Horror Review: Pet Sematary (2019)

Pet Sematary (2019)

Do you read Stephen King? If you do, you’re one of millions of Constant Readers around the globe who follow his work. Books like IT and The Shining are having a revival as the 1980s and 1990s nostalgia hits hard in pop culture, and and King remains in the public eye as an example of a horror author who transcended the genre constraint and proved horror can be meaningful– something we horror fans always knew but that literary critics often dismissed before directors like Stanley Kubrick and Mary Lambert got hold of his work. Now you can find articles guiding readers to his best work, and tips from the master of horror himself for up and coming writers. He’s part of the zeitgeist.

Updated visuals appeal to modern horror audiences, making this a strong year for Stephen King’s brand of horror.

This also means his books, many already made into dubious films, are being remade for modern audiences by fans. However, the original Pet Sematary (1989), directed by Mary Lambert, is considered by many a horror classic. Can the remake hold up? Does it offer anything new?

If you’re a horror fan you know the takeaway here: “Sometimes dead is better.” Jud Crandall’s famous line (delivered in this reimagining by John Lithgow instead of Fred Gwynne) is easy to quote but a hard pill to swallow, and none learn more harshly than Dr. Louis Creed.

This is probably Stephen King’s most unsettling book, and the original film adaptation, directed by Mary Lambert in 1989, has some cheesy moments but also some deeply unsettling filmography and pacing. It takes its time, and that is one of its biggest strengths. The problem in this new adaptation is that directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer struggle to balance their eagerness to get to the creepy scenes while also building that slow boiling tension. It doesn’t play out as well as it ought, and although there are some great moments and plenty of new stuff to keep most King fans happy, it’s also in too much of a hurry. Clocking in at 1 hour and 41 minutes, it’s clear that the film was unfairly cut for time.

The acting is fantastic, especially Jeté Laurence as Ellie and John Lithgow following up Fred Gwynne’s classic performance as Jud. It’s a creepy horror film that offers new scares and some great moments, though not quite enough to fully build the creeping dread that pervades King’s seminal novel.

Warning: Spoilers!

The movie starts by foreshadowing what’s coming, much as King’s novel does. It’s a good choice because this film, like the book, works to highlight the tragic nature of the tale from the start. The problem is that the beginning of the film doesn’t build the tension it should have, mostly due to some flat camera work. It starts getting good when Ellie discovers the Pet Semetary and meets Jud Crandall. These two actors carry the film more than I expected, and it’s great to watch them work off each other in their shared scenes.

Am I mad about the major twist: that Ellie is hit by the truck instead of Gage? No. In rescuing Gage, Louis accidentally ensures Ellie is hit instead. No choice is the right one, and the family is already doomed from the moment they moved in. It’s actually a shocking moment despite the trailers giving this crucial piece of the film away: not nearly as gory and gut-wrenching as in the 1989 film, but it’s shot beautifully and really allows some great moments once Ellie is back among the living. Knowing her earlier fear of death, we see her forced to process that she herself is dead, but we never know if this is really Ellie or the spirit inhabiting her body manipulating Louis. Good stuff here, and it gets to the central philosophical struggle of the film over life, death, and whether anything awaits us afterward.

When I say it’s been cut for time, I mean it: there are some outstanding establishing shots of the town, nice nods to Derry, Maine (home of Pennywise the Dancing Clown), and some genuinely unsettling scenes both in the forest and in the Creed home. The sound enhances the scare factor nicely (listen to resurrected Chruch’s hiss and note the unsettling sound mixing for example), and some strong additions like the bones in Little God Swamp and recognition of The Wendigo make this new film stand out. The problem though is that there’s a lot of rushed exposition. For example, one of the most important roles Jud has is to pass along the knowledge of the burial ground beyond the deadfall to Louis. In the 1989 film, we see Jud’s memory of his resurrected dog Spot along with his narration – we see the dog return mean and both the fear it inspires and the culpability Jud feels at what’s he’s done. In this movie, though, Jud simply tells us about Spot, the wendigo, and the burial ground all in a span of maybe five minutes tops. If I hadn’t read the book or seen the first movie, where the flashbacks showed how much havoc the sour ground could cause, I’d have completely missed some of it. This felt like dialogue added in post-production to cut for time, and that is really upsetting considering how beloved this story is for horror fans. I’m betting here that there are a lot of scenes on the cutting room floor, and hopefully we’ll see an extended cut eventually.

Until then, though, this is definitely worth seeing. If you’re already passingly familiar with the story and the lore, it’s bonus fun.

Rating: 4/5

This full review was originally published for the online horror website Dead, Buried, and Back.

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