IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 103 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
SPOILERS TO THOSE WHO HAVEN’T SEEN THE 1989 PET SEMATARY, THIS FILM’S TRAILER AND ONE OF ITS POSTERS!
Louis and Rachel Creed, plus their children Ellie and Gage, move from Boston to rural Ludlow, Maine, after Louis is offered a job as a doctor there. They soon discover that their house is very near to a pet cemetery. On his first day at work, Louis is shaken after he fails to save the life of Victor Pascow, a student hit by a bus. That night, he comes to him as a ghost and leads him to the Pet Sematary, warning him not to “venture beyond”. Their house is near a busy road though, and soon their cat Church is ran over and killed. Louis takes his neighbour Jud’s advice to bury it in a mystical burial ground. The next day, Church returns home alive, although he is notably more aggressive….
Did the 1989 Pet Sematary, my full review of which you can read here, need remaking in the first place? I guess the answer to that depends on how you view remakes in the first place. I would much prefer if they remade films that could be much improved on, though of course in the commercial world of filmmaking that rarely happens. Mary Lambert’s film does rather feel that it ends before the story has finished, and has some major inconsistencies in its storytelling, so it certainly has elements that could be made better, though for me its mood, atmosphere, scariness, emotional intensity and poignant look at death and grieving managed to atone for its flaws, and there are many weaker Stephen King adaptations that they could have had another go at in the wake of the huge success of It. But a second Pet Sematary is what we have, and without looking at other reviews [which I sometimes do just to try to get an idea of the overall response to a film] I have the feeling that it’s a film that the horror websites tend to like much more than more general reviews which I know have given a rather lukewarm response. I guess I’m kind of in the middle. Taken on its own it’s a decent horror movie, dark, intense and quite frightening, and it certainly makes a few improvements over the original, but it lacks much of its heart, often coming across like a ‘returnee’ itself, an evil facsimile of an original that lacks a soul. Of course we sadly live in times where full bodied emotion tends to be considered cheesy [have the robots already taken over?] so one understands why the remake is so devoid of feeling, but it means that one isn’t invited to care as much about what unfolds on screen.
But let’s not get too negative, at least this early, because there’s still a lot that this version does right while being just about different enough from its predecessor to justify its existence. I think that many fans of the original will have expected the general modus operandi to be to copy it, something that would be infuriating, pointless and not compelling at all to anybody who’s seen it [of course those who haven’t seen the original wouldn’t be aware of this and/or see it as a problem], and then interrupt it with sudden changes. The film would think that it’s being really clever by presenting the same set up to a memorable scene from the original, and then scream “gotcha” at you as it gave you a variation with a wink and a smile – but it would also become annoying and even very predictable despite the changes, because you will probably be able to work out what will happen even if you didn’t know them. And the film does do this, but thankfully nowhere near all the time, and is actually quite careful to follow the original story closely but also to tweak things continually in a manner where they often feel just as appropriate. For example, it’s not the whole family who discover the cemetery this time around, but just Rachel and Ellie discover the cemetery on their own.
The opening high angle pan over a forest and a burning house does immediately make for a sad contrast with the 1989 film’s beginning, us being taken around the pet cemetery while children’s voices whisper epitaphs. That was so haunting, sad and oddly beautiful, but there’s little chance of a film from 2019 beginning like that. And that early procession of those kids wearing the animal masks that’s partly seen in the trailer suggests an enticing Wicker Man-type element that’s the not followed through. Still, our family are generally well played – the 1989 film suffered from both of the most prominent female characters being poorly acted but this one only suffers from one poorly guided child actress, Jete Laurence, whose eyes track all over the place when standing in front of her family’s new home. And John Lithgow is as great as you would expect him to be, but unlike Fred Gwynne he’s not given much in the way of memorable lines, and there’s less sense of a developing relationship with the family. There’s a horrible piece of editing where Ellie asks Jud to come meet her cat, and then suddenly we cut to him having dinner with the whole family, like they’re missing a scene where Louis meets Jud. The speedier pace of this version was obviously necessary because the climax is much more extended, but in the process much of the humanity is lost. The major theme of how to tell children about death is reduced to very little. Yet I cannot deny that it’s often a case of apples or oranges because some things are improved. Victor’s nocturnal visit to Louis is far eerier and the character doesn’t thereafter turn into irritating comic relief in an attempt to mimic An American Werewolf In London. When only Gage then sees him, it’s properly upsetting, though this also goes nowhere – and if you think that this version will have taken some trouble to explain a lot of thing that go on then you’ll be sadly proven wrong!
So Church the cat is again killed by a truck, and it’s good that they chose a cute looking animal this time rather than the ugly mitt they picked before. A nice change is Jud reviving Church without Louis’s blessing, and when back from the dead he now doesn’t have those silly yellow eyes. There’s slightly more business with the now badly behaved zombie moggy than before, and then we get the film’s biggest change, which should really have been kept a secret. I’m still trying to figure out why on earth the producers chose to highlight Ellie’s death in the trailer. The actual scene is played out so well, expertly playing with audience expectations with such a huge deviation from the source material, that it would have probably resulted in a collective gasp from the audience when Ellie falls victim to the semi instead of Gage. Instead, it doesn’t elicit this reaction that it should, as most filmgoers know to expect it. Still, while her return from the grave isn’t anywhere near as unsettling as Gage’s shadow on that wall while he muttered those childlike sounds, Laurence’s unnatural performance works well for the part, and it’s nice that she’s a bit sympathetic in her early moments as a zombie, though we never see Louis regret bringing Ellie back, and don’t expect to feel the gut wrenching effect of having a father try to kill his own child. But there is an incredible little scene where Louis gives his living-dead daughter a bath is rather wonderful: it’s superbly creepy, sad and tender at the same time, and really comes from a much more emotionally involving film than this Pet Sematary, achieving a very strong and complex response from the viewer.
Jason Clarke’s samey [his character barely seems bothered by soul crushing loss] performance in the second half doesn’t help, and the flashbacks to Rachel’s sister Zelda who died from spinal meningitis when she was young won’t give anyone nightmares like before, but they do lead to an effectively nasty bit of body horror towards the end which might make you cringe. The sequences of suspense are very well achieved by directors Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch and, while I can see some complaining about the jump scares which do sometimes show a lack of faith in the source material, there’s less reliance on them than you may expect and most of them certainly worked for us lot in the auditorium. The settings are made more sinister, especially the Native American burial ground, and we still get some fog, though the pet cemetery has sadly lost much of the odd beauty it had before. There’s a real feeling of dread from about a third of the way though, aided by Christopher Young’s edgy score which is the best this master composer of horror scores has written in a while. Kudos to the filmmakers for not trying to lighten the mood, though there is a bit of very black humour here and there. But when the fate of the characters fails to have the impact it ought to, it means that the story has lost much of its purpose. People rarely act like actual people in this movie, they’re just chess pieces moved around for the sake of the plot. At one point one major character leaves home for no real reason, then returns for no reason other than that the plot needed this person to do so.
In the end though this Pet Sematary has nothing really major to be ashamed of if taken on its own. It does scare in places and is commendably bleak even though it sometimes holds back on things slightly more than Mary Lambert’s film. But, without sounding like an old fuddy duddy, it does stand as a good example of how films are generally [of course there are plenty of exceptions] becoming colder. And we get a particularly stupid, yet also rather old hat [it’s had many variations] ending which I’m sure I could hear other audience members groaning at. What was so wrong with King’s heartbreaking, tragic denouement [which was originally shot for the first version but not used] that for the second time around that they had to replace it with something so glib and which in this case barely makes any sense? But then they don’t want us to care too much do they?