kölsch and Widmyer add a few hallucinatory touches and marginally increase the gore, but otherwise hew very closely to Lambert’s original. (Several characters even dress similarly to their 80s counterparts.)

A few initial attempts at differentiation don’t quite land. For instance, an early scene shows a procession of inexplicably masked kids burying their dog in the Pet Sematary, never to be seen or mentioned again. This early weirdness feels out-of-place, since the Creed house is supposed to appear idyllic on the surface.

Most galling is the film’s handling of the Zelda character. One of the most harrowing aspects of the original book and film was Rachel’s lingering guilt over the death of her sister, who suffered from a debilitating disease. Rachel, a young child at the time, was frightened of Zelda and felt relief when she died – an ugly reaction that she hated herself for ever-after.

The remake, by contrast, ups the ante by having Zelda die in a freak accident that’s partially Rachel’s fault: tasked with feeding her sister but too afraid to enter her bedroom, Rachel sends a tray of food up through the dumbwaiter, which Zelda somehow falls through. It’s a minor change, but one that’s both emotionally dumbed-down (Don’t think your audience is astute enough to comprehend the complexities of survivor’s guilt? Let’s have Rachel cause Zelda’s death – she’d feel guilty about that too!) and just plain implausible. I know you have to suspend a lot of disbelief for movies like Pet Sematary, but it really stretches credibility to have a bedridden child suddenly manage to pull herself out of bed and climb into a dumbwaiter – never mind the idiocy of Rachel serving her sister that way, when Zelda obviously can’t feed herself.

Granted, I’m far too familiar with the original to provide an unbiased review. I fell in love with King’s emotionally rich, Ramones-quoting novel when I first read it as a pre-teen, and Lambert’s terrifying but stylish adaptation was one of the few horror movies to give me literal nightmares. In short, I hold Stephen King adaptations (especially remakes) to an impossible standard.

Kölsch and Widmyer’s Pet Sematary can’t improve on perfection, but it does a lot well. The film boasts quite a few genuine scares and some strikingly surreal dream sequences. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the acting is excellent throughout. Leads Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz effectively highlight the contrast between the arrogant Louis and his traumatized wife, who is more emotional but ultimately wiser. The infinitely versatile John Lithgow is endearing as gruff neighbour Judd Crandall, and child actress Jeté Laurence turns in an especially impressive performance as Ellie Creed.

The movie also wisely pumps up the malevolence of the undead cat; there’s a great scene where a voyeuristic Church interrupts Louis and Rachel’s private time by dropping a half-alive bird on their bed.

But as well-made as it is, the movie often feels paint-by-numbers until the inevitable moment when a member of the Creed family is killed on the road.

It’s at this point that Jeff Buhler’s script turns in a surprising new direction (well, surprising if you haven’t seen the trailer). I won’t spoil the twist for anyone, but let’s just say it allows the monsters to be even more strategic (not to mention sadistic) than they were in previous adaptations. It works. The climax is truly demented.

Even if it never really steps out of the shadow of its source material, Pet Sematary is a strong horror film, doling out brutal kills and emotional punches in equal measure. When it comes to classic movies, it’s true that sometimes dead is better, but I can’t fault Hollywood for resurrecting this one.

Title: Pet Sematary

Director: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer

Year: 2019

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