Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
Story by Matt Greenburg, Screenplay by Jeff Buhler
Starring Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, and Jeté Laurence
Reber’s Rating: B-
In the back of my mind the first words that I’ll always associate with Pet Sematary is Miko Hughes saying “No fair, no fair” on loop. Sure, Mary Lambert’s original hasn’t aged well in some parts but is still wildly adored. Stephen King himself wrote the script and requested that Paramount adhere to the words he had written into the screenplay. The studio obliged, though parts of his script ended up on the cutting room floor. Still the cast was spot on, the story was nearly lifted neatly from the novel, and Miko Hughes was creepy as the resurrected Gage. Sure, he was cute as a button in Kindergarten Cop, but absolutely terrifying as a killer child.
Thanks to Andy Muschietti’s It two years ago (with the sequel due early this fall) Stephen King is enjoying a fruitful late-career boost. Remakes are inevitable, some of which are necessary. Look, I love 1994’s The Stand mini-series but a bigger budget will mightily improve the CBS All Access reboot next year. The toll came due for Pet Sematary, one of King’s more haunting novels that even scared him more than he anticipated. King doesn’t easily give his seal of approval on completed projects much, save for the occasion surprise like Netflix’s 1922 and Hulu’s Castle Rock. Yet, the prolific author gave a lukewarm blessing on this reboot for changing up the story to surprise audiences, hoping to invest audiences with the characters who are more flesh and blood than can understood.
I’m glad that the anticipation for Pet Sematary has hit such a fever pitch. Hell, even I admit I was all-in on seeing this reboot. Mary Lambert’s version scared the bejesus out of me as a child and I was hoping for more twisted insanity the second time around. Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, alongside screenwriter Jeff Buhler, have a flair of the morose and frightful for most of their vision. For the first two acts there is a movie that is more capable and hair-raising than most of its genre counterparts. Then we reach the third act, a by-the-numbers downward spiral towards the finale that leaves you giggling more than gripping your seat and capped by an ending that’s more tongue in cheek and ironic than consigning a sense of dread.
A remake that isn’t fully above the original? Oh no, that would never happen. Pet Sematary aims for the greatness of It but instead feels more like a made-for-Netflix film, trying to flip the script to keep audiences on their toes yet unable to shake free from the shadow of the original.
Pet Sematary starts off better than I expected too, much in part to Jeff Buhler’s understanding of the source material. King penned the novel when his daughter’s cat was killed alongside the busy stretch of road by his then-home. The remake, much like the book, devotes much of the beginning in bringing life to our protagonists. Like most of King’s characters the Creed family are relatable flesh-and-blood creations that we can identify with one way or another. Rather than diving directly into the plot Kölsch and Widmyer instead take the time to deepen our empathy with Louis and Rachel, to the point where we can relate with one or the other. Louis, a rational man of science, is devoted to his craft and uproots from the hustle-and-bustle of Boston to the sticks to be a better father. Rachel, a believer in both Heaven and Hell, is haunted by a childhood incident and prefers to be in civilization than the quiet countryside.
Pet Sematary is ultimately a tale about how we deal with mortality. Death is around us wherever we go, but how to perceive the afterlife is what divides Louis and Rachel. Louis is around death every day as a doctor, lacking belief that there is another place we go when we pass on from this world. Rachel, on the other hand, is convinced there is a place the soul is sent when we’ve had our last breath. They want their children to be raised not worrying about death every waking moment. Confronting the notion of dying doesn’t phase Louis in the slightest. Rachel remains traumatized by the incident involving her sister Zelda, afflicted with a disease that twisted her bone structure. The manner in which the husband and wife confront the afterlife makes for tense drama, Louis having no concern over our metabolism ticking away silently. The way they address Church’s death is what kickstarts their eventual descent into cataclysm.
The first half of the movie is rife with enough terrifying and tense moments that creep up when you least expect to be stirred. The boo scares work at the right moments, the music rising to crescendo and our core characters intrigued by the stillness of the serene setting around them. Maine is nothing like Boston, far more ominous and seeded by pagan rituals taken up by the town’s youngsters. Though the gore is very light, even less gruesome than other horror entries this year, the macabre leaves an indelible mark and will make you squirm. The resurrected are a gnarly matted mess, their disfigurements more gruesome than the chaos each leaves in their wake. Including the machinations of the fearful wendigo and how its twisted core can sour and mesmerize an individual make for better drama than the original too. To fathom Louis’ transformation from doting husband to obsessed loon is a step above Lambert’s original.
Of course, the seedier parts are all part of that first half. Pet Sematary starts to lose its focus the moment that Ellie meets her demise to the tanker truck. I would say this is a spoiler alert but, c’mon, the trailer gives that away and then some. For the last half we go into a painfully familiar remake that follows closely to the novel but was already brought to life before. Stephen King adapted his own novel for the 1989 film and, in this case, the sequences involving the killer resurrected child are near the same. Kölsch and Widmyer don’t bother fixing the back half of the film, save for the twist in killing Ellie instead of Gage. Sure, a dead-ish nine-year-old should make for more chills but an older child has language formed. They may be able to speak in full sentences and know what they’re saying, yet something of an innocuous toddler who can’t talk too well makes for better tension. An innocent-looking yet murderous two-year-old will scare me far more than a nine-year-old who knows ballet.
Some of the changes that Kölsch and Widmyer make also miss their mark too. There’s a time to change things to keep audiences guessing, but their changes don’t really add much value. Actor Brad Greenquist, who portray Victor Pascow in the 1989 original, made for a great ghoul to coerce Louis Creed away from the grave site, a ghastly shape caught between worlds. While Victor Pascow makes the occasional appearance in the remake, the sequences seem more like a vivid nightmare Louis thinks is rooted in his mind. Sure, the change fuels Louis’ descent into madness, but lacks real substance to add to the story. And, aside from making Ellie the dead-ish fright instead of Gage, changing the entire ending is a bit jarring too. King’s novel and Lambert’s version ended the only way possible. The shock ending is what laid the foundation for many other genre films, the grief so overwhelming that our protagonist has no choice but to succumb to their blinded senses. Instead the entire finale here is flipped upside down, a bit too clever and ironic for its own good while feeling borrowed from another film. This isn’t a Romero film and this property deserves better.
I get that Kölsch and Widmyer tried to take a movie that is still wildly appreciated and put a new spin on the material. Pet Sematary makes for an excellent character study in loss, grief, and how one handles death in their own lives. The cast makes the characters their own too, with deeper and richer portrayals than I anticipated. Sometimes a remake should keep crowds truly guessing what will happen next. When those sitting around you are laughing instead of jumping out of their skin, then something’s amiss. Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, and Miko Hughes have nothing to worry about. Their film came first and will always be the better version, with 2019’s Pet Sematary is worth a matinee. Let this serve as a lesson though – this is why Stephen King still knows his properties best.