The works of Stephen King are once again becoming major box office draws (It) following years of King stories being relegated to B-movie releases, hoping to draw in whatever cult following they could from the Stephen King fandom. Out of this trend of revisiting the horror author's onscreen adaptations comes Pet Sematary (2019), a new adaptation that puts a much more cinematic spin on the 1983 novel, but is just as disjointed as its 1989 movie predecessor when it comes to conveying all the deeper subplots and themes of King's book.
Warning: Some spoilers for Pet Sematary follow.
This version of the story follows Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), a doctor who moves from Boston to the small town of Ludlow, Maine with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), 9-year-old daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence), infant son Gage (Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie), and family cat, Church. The Creeds' new home comes with an expansive plot of forest, which their new elderly neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) warns runs "further than you'd ever want to go." After a peaceful start to the new move, the Creeds are struck by strange and tragic occurrences around their lives. They discover a creepy pet graveyard in the woods near the house; Louis has an unexpectedly gruesome and haunting experience with an ER patient named Victor who dies in his care; Rachel starts to be tormented by visceral hallucinations of her dead sister, Zelda; and Church is run down on the busy stretch of road outside the Creeds' home.
Church's death is particularly problematic for Louis and Rachel, as the couple can't agree on their views of death, and what to teach Ellie. Jud sees Louis' dilemma and decides to intervene, if only to protect Ellie from the heartbreak of grief. The old man leads Louis past the pet graveyard to the real heart of the Creed property: an ancient Native American burial ground, whose soil has the power to restore life to the dead. However, the version of Church that comes back to the Creeds is a dark and evil reflection of the pet they once had; Louis sees what kind of new problem he's created by messing with the life/death divide, and vows never to meddle again. However, when tragedy later strikes again and takes the life of one of the Creed children this time, he finds the lure of the burial ground calling to him -- and what he brings back this time threatens to end the entire Creed family for good.
As stated, directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer manage to put a nice coat of polish on Stephen King's story. This Pet Sematary has the same dark lavishness of tone and color that makes it look as if it could exist in the same cinematic universe as It, which is a far cry from the dated and cheesy visuals of the 1989 film. There are a few set pieces that don't fully work -- most notably the ancient burial ground, which never looks like anything less than a sound stage set enhanced with some weak digital effects and a lot of fog machines. Other than that, though, the staging of major sequences is well executed, and most scenes are blocked and shot pretty well. Pet Sematary's psychological horror moments are hard to convey, but Kölsch and Widmyer do a fair job making the surreal moments feel creepy (if not frightening) and balancing the fantasy vision scares with moving the actual plot along at a fairly brisk pace.
The directors also get some nice performances out of their cast, with Jason Clarke anchoring much of the story with the nuanced journey of Louis Creed being lured down into the dark side. Clarke pulls off the pivotal turns of deep loss and irrational moral corruption exceedingly well, creating some of Pet Sematary's creepiest moments. Amy Seimetz is there with him, giving Rachel deep and nuanced layers that incorporate her traumatic childhood backstory with Zelda. Unfortunately, this new adaptation of Pet Sematary has just as much trouble giving Rachel's arc the sort of deeper attention and development that a novel can, and her storyline once again feels somewhat distracting and disjointed from the main plot.
The real standouts of this new Pet Sematary are no doubt John Lithgow's Jud Crandall and young Jeté Laurence as Ellie. Lithgow nails the balance of being a friendly curmudgeon hiding subtle hints of menace, but it's Laurence who has to stretch beyond her young years for a crucial two-part performance. Laurence first creates the infectiously warm and vibrant version of Ellie, and then digs deep to create the twisted and frightening thing that comes back from the grave in Ellie's form.
If there's one truly wise thing that the new Pet Sematary does, it's swapping Ellie for Gage when it comes to the Creed child who is killed and resurrected by Louis. In the novel, a demonic baby plays as one of the scariest concepts possible; however, getting a child actor that young to convey horror (and wear the necessary makeup) is where the original film stumbled, big time. By handing the task to an older and talented young actress, the horror of Pet Sematary's finale is much more visceral and terrifying. By the end of the film, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer go for a much darker resolution than King himself did, and fans will probably appreciate it for its unflinching brutality.
All in all, Pet Sematary (2019) is a very admirable attempt at taking a different approach to a Stephen King work that has arguably never been well-suited for the big screen. The result is a mixed bag, albeit one that falls on right side of the "see it or not" divide.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Pet Sematary is now in theaters. It is 1 hour and 41 minutes long, and rated R for horror violence, bloody images, and some language.