Pet Sematary Review: Raising the Dead Leads to Cat-astrophe

PET SEMATARY PET SEMATARY, from Paramount Pictures.

Initially faithful to the source material, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s take on the Stephen King classic goes in a new and creepier direction.

Stephen King’s Pet Sematary has been described as his “least enjoyable” book. It’s not a criticism so much as an observation of how relentlessly bleak it is, and how reading it is to have every nerve in your body peeled open and exposed to the elements. Reading it at different times in your life will offer up different but equally devastating experiences. Young and on your own, Louis Creed’s immediate descent into grief-driven insanity following the accidental death of his child is pitiful and horrifying, particularly the decision he makes to remedy the situation.

Once you’ve had some life experience, and perhaps some children of your own, it’s a new kind of horrifying, the horror of understanding, of knowing that if you were in Louis’ place, you’d feel obliged to right a great cosmic wrong too, even if you know that what you’re about to do goes against the very laws of nature. But so what? So does the death of a child.

Despite the potential for it being made into exploitative trash, a solid film adaptation of Pet Sematary was released in 1989, directed by Mary Lambert and with a screenplay written by King himself. Though some of the grislier aspects of the story were reined in, it managed to maintain that crushing sense of doom, and of bigger, darker forces than the characters at work. So too does Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s (Starry Eyes) new adaptation, while reinstating the gruesomeness of one of the most insomnia-inducing novels of all time. This Pet Sematary is leaner and meaner, with a darkly funny streak that won’t have you laughing as much as grimacing.


This Pet Sematary is leaner and meaner, with a darkly funny streak that won’t have you laughing as much as grimacing.

Emergency room doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) moves his family from Boston to Ludlow, Maine, a picturesque small town that doesn’t seem to have speed limits or believe in fences. Shortly after the family is settled into the house, they discover a pet cemetery on their property, which neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) tells them has been around for generations.

The discovery of the pet cemetery leads to the realization that Louis and his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz) have differing ideas about death, particularly how it should be explained to daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence). Louis doesn’t believe in the afterlife, while Rachel, haunted by the death of her older sister after a long, terrible illness, prefers not to talk about it at all. Neither is the best approach to take with an eight year-old, and they stumble through an awkward conversation about it, as most parents do.

After the family cat, Church, is hit by a car and killed, Jud takes Louis to a place beyond the pet cemetery, where the ground is sour and the air is so heavy with malevolence that the original inhabitants of the area fled in terror. Animals that are buried in that sour ground come back to life, and Jud, well-meaning but perhaps a bit touched in the head, thinks that’s a better solution than simply telling Ellie that Church has died. It works, but Church is different now—he’s mean, and stinks of dirt and corruption. Jud’s misguided act of kindness opens the door to horror beyond Louis’ comprehension, and it can’t be shut.

Let’s just get one thing out of the way: audiences who are going to come into Pet Sematary expecting (or hoping for) a beat for beat adaptation of the book and original movie are going to be disappointed. Though much of the first half is faithful, even including a shot of a crude headstone describing a beloved pet as “kilt on the highway,” the second half is considerably different. The spirit of the original remains, but a significant—perhaps the most significant—plot twist is changed, in a way that will likely prove controversial to some fans. If you’re able to accept that, then you’ll be rewarded with a deeply unsettling third act, and a chillingly ambiguous ending that might steal away more sleep than the original movie.

Clarke is solid, if a little restrained, as Louis, a man of science whose brain might melt in the face of every illogical thing he’s seeing. Seimetz and Lithgow both perfectly capture the devastation of finding out that trying to be a good person won’t save you from terrible things. The key player in this, however, is Laurence as Ellie, a character that mostly acted as a reluctant harbinger of doom in the book and original movie. While child actors in horror movies are often required to do little more than react to things, Laurence gets a chance to stretch herself in a way that’s challenging to adult actors. You won’t likely forget her any time soon.

Horror fans are a fickle bunch, and there will almost certainly be some who complain about the changes, and how the first Pet Sematary is an un-besmirchable classic (it isn’t, it’s just fine). The new one is not without its flaws (too much reliance on jump scares, a silly scene near the beginning where the local children participate in some sort of Victorian funeral procession), but it’s respectful to the source material, both on page and screen. There’s no “this ain’t your daddy’s Pet Sematary” happening here. It’s still, ultimately, about grief, and the most unimaginable thing happening to a family. The message remains intact: it doesn’t matter if you can’t bring yourself to face the idea of death and mortality. It’s coming for you either way.

Pet Sematary Trailer

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