‘Pet Sematary’ (2019) review: Breathing new life to Stephen King’s horror classic

Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s adaptation of ‘Pet Sematary’ does not shy away from its nihilist subject matter to bring a new level of terror to its audience.

Stephen King is one of the most prolific authors in the world who has reached the ‘immortal’ status: for generations, there seems to be no shortage in his book-to-screen adaptations. One of them is “Pet Sematary” which is first adapted to film in 1989 by Mary Lambert. Albeit faithful to the source material, it’s a lesser celebrated work compared to his cult classics like The Shining or Carrie; hence, making it very ripe for a remake. Sure enough, the story gets resurrected 30 years after.

Despite some unexpected plot tweakings by writer Matt Greenberg, this 2019 version mostly plays out the same. At its center is the Creed family who have recently moved to a quiet town in Maine. There’s father Dr. Louis (Jason Clarke), along with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their young children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie). The fifth family member is a fluffy house cat named Church who unfortunately gets hit by a truck. For this unfortunate event, there’s a spooky burial ground called “Pet Sematary” where the local kids bury their beloved pets. However, heeding the advice of their neighbor Jud (John Lithgow), Louis buries Church in a soil located beyond that and to his surprise, the cat came back into life the next morning. Except it’s not the same cat anymore – his hair is tattered and he has a new mean streak.

The cat came back: Jeté Laurence as Ellie Creed in ‘Pet Sematary’

For maximum shock value, it’s best to head on to this film with little information as possible. But since both the poster and trailer already gave away the major deviation, I’ll spill the beans here. Another family member gets hit by a truck – damn those things! – and this time, it’s Ellie (instead of Gage in the novel). Story wise, this adaptation makes the more traumatizing choice. Her contemplations on life and death earlier in the film will not come into full circle had Gage was the one who passed away. Regardless, Louis’ pragmatic beliefs are overpowered by grief that he buries her in the same spot. While here we are, foreseeing the grave consequences of his actions from a mile away.

“Sometimes, dead is better.” (L-R): Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, Jason Clarke and Hugo Lavoie as the Creed family.

Under Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s direction, this remake digs deeper on the novel’s profound themes of death, grief and childhood trauma. There’s an ominous dread that consistently looms throughout and that is partly due to the film’s effective camera work and eerie production design. The jump scares are well-constructed and the amount of gore is just enough to be unsettling – a special commendation goes to the film’s gruesome depiction of body distortion. It does not shy away from its nihilist subject matter to bring a new level of terror to its audience and therefore, justify its existence.

What makes King’s novel a timeless classic is that it deals with death, a natural phenomenon that never goes out of style. Pet Sematary illustrates how grief and denial over the loss of a loved one can devolve into madness. The intense performances help in depicting the Creed family’s pain in such a subdued and palpable manner. Clarke projects a warm paternal figure while Laurence menacingly personifies a parent’s sorrow and guilt, one that asks a lot for a child actress. However, Amy Seimetz’ Rachel proves to be the more interesting character here as the film gets to explore with her the limits of a parent’s love, as well as the long term effects of childhood trauma.

Jason Clarke (Dr. Louis Creed) and John Lithgow (Jud Crandall) goes beyond the barrier of ‘Pet Sematary.’

Pet Sematary is burdened with perfunctory expositions in the first act but once it’s done with the mandatory tension building, this is where the film truly picks up. With its family setup, it’s hard not to compare this with Jordan Peele’s recently released and more compelling Us. This, however, is a more back-to-basics horror film that delivers more dread than scares. Through its revitalized plot and subtle performances, the film exceeds the psychological depth and pathos of the original 1989 adaptation. It’s a worthy addition in Stephen King’s oeuvre. Let it be a gateway for more adaptations to come.

4 out of 5 stars
Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, written by Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler, ‘Pet Sematary’ stars Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jeté Laurence, Hugo Lavoie, Obssa Ahmed and Alyssa Brooke Levine. Based on Stephen King’s novel. 101 minutes. R-16.

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