SXSW Review: ‘Pet Sematary’ is Resurrected, but Doesn't Come Back Quite Right
The film was screened for the SXSW 2019 Closing Night. This review contains spoilers for the 1989 and 2019 films.
Much of the popularization of American horror cinema over the past 50 years could never have happened without the imagination of one man sitting at a typewriter in Maine. Stephen King’s body of work has frightened and transfixed readers, inspiring dozens of film adaptations which have gone on to conjure up many more nightmares for audiences. In 1989, Mary Lambert directed Pet Sematary, King’s terrifying story of familial loss, and now, 30 years later, the novel is given new life by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch.
The Pet Sematary narrative opens on an idyllic new beginning for the Creed family as they move to a small town. Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), their two young children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Lucas and Hugo Lavoie), and the family cat Winston Churchill embrace their home and the surrounding woodland and befriend their senior neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow). Their newfound tranquility is immediately interrupted by semi-trucks that roar down the adjacent road at top speeds and the discovery that their property hosts a graveyard for the town’s pets, kicking off a series of sinister portents. One day at work, Louis fails to save the life of a man named Victor Pascow after a horrible accident, and from then on, the mangled corpse rises again for only Louis to see, haunting him with messages warning about the woods beyond the pet cemetery. A truck strikes down Church, and when Louis cannot admit to his daughter her cat’s fate, Jud leads him past the pet cemetery, over a deadfall of trees, and into an ancient burial ground. Ignoring Pascow’s omens that the ground there has gone “sour,” Louis buries Church. Though the cat returns to the family home by morning, he is not the same affectionate feline they once knew. When an even more unimaginable tragedy then befalls the family, Louis crosses the deadfall again to bring his daughter back from the grave.
King’s story is a phenomenal basis for a horror film, and to a certain extent, it’s hard to go wrong. Widyer and Kölsch have a decent grasp on themes that create tangible fear. Like all good horror, the fear is derived from anxieties that are innately human. The evil lives in the characters’ hearts as guilt and grief, and their weaknesses and decisions are what ultimately doom them. Louis believes there is no afterlife, but springs at the opportunity to right his failures as a father. He plays fate and bends life and death to his will, unconscious of the consequences of his transgression. For his violation of fate, his deepest desire is achieved, but with a horrible catch: it isn’t his sweet little girl any more.
And Louis isn’t the only one haunted by the guilt of loss. Rachel is given more screen time than the 1989 version to investigate her own backstory. She blames herself for the death of her disfigured and ill sister Zelda when they were young. Rachel never outgrew the terror she felt having to care for her, admitting she wished Zelda would die, only for that desperate hope to later be fulfilled. Zelda’s reimagining is much scarier and in the forefront here than in the prior iteration, doubling down on the trauma of the incident. It feels true to the kind of fear a child would have regarding pain and sickness, a dark unknown that has literally twisted her sibling. And worse, Zelda is resentful and vitriolic, cursing Rachel to one day feel that same agony she does. The film employs discrete flashbacks, but what is most frightening is the sense of psychosis it creates. We hear and see Zelda’s presence in the Creed’s new home, blurring Rachel’s reality in a way that sympathizes the audience to her terror. She could be behind any door, causing the bumps and creaks in the old house. It’s the knowledge that she is to blame for this harrowing, inescapable haunting in her home.
By far the most significant change in the narrative is Widyer and Kölsch’s switch from Gage’s death to Ellie’s. While it was a substantial risk, the decision thematically pays off. In the premier’s post-film Q&A session, the pair of directors explained the bold choice was made to explore how an older and more cognitive child would respond to their death and return. Additionally, to recreate the adorable yet chilling performances of toddler Miko Hughes as Gage in 1987 would be far too difficult. The manner by which Louis shelters Ellie from the concept of mortality allows for a much more meaningful reckoning. In establishing her friendship with Jud, the impact of their final encounter is heightened as well. Laurence is a wonderfully creepy young Ellie, deteriorating from a sweet and curious child to a feral creature out for blood. The bold choice pays off to make the film more complicated and disturbing.
In examining what has been gained from this updated retelling, there is no avoiding the sacrifices as well. One major infraction is its explanation of the narrative world. Pieces of essential exposition have been cut, leaving holes that would confuse anyone not well familiarized with the 1889 film or original novel. It’s far too easy to miss the connection that the pet cemetery exists because of the semi-trucks, which is critical information to grounding the environment. This film also slacks on justification for the indigenous burial ground, which in other versions is identified as MicMac. Pet Sematary and Stephen King have always had an issue with appropriating and mythicizing Native American lore with the Wendigo, but in this instance it is especially generalized and simplified for easy use. The film entirely drops Jud’s story of the last time a mourning parent resurrected their child, leading to chaos and fatalities in the town. Beyond all of that, the character of Pascow is relegated to the background rather than the driving conscience of the story. His personality has been replaced by some ominous lines, hardly given a second thought. By rushing through proper explanations and disregarding the main moral compass of the film, it leaves the events feeling baseless and shallow.
Problems with writing don’t end there. The film searches for a proper tone for the entire first half, quite possibly a result of its diminished exposition. It can’t seem to decide wither or not it wants to play the horror straight or inject some poorly timed comedy to ease the tension. What happens is that when the film reaches Ellie’s death, the audience is blindsided by the sudden gravity of the situation and must reevaluate everything leading up to it. The modernization of the script clashes with King’s sensibilities at every turn, frequently undercutting dialog. Lines directly lifted from the book stand out like black eyes amidst the sloppiness, it seems the directors don’t really understand anything about the soil of a man’s heart, but it wouldn’t be Pet Sematary without it. It’s clear that in putting their own signature on the project, Widmyer and Kölsch lost the point.
With this hackneyed direction, the performances simply cannot carry the themes and impact of the story as successfully. Compared to Toni Collette’s extraordinary physicality in last year’s Hereditary, Amy Seimetz and Jason Clarke hardly register on camera as distraught parents. Compared to their child and cat costars, they’re going through the motions, cashing their checks, and barely delivering. The hysterics of the moment never quite arrived in full force, and these glaringly underwhelming reactions reduce some genuinely unsettling sequences. Even my beloved Church isn’t as compelling as before. Without his iconic and otherworldly eye shine and rumbling growl, he seems rather grumpy instead of an unholy abomination back from the dead.
In comparison to Mary Lambert’s film, what seems to be the stumbling point for this remake is the loss of the female gaze. Lambert’s perspective is more nuanced with the Creeds’ relationships, demonstrating a grasp on their emotional states that is lacking in this updated version. The moment this difference became apparent was when Widmyer and Kölsch got into describing their work during the SXSW Q&A, uttering the phrase “elevated horror.” It suddenly made sense that these two men had set out to revise the work of a woman for vanity’s sake, and in the process failed to tell a cohesive story. The ongoing problem of trying to ‘elevate’ the genre seems to be the result of a superiority complex to the subversive themes and gore of slashers and earlier horror. The “elevation” usually just means more distribution and appeal to wider audiences, while rejecting how the genre grew outside of the mainstream. Alienating these roots is ridiculous and self-righteous, especially when it’s with a Stephen King property, for Christ’s sake. In a time that horror is at its most popular, the wrong move is to allow egotism to distance oneself from the source material. Ironically, the film boasts zero experimentation on form or technical achievement. It’s played so safe in fact that it mimics some of Lambert’s shots to a T, down to a depressing cover of the Ramones played over the credits. In truth, it hasn’t been so much elevated as zombified.
I will forever love the horror story of Pet Sematary. It’s one of the concise and deftly written pieces that King has produced in his extensive career, and it reverberates with such lingering dread and pain that even this rocky interpretation carries some value. I’m not sure why this current cultural obsession with the need to update good film has touched this corner of the genre, but Pet Sematary has little new or interesting to say about the themes of horror that haven’t been accomplished before. I hate point it out, but the irony of this remake bearing the tagline “sometimes dead is better” is just asking for it.