[Editor's Note: This article was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being discussed here wouldn't exist.]
Pet Sematary has long been one of my absolute favorites. It’s one of my favorite Stephen King books, it’s one of my favorite horror films; in fact (I’ve said this before, but one more time never hurts) it’s the film that got me hooked on horror when I was a kid. The story of a father who falls under the spell of an unearthly piece of land and will do anything to restore his family is one that has held my attention and imagination for years. And though the 2019 adaptation didn’t capture my nightmares the way the 1989 film has, I still thought it was a solid effort that would bring the story to another generation of movie audiences.
Pet Sematary: Bloodlines is a reimagining of the Timmy Bateman story that Jud told Lewis Creed in the original book and earlier films. It is a prequel to the 2019 adaptation, which puts the timeline during the Vietnam War. By updating it to the Vietnam era (and away from the World War II setting of the story as portrayed in the book and the 1989 film), we are still able to see a grief stricken Bill Baterman (David Duchovny) bury his son Timmy (Jack Mulhern), the fallen soldier, in the sour ground and set a series of horrific events into motion. The added benefit is that it provides a complex historical backdrop for our characters to inhabit.
Jud has managed to avoid being drafted, and in an effort to fulfill his desire to serve and to be a part of something bigger, he and his girlfriend Norma (Natalie Alyn Lind) are about to join the Peace Corps. Their plans are derailed when they bump into the recently resurrected Timmy on the way out of town and Norma is attacked by Timmy's dog, who has seemingly turned vicious overnight. When word begins to spread that Timmy is behaving strangely, violently even, it falls on a handful of families in the town of Ludlow, (including Jud's) to try to set things right.
One can argue that it's a story that doesn't really need to be told - it's a part of the original novel and has also been part of the adaptations. Audiences are aware of what happened in Jud’s youth. But director Lindsey Anderson Beer opted to use the story we have heard as a jumping off point and develop it into something new. During the Q&A following the film, she talked about a few specific lines and moments in the novel that had not yet been explored in the film adaptations. One in particular that called out Jud as “guardian of the woods.” She wanted her story to show how he came to be that way and what it means for the past and the future of the small town of Ludlow.
That approach definitely adds layers to the story. Without it, this could very easily have been a paint by numbers prequel that just goes through the motions, throws some undead cast members onscreen for a few minutes, and wraps it all up with Timmy’s house burning down.
That being said, the more layered story doesn’t fully save the film. Despite the thought that went into developing the script and the interesting beats that it takes, the film never rises past the level of being “fine.” The thoughtful additions and themes are there if you want to look for them and dissect them, but the finished product still rings a little hollow.
Is it terrible? Absolutely not. It’s worth a watch, especially if you’re a King fan and you’re looking to see the Pet Sematary story taken a little further. It’s a decent next chapter in the story. It’s just not going to get under your skin in the way that this story is known to. It has a couple of good scares and a few story problems. There are a handful of characters that are undeveloped and serve as little more than set dressing. The standout performance is from Forrest Goodluck (Blood Quantum and How to Blow up a Pipeline) as Manny, one of Jud's childhood friends. Henry Thomas and David Duchovny also do a good job in their roles as fathers of translating the fatigue of the der generation and wearing in a way that enhances the themes of the story.
Anderson Beer had a challenge in front of her in trying to bring the story to life in a way that we haven’t experienced before, and she filled in some of the gaps in interesting ways. She found new ways to explore the material and bring it to life. While Pet Sematary: Bloodlines won’t be the pinnacle of your Halloween viewing this year, it’s still worth taking a look.
Movie Score: 3/5