Pet Sematary (2019) Directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer. A family living in a new home discovers a mysterious woodland burial ground, with terrifying results.
Meet the Creed family: father Louis (Jason Clarke), mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz), 9-year old daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence), 3-year old son Gage (twins Hugh and Lucas Lavoie) and one supremely sweet and loving cat named Church. When we begin following their story, they’re moving from the big city of Boston to a pastoral existence in the tiny Maine town of Ludlow. Louis, a doctor, takes up a residency at a local university hospital while Rachel stays at home with Gage and Ellie.
One afternoon, Ellie follows a funeral procession of masked children carting a dead dog into the forest. She discovers a strange burial site labeled ‘Pet Sematary’ and beyond it, an area made inaccessible by a massive wall of downed branches. As she begins to climb the barrier, the curious girl is warned off by local Jud Crandall (John Lithgow). He tells her that place wasn’t meant for man, and then shows her the grave of his long-dead dog, Biff. Over the course of the film, Jud and Ellie bond. He’s haunted and somewhat reticent to socialize, and she’s vivacious and upbeat. Her effervescent spirit awakens him and changes him. Ellie draws Jud to the Creeds, and they become close. Church, who loves everyone, climbs into Jud’s lap upon first meeting him.
Rachel is haunted by visions of her dead sister Zelda, who was afflicted with disfiguring spinal meningitis and died an untimely death. As fans know, the Zelda scenes remain the stand out creep factor of the original 1989 film. They just don’t work that way here. This Zelda seems more sympathetic and completely lacking in menace. She’s just a victim with a twisted body, which puts a damper on any chills we might’ve gotten from her. The fact that we feel bad for Zelda also serves to make Rachel’s childhood actions more selfish and monstrous.
Part of the problem is that Rachel tells Louis that her sister wanted her to get meningitis and be confined to a bed, but we don’t SEE Zelda actually saying it or doing anything else spiteful. At one point, Rachel has a vivid hallucination of Zelda emerging from the bathroom medicine cabinet. We’re meant to fear her as we do other notable female ghouls and ghosts, but I still felt for her.
Rather than covering my eyes in horror, I simply thought: Jeez, I hope she’s okay in that confined space. Somebody get her out of that medicine cabinet. I think she’s stuck.
At work, Louis tries to save the life of a hit and run victim and college student named Victor Pascow. As soon as we see the boy, it’s pretty apparent that he ain’t gonna make it. His brain is exposed and it looks like he went through a wheat thresher. After dying on the hospital table, Pascow immediately returns as drooling phantom who warns Louis about breaking the barrier. The character lacks the vague undercurrent of gallows humor he had in the original. This Pascow drools blood and delivers cryptic prophecies without a hint of personality or pathos. He’s not frightening or droll. He’s just there.
On Halloween, Louis discovers that Church has been fatally hit by one of the many speeding 18-wheelers that fly down the rural backroads. Jud suggests burying the cat quickly in secret and telling Ellie it ran away into the woods. That night, the two men venture through horror movie fog banks and lightning to put Church to rest. The ancient spirits of the forest force Jud to lead Louis to the place beyond the barrier, to a secret hilltop burial site. There, Church’s mangled body is finally interred in strange soil.
The next morning, the cat returns through Ellie’s bedroom window completely covered in dried blood and looking like a mechanic’s heavily used grease rag. Never mind that the undead feline now loves hiding in the darkness of Ellie’s bedroom closet and hissing at anyone who approaches, or that it bites every single member of the Creed family in order from oldest to youngest. Ellie is just happy to have her newly grumpy fur baby back. Sure, Church stands on Gage’s tiny chest as the boy sleeps and tries to prevent him from breathing. And okay, he interrupts Louis and Rachel’s lovemaking by devouring the entrails of a still living bird on their bed.
What pet is perfect?
At one point, Rachel’s disgust with the spooky creature finally prompts Louis to drive the cat miles from the house and leave it in the woods. In what is hands down the remake’s coolest scene, Church returns home in a big way. And I mean BIG. The Creed’s daughter decides to overlook Church’s new features-he smells awful, his hateful eyes look like pallid moons and he despises everyone-and treat him normally. This results in some unintentional hilarity, such as when the girl attempts to groom the cat with a brush and his skin and fur begin flaking off with decay. You got eyes, kid?
As the trailers have made clear, Ellie is not long for this world. During her birthday party, a tragic and quite insane accident claims her young life. The scene offers a nod to the original with a bit involving Gage and the truck. Driven mad with grief, Louis buries Ellie in the soil of the eerie plateau beyond the Sematary. She reanimates as a grey-skinned ghoul with one drooping eye, a raspy voice and a very bad attitude.
At first, Ellie is content to simply destroy things in the house and put on the ballet outfit she was buried in to perform a grotesque and violent parody of her former graceful routine. The directors stated that they made Ellie the zombie (rather than Gage) because a 9-year old is far more aware of their surroundings and of family dynamics than a 3-year old. Evil Ellie is manipulative, deceitful and cunning in ways that Gage could never be. As in life, she is joined by Church. The child and the cat form an evil team that resorts to murder amazingly quickly.
“Remember when Daddy said there was no afterlife? He was wrong. You’re going there soon, Mommy. But it isn’t Heaven.”
Comforting! Suffice to say that the new film’s ending deviates from both the novel and the original film. I enjoyed it as a final morbid statement to stick in your brain as you leave the theatre. Now, let’s break it down into what works and what doesn’t.
Actress Jete Laurence is excellent as Ellie. The key to a good Pet Sematary performance is to make the character likable and endearing before they go into the ground and show up again as a joyless phantom. We need to see the contrast between the two personalities, and Jete pulls it off.
The accident in which Ellie bites the dust has been cranked up to 11. Gone are the days when a child being struck by a speeding truck’s bumper was enough. Here, we get some Michael Bay-meets-Final Destination craziness. It’s fun.
Church, Church and more Church. Regrettably, there is no Oscar category for Best Hissing By A Supporting Actor. Whether he’s lurking in the basement shadows or glowering at Louis from the kitchen counter as the doctor gets a midnight snack, the nasty kitty steals the show.
Amy Seimetz is good as Rachel, primarily because the character is given the natural reaction to the terrible events. When she sees Evil Ellie, she is sickened and horrified by the pantomime of her daughter. Meanwhile, Louis is hugging the corpse kid and ignoring the fact that you can see the girl’s veins through the grey skin of her face. You want smart, believable protagonists in these movies. You could make the argument that all horror films involve people making stupid decisions, but the truly great ones involve intelligent heroes making smart moves against seemingly invincible enemies and hopeless odds. The audience doesn’t want their intelligence insulted.
The final moments contain some strong images and implications.
Although I like both John Lithgow and Jason Clarke, they just don’t register here.
Clarke is known for playing extremely intelligent folks, good or evil, and this film asks him to check that at the door. Louis is portrayed as being too blinded by grief, and he clearly chooses not to see what a horror show Church came back as. Early on in the film, he is revealed as an analytical man of science and medicine who doesn’t believe in the Afterlife. Later, he apparently shuts off the analytical part of his brain when he sees the end result of the reanimating burial ground. I get that grief over the loss of a loved one and the desire to spend more time with them is powerful, but it just doesn’t play right.
John Lithgow has made a career out of playing eccentrics, both good and evil. And Jud Crandall could’ve used more of that quirky charm, because he’s both dull and kind of an idiot. He’s the sort of character who tells a story about how his childhood dog tried to slaughter his entire family after being reanimated and had to be killed again, and then says: “Welp, let’s go bury Ellie’s cat out there.”
Two of the infamous side characters, Zelda and Pascow, lack the dramatic impact they once had in previous incarnations. Zelda is too humanized as a sickly victim, and Pascow is too dehumanized into a blank-eyed exposition cannon that shoots out warnings about the barrier. No banter, no personality.
It isn’t particularly scary. There is some blood and mild gore, but I wouldn’t call it a hard R. As we know, blood and guts don’t make films scary. Tone and psychological dread do. The key to frightening an audience is to engage with their own internal fears and exploit them. A director or screenwriter can provide the groundwork, but it’s about meeting the minds of the audience halfway.
One of the reasons Stephen King is so successful as a storyteller is that he takes the things we love and makes them into our deadliest enemies.
“The Shining”: Daddy, who Danny looks up to, wants to kill us. “Cujo”: Our beloved gentle giant of a dog wants to kill us. “Christine”: Our gorgeous new ride, which increases our self-esteem and social status, wants to kill us. There is almost no one on the planet who hasn’t loved a father, a dog or a car. We can relate, which prompts emotional investment. And that’s what most of this new remake is missing. It has the ingredients to spark our investment, but they aren’t mixed in the right way.