For their cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (I’m not calling this a remake, because there is more than one way to adapt literary source material), Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer perfectly tap into all the inherent darkness that exists on the pages of King’s popular novel, but then the duo completely circumvents any and all expectations of where things are headed as they build towards the film’s jaw-dropping final moments, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I think the ending of Pet Sematary (2019) is a much stronger gut punch than what we get from King’s book. Blasphemy, I know, but if you didn’t think aspects of this story could possibly get any darker than they already were, both Kölsch and Widmyer are here to prove you wrong, and I was absolutely thrilled with the results.
Most of Pet Sematary (2019) follows along with the familiar beats of the novel: Doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) decides to move his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their kids Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) out to Ludlow, Maine as a means to enjoy a quieter life and get back to being a family again. At first, things are great in their new idyllic small-town life, especially after they befriend their kindly older neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow). Days pass, the Creeds settle into their familial routines, but tragedy strikes on Halloween when Ellie’s beloved cat Church is found dead on the side of the road. Instead of just putting the mangled animal to rest in the “Pet Sematary” like so many others have in the past, Jud introduces Louis to a place beyond the titular locale where, if you bury something (or someone) in the dirt, it will be brought back to life and return to you in a far more unusual state than when you last saw it alive. And, of course, if you know anything about the story of Pet Sematary, you know that once Church comes back to wreak some zombie kitty havoc, things only get worse from there.
As someone who has been very immersed over the last few weeks in both the book Pet Sematary as well as Mary Lambert’s first adaptation, I will fully admit I was pretty curious to see what both Widmyer and Kölsch could possibly do with their take on the material, considering I felt like the novel’s story is so straightforward, and we already have a pretty faithful film version to boot, so how could you possibly find new storytelling areas to mine here? Well, leave it to the directors of Starry Eyes and screenwriter Jeff Buhler (who just recently penned the script for The Prodigy) to collectively say to horror fans, “Hold my beer,” because wow does this version perfectly tap into what makes the OG story so scary, but finds new and clever ways to twist some of the themes of Pet Sematary and take those ideas in a bold new direction. Diehard King fans may not be happy about it, but as someone who loves great horror stories regardless, I couldn’t have been happier with where this Pet Sematary’s story goes, because it is supremely dark and totally messed up.
To compare this film to Lambert’s feels wholly unnecessary, so if you’re looking for that kind of breakdown, this may not be the review for you. But in terms of how Pet Sematary (2019) compares to the 1983 novel, I do think Buhler’s script does a great job of hitting all the beats you’d want to see here, and also brings into the fold some of what we might not have seen from the previous film, including the existence of the Wendigo. Both Clarke and Seimetz are really good together as a couple looking to do right by their family, but the real revelation in this Pet Sematary is Laurence as Ellie, who delivers up an all-timer creepy kid performance in this, and it is easy to see just why the filmmakers decided to switch things up in terms of which of the Creed kids ends up getting buried in that unholy place. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of a tiny murderous toddler running amok will never not be horrifying, but as a whole, this change really adds so much to this adaptation and helps take the story into some very deeply disturbing places, and I’m so glad that the directors and screenwriter didn’t take the easy route whatsoever.
Oh, and it’s also worth mentioning that Church the cat in this Pet Sematary is absolutely badass and him being a demonic harbinger of death lurking at every corner adds another menacing note of terror to the film.
My only real issue with this Pet Sematary is that I do feel like the first two-thirds of the film just fly right by, so we don’t get a lot of time to settle in with everyone, and the character of Jud Crandall was also grossly underutilized as well. King’s original tale was really a story about stories, with so many of those coming from Jud because he’s a man who had pretty much seen it all in his 80-plus years living in Ludlow, and we don’t get nearly enough of that in this version, especially when Louis goes on a fact finding mission on the internet, as opposed to just having a conversation with his neighbor. It’s a minor quibble, though, but I think because Jud is a character that I had always loved (the way King frames him telling stories reminds me a lot of sitting on the front porch with my grandparents as a kid, where they would just talk and talk and talk about “the old days”), I was missing that kind of warmth from his character here, and he doesn’t feel nearly as emotionally involved in the story and with the Creeds as he had been previously.
But as a whole, both Kölsch and Widmyer have done an incredible job with their version of Pet Sematary, and while some diehard King aficionados may not be happy about the changes to the story, I think both directors, as well as the film’s screenwriter Buhler, should be applauded for taking some huge risks in favor of crafting a wholly visceral and terrifying new exploration of mortality and grief that stands out from the previous movie, but also King’s original material to boot. We’ve had so many different King adaptations over the last four decades (and many of them have been truly great), but I do think Pet Sematary (2019) is absolutely one of the finest we’ve seen to date, and proves there’s always room for new interpretations of his various literary works.
Movie Score: 4/5
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