I recently reviewed the 30th Anniversary Edition of Pet Sematary that was released prior to the updated version hitting theaters and it simply didn’t deliver on any level. Sometimes that’s just how it is with older films – especially in the horror genre – in that they just don’t hold up over time. That’s not always a bad thing. Their job is to scare audiences at the time, and I’m sure back in 1989 the film sent chills down the spine of audiences, but today it’s just a campy mess of poor storytelling and abysmal acting. Luckily, the new film takes the tale in the right direction when it comes to delivering on scares and eerie atmosphere.
While the film is also called Pet Sematary it’s also not so much a remake of the original film as it is its own take on the Stephen King classic novel. The majority of the story remains the same and focuses around the Creed family moving from Boston to rural Maine where Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) can escape the hectic pacing of city life and slow things down to allow them to spend more time with their children, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo & Lucas Lavoie.) One of the biggest points of frustrations while watching the original film is just how much dialogue they gave to Ellie and just how bad the actor was at delivering those lines. Here, Laurence does a good job taking on one of the film’s more vital roles.
The themes of the story are that of death and grief, and early on Ellie and Rachel witness a procession of kids walking through the forest on their property. The kids are wearing animal masks, one is beating a drum and they have a dead dog in a wheelbarrow. Clearly they’re on their way to bury the dog, though of course the creep-factor is cranked to 1000 as each kid wearing these unnerving animal masks looks over one by one at Ellie and Rachel as they pass, with this simple drum beating…everything just feels evil even though these kids are simply going to bury this dog and then go back home. That’s fine though, as it helps build the disturbing atmosphere that the film needs to set up early on for the film to build off of moving forward.
Later that night, a curious Ellie follows the path and discovers the pet sematary. It’s here she also meets their neighbor Jud (John Lithgow), who is full of knowledge when it comes to the town’s dark history. He befriends the Creed family through Ellie and tries to warn them to stay away from the land found past the sematary. Of course, that doesn’t last long, because as soon as Ellie’s cat is found dead, Jud takes Louis to an ancient burial ground found deeper in the woods so he can bury her cat there. What he doesn’t tell Louis is that by doing so, her cat Church will return to life – albeit much angrier and more aggressive.
Casting Lithgow in the role of Jud was about as good of a replacement for the original film’s Fred Gwynne. Gwynne was one of the very few bright spots in the 1989 film and Lithgow takes the mantle of creepy, yet endearing neighbour with relative ease – though he’s a little less creepy and a little more endearing than Gwynne’s portrayal was, which works to the advantage of the story being told this time – especially given the biggest change between this film and the original.
That change is the fact that it’s Ellie who is killed midway through the film instead of Gage, and this changes the dynamic of the final half of the story greatly, as we have more of an emotional attachment to Ellie as a character over that of Gage, who was definitely creepy as a somewhat undead psycho baby in the 1989 film, but didn’t add anything outside of that to the story. With Ellie being the one who is brought back by unknown evil spirits Louis, Jud and Rachel are given someone to work with, as Ellie actually has haunting conversations with them, bringing up past events and visions from the afterlife to strike fear into their hearts as she, well, attacks them.
There are some hits and misses with the storytelling along the way. Early on Louis loses a patient who is brought in basically dead already. Immediately after passing the young man sits up straight and tries to warn Louis about the haunted burial grounds. While this wasn’t handled the greatest in the original either, here it feels even less meaningful. It’s unclear why Louis can see this ghost or how the ghost knows Louis will eventually stumble upon this burial ground as we haven’t even heard of it yet as an audience. The ghost pops up a few more times but pointing out to the audience that this ghost is trying to protect the family in the minimal ways that he can is never handled properly and so it really just loses most of its impact.
Another aspect that’s both a hit and a miss is the storyline about Rachel’s sister Zelda who suffered from spinal meningitis and died at a young age. Rachel is constantly haunted by this memory upon moving to this new property but can’t understand why. The film succeeds in properly pacing this story, as it comes off much more natural here in the flow of the story than it did in the original. The miss would come with the handling of Rachel’s parents, who, while minimally used, at least gave off a vibe like they didn’t like Louis and it added to showcasing his grief when he attacked her dad at the funeral. This time out they’re nothing but a chauffeur for Rachel and Gage in one quick scene after Ellie’s funeral. Delivering on the Zelda story and pacing was much more important, but it’s unfortunate they lost that extra bit of Louis’s grieving that really helped the viewer see just how much he was spiraling after the loss.
While it doesn’t follow the novel as closely as the original, I actually enjoyed this take on Pet Sematary. While the film still has the usual cliché jump scares, it balances them out nicely by delivering a very chilling atmosphere that helps keep the viewer on edge long before the horror truly kicks in. It also hits home when it comes to the darker thematic elements of death, grief and the afterlife for audiences to latch on to, which helps give it a bit more substantial feel than we usually see in the majority of horror films these days.
The film delivers the horror goods both in visuals and the audio front. The film has a cooler look to it, but it’s also clean and sharp. There are a few moments where a few CGI type looks stand out, such as in Louis’s dream, and while up at the burial ground. It’s not distracting, but if you’re someone that notices these things then you’ll see it here. Again, it’s not a major knock on anything, as the atmosphere is one of the film’s stronger points and that’s greatly in part to the eerie visual tone throughout. The audio delivers as best it could, with great sound effects, a wonderfully thematic score and it just delivers in all the places you want a horror movie to deliver in superb surround sound.
Alternate Ending – So the alternate ending here is just over nine-minutes long and that’s pretty much to get you back involved with its pacing leading into the changes. The main changes come in the last few minutes, so if you don’t want to watch it all you can skip ahead and you’ll likely know where to begin if you’ve just watched the film. I do think they went with the proper ending, even if it’s a bit unclear where anything would go afterwards, but the alternate ending is also interesting and would’ve worked as well.
Deleted/Extended Scenes – There are some of the usual scenes that hit the cutting room floor for those interested.
Night Terrors – These are three brief featurettes of the film’s three main characters, Louis, Rachel and Ellie facing their fears. They’re each between a minute and two minutes long, and don’t really add anything. Give them a watch if you’re a completionist; however, the main feature is where your time should really be spent.
The Tale of Timmy Baterman – This featurette is just over 3-minutes in length and sees Jud sit down and tell us the tale of Timmy Baterman, a boy who was killed in the war, buried in the sour ground and returned to life. This was a part of the original film, so this extra is more of a nod to that than anything.
Beyond the Deadfall – This is a four-part feature that’s just over an hour long. It’s broken up into four chapters, as mentioned, so you can watch it in pieces if you desire. Each chapter has a different focus, including the cast and crew talking about the original film, coming up with how to make this revision as good as it can be, and choosing the right people to play the parts. They also talk about shooting in Montreal and various locations within it, building on the thematic element of grief, especially found between Louis and Ellie, training and working with the cat, as well as make-up and other things. It’s just a packed group of features that fan’s of the film should definitely sit down and watch in its entirety!
Paramount Pictures Presents Pet Sematary. Directed by: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer. Written by: Jeff Buhler, Matt Greenburg. Starring: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, Hugo & Lucas Lavoie. Running time: 110 Minutes. Rating: 14A. Released on Blu-ray: July 9, 2019.
Tags: Amy Seimetz, Jason Clarke, Jeté Laurence, john lithgow, Pet Sematary, Pet Sematary 2019, Stephen King