I’m not sure exactly how I feel about Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s 2019 remake of Pet Sematary. It could have been legitimately terrifying, soul-pervading, chill-to-the-bone kind of horror movie that sticks with viewers for days. In the moment — as someone who had to drive home through the Maine backwoods at midnight after watching the film — I appreciated that the movie let up where it could have gone for broke, Heriditary style, but in the light of the day, I also feel like the film chickened out, going for B-movie scares instead of driving home its themes.
(I suppose I should say that if you know nothing about Pet Sematary from the Stephen King novel, or the 1989 movie, or if you haven’t seen the trailer, there are spoilers below).
Had those themes, particularly the grief over losing a child, driven the movie, Pet Sematary could have been the horror movie equivalent of Manchester by the Sea, and honestly, that’s the movie I found myself bracing against, the movie I found myself dreading the most. But in a good way. The way one dreads great horror movies. What’s remaining, however, is still a sufficiently scary horror movie, just not of the variety that will leave emotional scars (although, as in the original, Zelda is still goddamn haunting).
Jason Clarke plays Dr. Louis Creed, a Boston doctor who moves himself and his family to small-town Maine to run a small family practice that will allow him to spend more time with his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence), and toddler son, Gage (Hugh and Lucas Lavoie). What Dr. Creed does not anticipate, however, is finding that his house is on a patch of land that also holds a pet cemetery and, beyond that, a graveyard where the dead rise again.
Things go awry fairly immediately. They find that they live next to a road where a lot of 18-wheelers pass through, while the house itself triggers a lot of upsetting memories from Rachel’s childhood about her sister, Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine), memories that take the form of terrifying delusions (seriously, Zelda suuuuuucks, in a good way!) When the family cat is run over by one of those 18-wheelers, the neighbor Judd (John Lithgow) takes Dr. Creed “beyond the barrier” to the graveyard where the dead are returned to life.
(Again, spoilers for those not familiar with the Pet Sematary storyline)
Obviously, when the cat returns, it’s not the same — it’s grouchy and violent — and this is where the movie is best: That interim between the return of the cat and the moment we all know is coming — the death of Dr. Creed’s oldest daughter, Ellie. The anticipation surrounding that event — and Dr. Creed’s decision to bury her in the graveyard beyond the barrier — is where all the tension in the movie resides. Unfortunately, as soon as Ellie returns, most of the tension is let out, because instead of being a hideously creepy undead child that preys upon the grief of her parents, undead Ellie is more of the cartoonishly bloodthirsty variety and Pet Semetary devolves into fairly predictable horror-movie tropes.
That may actually be true of both the original movie and King’s novel — I honestly don’t remember, although I similarly remember the middle sections of those, with Zelda and the anticipatory dread — but the 2019 version had a real opportunity to go beyond that in ways that could have irreparably f*cked up its audience. It chose, instead, to go with knife fights and jump scares instead of really probing the emotional and psychological angles. Does that make it a bad remake? No, not really, but it does make it somewhat unnecessary,
Header Image Source: Di Bonaventura Pictures