The marketing team at Paramount tasked with promoting the studio’s new remake of “Pet Sematary” really left itself open for the ire of the internet with a simple, four-word tagline: “Sometimes dead is better.” As a remake of a novel adaptation that spawned a sequel, the opportunities for memes were boundless if this third try at the classic Stephen King story turned out to suck.
Luckily, it doesn’t suck. It’s pretty good, actually — a lot better than it has much right to be. It’s certainly better than the 1989 version (sorry, Fred Gwynne), and while most die-hard King fans, of which I am not, agree the newest iteration definitely doesn’t measure up to the novel, most of the King of Horror’s adaptations don’t. For what it is, 2019’s “Pet Sematary” works because of the two directors, Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch, and their vision to use the framework of one of King’s most popular works to examine a family’s grief from multiple angles. The pair’s point, it seems, is that our penchant for holding on too closely to the past will always end up being our downfall — kind of rich for a remake, but fine, I’ll bite.
FILM FACT BOX
Title: Pet Sematary
Directors: Dennis Widmyer, Kevin Kölsch
Cast: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jeté Laurence, Lucas Lavoie, Hugo Lavoie, Obssa Ahmed, Alyssa Brooke Levine
Writer: Jeff Buhler
Runtime: 100 minutes
“Pet Sematary” opens on the Creeds, the platonic ideal of the American family. You have the father, Louis, played here by Jason Clarke — or Jason Clah-ke, recycling the questionable New England accent he began in last year’s “Chappaquiddick.” Rachel (Amy Seimetz) is the Creeds’ emotional backbone, the family’s stay-at-home mom raising their two children, 9-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage, played in Full House, Olson twins style by youngsters Lucas and Hugo Lavoie.
Louis got sick of the hustle, bustle and emotional strain of working the graveyard shift at a hospital in Boston, so the family decided to move to the small town of Ludlow, Maine, to slow down and enjoy the finer things in life. On their property, Ellie stumbles across the Pet Sematary, a place where the local townsfolk gather to bury their dead pets. It’s there that Ellie meets Jud Crandall (John Lithgow, taking the role of “Crusty Old Man” from the 1989 version’s Gwynne), a kindly old man who takes a liking to the youngster, but, like, in a cute way.
The family’s cat, Church, beloved most by Ellie, gets hit by a semi-truck and dies by the side of the road. Louis and Jud conspire to bury the pet in the Pet Sematary after the sun goes down so Ellie is none the wiser and just assumes the cat ran away. Once they get to the Pet Sematary and pick out a final resting place for the deceased feline, Jud has another idea on how to give Church his final send-off.
As is wont to do with horror films, things start to get pretty weird from there.
For instance, perhaps the strangest thing about “Pet Sematary” is that the standout performance of the film, by a country mile, is given by a 12-year-old. Jeté Laurence absolutely destroys her role in the film, and honestly, she needed to for it to work. Most of the movie’s emotional weight and scare mileage rolls through Ellie, and Laurence gives sad monologues and creepy lectures with the same level of brilliance. It’s a shockingly seasoned horror performance from someone who only has five feature film acting credits under her belt — so far. Those last two words are important; Laurence’s work in “Pet Sematary” is Dafne Keen in “Logan” levels of good. Laurence’s performance should be more than enough to start securing more roles in the future.
As for the rest of the cast, no one does anything really noteworthy, but it’s a combination of their choices mixed with a script that trades off character development for simple, but effective, scares. Specifically, Amy Seimetz (“Lean on Pete”; “You’re Next”) could’ve really stood out in her role here. Rachel carries an unhealthy amount of guilt on her shoulders placed there by an unfairly traumatic childhood. Now, even some 30 years later, Rachel is trying to grapple with that guilt as she begins to raise a family, and her daughter is not helping by constantly asking her questions about death and human mortality. She decides to keep her young ones in the dark, instead opting to tell them we go to heaven when we die, but is that the best idea, or should she challenge her children from a young age to think critically about the way our lives end? Unfortunately, Rachel only deals with this admittedly poignant dilemma for the first 20 minutes of the film before it turns into a more straightforward horror story.
But that’s OK; the atmosphere Widmyer and Kölsch are able to manufacture with the help of Christopher Young’s droning, string-filled score and Ted Cherniawsky’s haunting production design is well above par. I’ve seen a lot of people wishing “Pet Sematary” was scarier, and I don’t know if I’m just growing weary in my old age, but I thought the horror aspects of the film were more than enough to carry it through some of its script’s lowest points. Most importantly, the scares, while sometimes a bit too jumpy for my tastes, feel earned, like they’re a logical next step in the story the film is telling us. They don’t just appear for no discernible purpose then scurry back from whence they came. They feel like they matter.
Also, no spoilers here, but the ending of the film is pleasantly surprising, daringly bold and knocked me even further back on my ass in my theater seat when the big, “holy shit” moment happened. It wasn’t expected at all, and it’s refreshing to see a chance taken in a studio film that previously hadn’t really strayed from the beaten path until then.
Widmyer and Kölsch clearly knew the story they wanted to tell and how they wanted to tell it. Despite a thin script, their eyes and ears for horror make “Pet Sematary” a damn good time, and one of the better horror remakes in recent memory. For once, I guess this one wasn’t better dead.
Cameron Hoover is a film critic. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.