Sometimes, dead is an opportunity to slap some pretty makeup on a corpse and say they look good as new, if not better. In the case of Pet Sematary, this is a fresh touch-up on a film long since buried, one that is a nicer looking return to horror basics…
…But first, a brief commentary on trailers. Spoiling movie moments in trailers is not new. They’ve been doing it forever. Go back to the original Friday the 13th trailer, and you’ll see that it’s basically a countdown of literally everyone who dies. But that’s fine. Spoilers in trailers are necessary sometimes to sell the movie, and it’s really more about the experience, anyway. However, when you’re remaking a film like Pet Sematary, it seems counterintuitive to reveal the ONLY significant change to the story. What’s the point if you’re not going to surprise fans with a unique twist that certainly would’ve blown everyone away and had them talking had we all gone in blind? If you don’t know what that twist is, I suggest you stop reading now.
Directed by the team behind Starry Eyes, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, and written by Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy), Pet Sematary is a remake of the 1989 classic based on Stephen King's novel, which sees a family move into a new home, where they discover an eerie pet cemetery on their property. But as Louis (Jason Clarke) soon learns, the ground is “sour”, and has the power to bring back the dead. At the instruction of his new neighbor Jud (John Lithgow), Louis buries the family cat in the cemetery, only to see it come back to life, setting Louis on a dark path with no turning back.
I’m not going to hold the spoilery trailer against Pet Sematary, because the film is a solid retelling that makes a bold choice by killing off the older daughter, Elle (Jete Laurence), instead of baby Gage (Hugo & Lucas Levoie) this time around. The twist on the story works brilliantly, because it allows the undead Elle to fully communicate with Louis, hitting the audience over the head like a shovel with a grim commentary on the afterlife, and a mockery of Louis’ belief in hope. Little Laurence is absolutely stunning as Elle, playing a Jekyll and Hyde type role in going from a sweet, endearing little girl to a maniacal monster which is effectively terrifying and heart-breaking all at once. The resurrection of Elle is a massive improvement on the original, mostly thanks to Laurence’s shocking performance.
Everyone, including Rachel (Amy Seimetz), gives an outstanding performance that arguably outshines their predecessor, except maybe for Lithgow, who makes Jud his own, but is handicapped under the shadow of the late Fred Gwynne, who made the role of Jud an icon back in 1989. That being said, Lithgow, despite working with much less effective dialogue, brings a charm and warmth to the character not quite present in Gwynne’s portrayal. In this version of Pet Sematary, these characters are much closer, with a stronger family bond than the constantly arguing Louis and Rachel from the original. These people are more believable, and we care about them the way you might with any nice family. Hell, even Church the cat probably deserves an animal actor of the year award (keeping in mind that multiple cats were used).
The dichotomy between Louis and Rachel on death and the scars which they bear are also much deeper. While Louis attempts to view death as natural, Rachel, having gone through a traumatic experience with her deceased sister, Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine), does everything she can to ignore death and protect Elle from the very idea of it. Their opposing beliefs on death are layered and well-defined by trauma. But what’s fascinating about this version of Pet Sematary is how Buhler’s script successfully warps those beliefs, giving the audience deeper substance as to why Louis and Rachel begin to change their views on the matter.
Both versions of Pet Sematary torment the characters, but Kolsch and Widmyer’s film is a torment on the audience in the best possible way. The directors bring their signature violence and relentless bleakness to Pet Sematary. Zelda is spine-chilling. Levine is utterly terrifying, and the make-up work done on her twisted body is an impressive redux of the 89 version. Terror strikes hard in this film, with multiple instances of grisly gore that will leave the audience cringing in their seats. The filmmakers have even created a somewhat laughable but fun scare which I’m calling “the truck scare”, which sees the screen repeatedly barraged by imagined images of trucks blaring out of dark rooms and closets. Trucks are the new cat, apparently. The dread is so constant in Pet Sematary, that one guy in my theatre even screamed, I mean SCREAMED, as if he were being attacked. I won’t go anywhere near as close to saying that the film instills that level of horror, but Pet Sematary is so unforgiving in its darkness, it certainly is an attack on the senses. Combined with the brilliant Christopher Young’s chilling score creeping its way into your soul, you might scream too.
The myth of the Pet Sematary itself also feels stronger in this version, mostly thanks to the mood setting production design from Todd Cherniawsky. The Sematary has far more character this time around, and is beautifully captured by cinematographer Laurie Rose. Every moment that Louis and Jud spend wandering the woods is a haunting reminder that there is a greater evil present in the fog-ridden forest, one which can be felt haunting Pet Sematary from beginning to end, even if we never see it. I’m talking about the Wendigo, of course. A staple in King’s novel, but left out of the 89 film, the Wendigo, though never seen, has a strong presence in Pet Sematary. Whether it’s in the eyes of Elle, or heavily breathing off-screen like it just dodged one of those damn trucks, the Wendigo adds an element of evil missing from Lambert’s version of the story.
But look, when you’re dealing with the undead, you’re going to want a little salt, and this review is not all sugar. Most damning for Pet Sematary is that if you’ve seen the original, you’ve seen this film. Outside of the switch from Elle to Gage, this is the exact same movie, with a coat of gloss to make it look prettier. The filmmakers aren’t taking any risks here. Even the dialogue, especially Jud’s, is copied and pasted from the original, and generally comes off less inspired because of it, which damages the emotional impact of the story, most specifically, the ending. For those looking for a return to basics, Pet Sematary works just fine, but anyone looking for a more provocative film about death won’t find it here. This is the one area where the original outshines this painted over remake.
There are no surprises in this take, minus the ending, which, arguably, is much more poignant and memorable in the first film. What we see here in Pet Sematary feels like a heightened level of average and expected, (though works wonderfully with the theme), but isn’t nearly as haunting as Rachel’s return in Lambert’s film. So, what we have here is an effective, scary, well-made version of Pet Sematary that will please fans of the original and terrify newcomers, but doesn’t stand on its own as a uniquely original take on the story. Pet Sematary is basic, but highly entertaining, horror fare at its finest.
Sometimes, dead is better, but in this case, it’s nice to see a familiar face.
By Matt Konopka