A film review by Craig J. Koban April 27, 2019

PET SEMATARY (2019) jj

2019, R, 100 mins.


Jason Clarke as Louis Creed  /  Amy Seimetz as Rachel Creed  /  John Lithgow as Jud Crandall  /  Jeté Laurence as Ellie Creed  /  Lucas Lavoie as Gage Creed  /  Hugo Lavoie as Gage Creed  /  Obssa Ahmed as Victor Pascow

Directed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch  /  Written by Stephen KingJeff Buhler





I have vague memories of the original 1989 film adaptation of Stephen King's 1983 PET SEMATARY horror novel, which places me, I guess, in a somewhat advantageous place going into its modern remake of the same name without having any baggage.  

As to the number of changes and tweaks this Kevin Kolsch and Denis Widmyer directed version makes to the source material and the previous film iteration I cannot say, which allows for me to instead focus on how well this latest King inspired fright fest works on its own terms.  Outside of some committed performances by the ensemble cast and an atmosphere of lingering dread and unease throughout, this PET SEMATARY feels like just another obligatory horror release on pure genre autopilot that lacks lingering staying power. 

The film opens by introducing us to a kindly doctor, Louis Creed (the always dependable Jason Clarke), who's in the process of uprooting his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), daughter Ellie (Jet Laurence) and son Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) to the small rural Maine town of Ludlow away from the stressful hustle and bustle of big city life in Boston.  Their new home is large and lavish and includes a huge chunk of the surrounding woods.  They make friends with their new neighbor, Jud (a rock solid John Lithgow), with the latter forming a very quick and special bond with Ellie...and her cat Church.  Some initial creepiness settles in for the Creed family when they realize that a strange and ominous pet cemetery (misspelled on its sign, reflecting in the film's credits) with a cult like following resides alarmingly close to their quaint new home.  




Things get worse for this family when - during one fateful and nightmarish Halloween day - Ellie's prized kitty is accidentally run over by a massive semi truck.  Not being able to bare the thought of explaining this feline's death to his daughter, Louis and his wife decide to tell her that it ran away instead.  That nosy old codger in Jud has another fiendishly secretive plan in mind for Louis: Take the cat's bloody and mangled corpse to a ritual area just beyond the Pet Sematary and bury it, where then strange and unexplained mystical forces with resurrect Church so it can be back with Ellie.  Much to Louis' shock, the plan works, but Church is, rather predictably, not the same loveable cat that the family knew before, and when Louis begins to see hellish visions from beyond his normal plane of reality he begins to realize that he's opened a door to forces he can't control or understand. 

One thing that this new PET SEMATARY offers up is an unrelentingly dark tone and macabre sense of chilling atmosphere throughout.  This is a dreary film on multiple levels, and the directing tandem of Kolsch and Widmyer seem unafraid at harnessing the inherent depravity of King's novel (rather thankfully, this is not another lame and watered down PG-13 horror thriller that's desperately trying to be R; this film embraces its sometimes shocking ugliness like a badge of honor).  Then there's the manner that the film fosters - at least in the initial stages - an undulating sense impending doom and desperation.  Right from the get-go you gain an immediate sense that something is, well, off about the new surroundings for Louis and his clan, and there's this unnerving sensation of discovery that permeates the film.  I've read some referring to PET SEMATARY as a feel-bad movie, which is amusingly apt. 

The film also takes its time developing various subplots and characters, which usually far too many jump scare horror thrillers don't have time for.  There's a particularly disturbing arc involving Rachel and her ties to her mentally and physically disabled sister, whom she feels primarily responsible for in terms of being (in her mind) a leading factor in her death.  She's ravaged by notions of neglect and guilt, which manifests itself in multiple horrendous ways throughout the course of the film.  There's also the idea of Louis' steadfast atheism and how this pragmatic man of science mightily struggles with the vast supernatural occurrences that occur around him and his family that eventually can't be brushed off.  Lastly, PET SEMATARY is also a ghastly commentary on the unbreakable bond that people have with their beloved pets at how pet owners will stop at nothing to bring their little furballs back, even if it means starting a chain reaction of events that threatens their futures and lives.  King's story belongs on a long list of other genre stories about good and well meaning people desperately playing God with forces they can't comprehend, leading to horrendous side effects, 

All of this setup is pretty damn great, but I just wished the makers behind this new PET SEMATARY displayed a bit more confidence, creativity, and intelligence in telling this story.  Louis' aforementioned atheism is initially introduced as a would-be intriguing angle, but isn't developed as fully as it should have been throughout the course of the narrative.  And the script itself is riddled with an awful lot of logical gaffes that inspires multiple head shakes.  Take, for example, Church the cat post-resurrection.  For all intents and purposes, this cat is undead and acts like a possessed zombie.  Even the shrewd and analytic Louis understands this: what dies and then comes back via that Pet Sematary does not come back...properly.  This begs the question later on in the film when he faces the choice of having to bring another loved one back - this time human - back from the grave.  Why on earth would he do this after the ghoulish end results of the first resurrection with the family cat?  Then, of course, there's the hard to ignore idea that this family purchased their new home and lands without apparently doing a thorough check to ensure that (a) their new house would not be flanked by highways with threats of high speed traffic killing their inquisitive and wondering kids and (b) that it's not near a spooky gravesite.   

The answers to those and many other nagging questions that PET SEMATARY brings up is that we wouldn't have a movie otherwise.  At least the performances, as alluded to earlier, elevate the middling to average handling of the storyline, especially Clarke, who delivers a truly empowered and authentically layered performance that dabbles into unrelentingly grief, paranoia, and all out anxiety that's kind of thankless considering the outlandishness of the film built around him.  Seimetz and Laurence are equally effective in their mother/daughter roles respectively, especially the latter, seeing as her character has to take, shall we say, a taxing journey that requires the young actress to navigate some deeply unsettling terrain.  And the film closes with a sense of absolute bleakness that's commendable considering where the plot could have taken everyone.  But PET SEMATARY never emerges as being as memorably scary as it should have been, and the final product - even with decent acting and well realized production values - is more lamentably disjointed and undisciplined than awful.  Compared to the recent - and quite good - 2017 adaptation of King's IT, this one is a bit of a qualitative step down.  

At least PET SEMATARY preaches the importance of having a good and fully transparent realtor, so there's that positive and practical takeaway. 

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