When it comes to director Lindsey Anderson Beer’s debut feature, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines—a prequel to the 2019 remake of Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel—it would be too easy to say “sometimes, dead is better”. But, hey, a true classic never goes out of style for a reason, and in the case of this generic franchise entry, it’s fair to wonder what the point was to resurrecting it in the first place.
Written by Beer and Jeff Buhler (co-writer of the 2019 Pet Sematary), Bloodlines transports audiences back to 1969 in Ludlow, Maine, where we meet a young Jud Crandall (Jackson White). Having skipped out on the Vietnam war—rumor has it his daddy, Dan (Henry Thomas) paid to keep it that way—Jud wants to get out of town and do something with his life. But just as he and girlfriend Norma (Natalie Alyn Lind) are on their way out to join the Peace Core, she’s attacked by the dog of childhood friend, Timmy (Jack Mulhern), who has just returned from the battlefield. Except, something is different about Jud’s old pal. Something sinister. And as he and all of Ludlow are about to discover, sometimes, dead is better.
Whether it be the book or the films or both, if you’re a fan of Pet Sematary, you’d likely agree that a crucial part of what makes this story so unsettling is in the way it confronts death. These are stories about grief and despair, where the characters are fully aware of the terrible choices they make, yet they make them anyway because to go another day without a loved one feels worse than not having them at all. In every instance, characters bring the dead back to life over and over and over again in an attempt to right the wrongs that fate has wrought on them, unable to accept that death is not something you simply beat. It’s this core theme pulsing through the rotting veins of the Pet Sematary universe that Bloodlines fundamentally misunderstands.
Legacy character stories within popular horror IP are all the rage, and that’s probably why Bloodlines decides to focus on a boyish Jud rather than the man at the center of the horror, Timmy’s father, Bill (David Duchovny). Instead of the inevitability of death or the grief that comes with it, this prequel turns its attention to a different kind of demise; The death of dreams. This time around, the filmmakers expand on the lifeless town that is Ludlow, bringing the place as a whole to the forefront. It’s the sort of town no one ever seems to escape from, population under one-thousand and about to get smaller. Jud wants nothing more than to get out and see the world, determined to not resign himself to the same dreary existence of his parents. Perhaps it’s his disconnect from Ludlow that has resulted in him not seeing Timmy or their other childhood friend, Manny (Forrest Goodluck) for years. Jud isn’t just running from the place he grew up, but from the people he’s always known.
I admire Bloodlines trying to do something a little different with the franchise, but taking this route only ignores the true terror of the story, relegating Timmy and a barely involved (as well as underused) Duchovny to the background.
Jackson White is a good actor that I expect to see a lot more of, and he does a fine job here carrying a shambling plot that plods along until a rushed third act that explodes into all-out chaos (and not in a good way). Most of the cast does well in their roles, bringing a believable desperation to their characters that keeps the audience engaged. The theme of wanting to leave your hometown and the pain that comes with that is something a lot of us can relate to. The unfortunate part here is that Bill, Timmy, and their relationship to each other as well as the rest of the cast happens to be the weakest part of the script. Despite some cringe-inducing gore effects, Timmy doesn’t appear to don an ounce of “undead makeup”, which might have helped elevate a character that has little to no presence…not ideal when they’re the central antagonist. We also have little sense of Timmy’s relationship to the others from before he died, making the drama that comes with Jud and co. needing to put their old friend down far less effective. Again, the black heart of the Pet Sematary movies comes in the shape of that battle with grief. That vital piece is all but forgotten here.
What does (mostly) work is the atmospheric dread and expansion on the evil of Ludlow which the filmmakers explore. I’m not at all a fan of the murky tones trend that has invaded horror—it’s ugly, I’m sorry—but it does give Bloodlines a caked in dirt look that matches the graveyard vibe of the story. A sound design of buzzing flies constantly underneath the surface blended with eerie shots of bleeding sunflowers and the like enhance the sense of a looming terror reaching towards the cast. Those that have wanted to see Pet Sematary dig more into the supernatural evil that lurks in Ludlow will be somewhat pleased with how this prequel expands on that element. In that sense, Bloodlines feels a lot like a traditional King story, complete with ancient evils, generational trauma and childhood friends coming together to battle something from their past.
Uninspired kills. Bland direction. Villains that fail to illicit a graveyard chill. Outside of solid performances and a deeper look into the lore of Ludlow, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines is a fine yet messy prequel that ignores the central themes of King’s classic to its own detriment. Dead isn’t always better, but sometimes, well…you get it.
Pet Sematary: Bloodlines arrives exclusively on Paramount+ on October 6th.
By Matt Konopka