Originally adapted to film from the pages of Stephen King’s novel in April of 1989 by director Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary II), Pet Sematary became an instant horror classic among many genre fanatics. With King penning the screenplay and making a cameo appearance, the film went on to earn one award and garner five nominations.
While this grim story of life and death has been held high in regards by some die hard horror circles, it is one that I have always placed on the bottom rung of horror classics. While the overall story plot has always appealed to my creepy nature, I found some details to be weaker than a corpse buried six feet under.
When I first saw the trailer to the recent remake released on the film’s 30th anniversary, my interest was peaked, to say the least. Creepy kids marching through the woods to the harsh, eerie beat of a snare drum donning homemade animal masks? This was surely one film that could surpass the original. Then came the second trailer revealing an appalling deviation from the original story.
Aware of the instant criticism, I managed to avoid the second preview as well as any and all spoilers thereby keeping hope alive that my expectations would be met. “Sometimes dead is better,” reads the story’s most recognized line. Is that the case for this reenvisioning? Were my expectations met or exceeded? Or was this one better left dead and buried? Let’s dig a little deeper and give the 2019 release of Pet Sematary a biopsy for further analysis.
Opening with Doctor Louis Creed moving his wife, Rachel, and two kids, Ellie and Gage, into the family’s new home, the remake’s overall story remains the same. The Creed family is warmly greeted by their elderly neighbor, Jud Crandall. Having lived his entire life in the area, Jud gets his new neighbors acquainted with the surroundings including the cemetery for pets brandishing a sign with the misspelled name “Pet Sematary.” The family’s cat, Church, dies and is brought back to life after Jud shows Louis the burial spot beyond the pet cemetery. However, the animal isn’t itself when it returns to the land of the living – and when Louis’ child is killed in an accident, he attempts the same thing out of desperation and grief despite the warnings of a ghost named Pascow. What comes back is a deadly, soulless abomination.
For me, the original film always felt clunky as it struggled to unfold a story surrounding the creepy cemetery and its sour grounds while interjecting subplots. The flow of the Creed family beginning a new life, Church’s unholy resurrection and Rachel’s backstory of a troubled past and the tragic loss of her sickly sister just seemed disjointed. Judging by the way the remake unfolds with noticeable deviations from the original, the screenplay writers and directors who brought Pet Sematary back to life may have felt the same as me. However, not all changes are always good.
Helping to reshape this tale of terror is Matt Greenberg who also penned the script for the 2007 onscreen adaptation of Stephen King’s novel 1408. Joining Greenberg’s return to King’s world of horror is Jeff Buhler who is also no stranger to onscreen adaptations of horror novels. Having developed legendary horror author Clive Barker’s short story, The Midnight Meat Train into a script for film, Buhler is another talent who helped sharpen the creepy edges of Pet Sematary 2019. Together, the two writers paired their creativity with the award-winning director duo, Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch, who are best known for their critically acclaimed 2014 film Starry Eyes. Combining their creative visions of the macabre, this team brought forth a plot that unravels more fluently than the film’s predecessor. By introducing the cemetery in a much more suspenseful and mystical way while carefully interweaving Rachel’s backstory surrounding the death of her sister, the film never loses the intended focus of coping with the loss of life.
Crucial to maintaining the film’s focus are the performances along with some changes within the story. Although Dale Midkiff (The Crow: Salvation) and Denise Crosby (Deep Impact) were both exceptional in their respective roles of Louis and Rachel, Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Terminator: Genisys) and Amy Seimetz (You’re Next, Alien: Covenant) brought more to the remake’s characters. This was helped along with better development in the story itself. For example, the remake seems to communicate more clearly Rachel’s own struggle with death while highlighting varying beliefs of an afterlife between her and her husband, Louis, as they talk about the subject with their child, Ellie (Jete Laurence: The Snowman). As an added bonus, there are no over-dramatic, slow motion cries of “get the baby!” which I found to be slightly annoying in the original.
Other phenomenal performances in this reenvisioning is John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun, Dextor) who not only surpasses Fred Gwynne’s outstanding performance as Jud in the original, but steals the screen with every appearance. Laurence gives an incredible portrayal of Ellie, which becomes a more complex role than expected. And as for Gage? Let’s just say this was a much smaller role than Pet Sematary‘s first adaptation.
If you have seen the film or the trailer spoiling a major deviation from the original film, you will know that Gage, a role that was originally played so well by Miko Hughes (Kindergarten Cop, Mercury Rising), is not the character who is tragically killed by an oncoming semi truck. Rather than kill off a toddler and bring him back to life as the living dead, Pet Sematary 2019 reserves this pivotal part in the film for Ellie. Having an older child rise from the dead actually makes more sense because it just seems more threatening. However, this ironically seemed to be where the film began to fall apart.
Though choosing to kill and resurrect Ellie held much potential, the eerie mystery was mostly lost when it’s revealed that she is aware of her death. It is then implied that we are now dealing with a wendigo. However, if you are aware of the mythical creature, you will know that does not match the folklore of the flesh-eating evil spirit, which isn’t a characteristic portrayed in the film. While I appreciate this attempt at an explanation for the pet cemetery’s sour grounds that resurrect the dead, I believe the story may have been better served with no explanation since it is the unknown that can truly be frightening.
Another alteration from the original story that works in the remake’s favor is that Jud seems to be realizing the cemetery sour ground’s real danger for the first time. Personally, it never quite made sense as to why Jud would take Louis to the sour grounds to bury the Creed family cat knowing what will come back to life. Not only does the remake suggest that Jud doesn’t know the dangers, but the cemetery has an alluring power that takes hold of your grief.
Finally, the most startling deviation from Pet Sematary‘s original adaptation is Pet Sematary 2019‘s biggest downfall. Whereas the original film ended by capturing a strong sense of grief-stricken desperation, the remake went a different direction. The audience will likely response with a sense of dreadful alarm to the final scene, but it still lacks something powerful that the original was able to execute so well.
Succeeding where the original fell short and falling short where the original succeeded, it is easy to see why Pet Sematary 2019 is getting such mixed responses from audiences everywhere. Good and bad changes aside, this reenvisioning fell short of my personal hopes for a remake to surpass the original. However, with such a good buildup of mystery and suspense riddled with more jump scares and eerie scenes, this remake is an enjoyable piece that I simply wish would have been better.