[Review] Pet Sematary (2019)

I would hazard a guess that most people truly only remember specific moments from the 1989 Pet Sematary. The accident. The cat. Zelda. The Ramones. But fans of the original movie who may not have read the novel are missing out on the most important part of the story: the psychological and internal drama and trauma.

Sorry to say, but, like most adaptations of King’s books in the 80s, I’m not a fan of the original movie. It felt like a CliffsNotes version of the story. Everything about it felt manufactured and it lacked the internal logic that would lead Jud to recommend burying Church or that would lead Louis to bury his child, after seeing the monstrosity it created the first time. You see, there’s a pull in the Little God Swamp, more powerful than mere resurrection. And it wants out. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look at this latest reanimated monstrosity.

Hey ho, let’s go.

Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), their two children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie), and their cat Church (Leo, Tonic, Jager and JD) have moved from Boston to the sleepy town of Ludlow, Maine. Sleepy, except for the very loud road that passes just in front of their house with a variety of semi trucks, including the infamous Orinoco, racing past. They moved here to get a new start; Louis’ life as a graveyard shift doctor has strained their relationship and here, in Ludlow, he can work at the local university and spend more time at home.

The oddities start, even before they begin unpacking, as Rachel and Ellie encounter a procession of children, wearing freaky animals masks and carting a dead pet towards the titular Pet Sematary. Ellie sneaks out to see where they are going and encounters both the freaky deadfall and Jud (John Lithgow), their friendly neighbor. Louis’s life at the university starts with the death of student Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) and Ellie learns about the concept of death. It’s a subject that Rachel and Louis are divided on, particularly since Rachel’s experience as a child dealing with her sister’s death has traumatized her, to this day.

You probably know the rest of the setup. The first fatality is Church and Jud helps Louis bury the cat in the grounds beyond the deadfall. In an area that’s been soured, where things can return from the dead, but they are never the same. So, of course Church comes back...but he's different. Temperamental. Constantly matted and reeking of death. And then more tragedy strikes and Louis, pulled along by grief and the power emanating from the burial ground beyond the Pet Sematary, does the unthinkable.

It’s really difficult to discuss why I love this adaptation so much without basically spoiling the entire story, but I’ll try. I think the biggest reason is that this adaptation embraces the madness the novel reveled in. The benefit of the book—and Stephen King’s novels, in general—is that you spend 300+ pages inside Louis’s head. And King smartly utilizes that to its fullest. As The Little God Swamp and the Micmac burial ground pulls at Louis, we get to see the gears spinning in his head, as he tries to logically rationalize his decisions. And as he rationalizes, it pulls us along, as well. We become implicit in the horror because we can start to see the sick logic behind everything he does, even if you know it won’t end well. You have to try, right? It’s your kid.

And on a basic level, screenwriter Jeff Buhler seems to completely understand this and the themes King was exploring. The narrative spends a good amount of time establishing the characters and even pulls the rug out in a neat bait and switch that’s been spoiled by the trailers. When the dead child returns, he wisely allows us to see this transformation in all its terrifying glory before things go crazy. But even when things go completely bonkers and the narrative strays from the original plot points, he has the theme in mind. He even throws in a couple fan service moments, like a twist on the "Oz the gweat and tewwible" line. The way the story unfolds in the third act is a brilliant reversal of the novel and yet it nails the tone in ways few cinematic adaptations have.

Meanwhile, Starry Eyes directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, along with their cinematographer Laurie Rose (who also was the cinematographer on Kill List) give the movie an almost Gothic feel, further highlighting the differences between the town of Ludlow and this foreboding place. But they also pepper in some knowing winks to fans of the novel. For instance, at one point in King’s book, Louis ponders how the graveyard must look from an aerial view and here, they oblige, showing us the patterns developed by the cairns. They also nail the look of the deadfall, which King describes as climbing across bones at one point.

But more importantly they do something the original adaptation failed to do: they make the swamp a character. From when we first see the Pet Sematary, there’s almost a whisper that suggests the swamp is trying to beckon people over the deadfall. Jud even turns to it, as if it’s silently speaking to him. And I love the way Church’s burial is staged, as if Jud wanted to bury the cat in the Pet Sematary until the Little God Swamp got into him. It’s little things like this that tells me that filmmakers understand King.

Pet Sematary also gives the characters more meat to work with. Rachel is given a more sizeable role, whereas in the 89 version she felt like wallpaper. Judicious use of flashbacks really sells the horror she had to deal with, in her young relationship with her sick sister Zelda and the changes to that narrative really crunch, pun not intended, but thank you. And I cannot say enough about Jeté Laurence, who was absolutely thrilling to watch.

When you think about it, Pet Sematary is really the story of a nuclear, heteronomative family. A husband. A wife. Two kids, a boy and a girl. A cat. A perfect little family unit. High-paying job. Stay at home mom. And the conflict arises because the parents are trying so hard to keep this ideal going, no matter the cost. If that means dealing with a temperamental cat that has lost its graceful walk and gained a decaying stench, so be it. This adaptation doubles down on this idea, by stripping ancillary characters or reducing their roles (Rachel’s dad, for instance) in order to focus almost entirely on the Creed family.

I have been a Constant Reader since first reading The Eyes of the Dragon at the age of 9 or 10. So you might think that I would be beholden to the narratives, but you’d be wrong. Because, in my eyes, King’s work has never truly been about plots. They’ve been about themes and characters. So when movies make a plot point by plot point recreation, they tend to miss the important parts.

And that’s ultimately my problem with the 1989 adaptation, a film that hits the appropriate narrative beats, but felt heartless and turgid. Like Church reanimated, it went through the paces but was missing the original light that made it something more than, as Jud would say, a piece of meat. This new adaptation, meanwhile, roars to life. It’s one of my favorite King adaptations. And proves that sometimes dead isn’t better.

But that could just be the Pet Sematary talking.