Pet Sematary is my favorite Stephen King story so it was a no-brainer that the recent remake would be on my must-see list for 2019. The story about a grieving father finding a way to bring a dead child back from the dead – with dire consequences – is a simple premise, but a powerful one. I enjoyed the original 1989 film and was curious to see how the 2019 remake would be. I even made a point of seeing it at the nearest Arclight Cinema so I could watch the bonus interview footage after the credits with the directors and cast.
Plenty of remakes turn out to be real disappointments, some botched so badly you’re left questioning why an attempt was even made. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case for Pet Sematary, which honors the original without succumbing to cheap tricks for equally cheap scares. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The premise starts with all the familiar beats: Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) are driving to their new home in the small town of Ludlow, Maine with their children, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie & Lucas Lavoie) as well as their cat, Church. They’ve left their busy and stressful city life in Boston to enjoy a slower pace in the country where they can enjoy more time together as a family.
But their new home comes with a couple of unexpected features. The first is a “pet sematary” located on their large property that the children of the town have used for generations to bury their deceased pets. The second is a dangerous road at the front of the property used by speeding truck drivers that ends up taking the life of their lovely natured cat, Church. Luckily for Louis and Rachel, their daughter Ellie won’t have to suffer the loss of her beloved feline because their old, kindly neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) – who has lived there his entire life – knows a way to bring the deceased pet back to life through mystical means.
With a post-resurrection Church showing strange and aggressive behaviour, Rachel is still dealing with the death of her sister (not to mention the spirit of a deceased medical patient haunting Louis), making the happy vibe of their new country life begin to sour. As if things couldn’t get any worse, tragedy strikes when poor Ellie is killed by a speeding truck right in front of the house, much like their beloved Church was earlier. And like the cat, Louis makes the drastic decision to bury her in the Pet Sematary, hoping to bring their daughter back back from the dead. But as wise, crusty old Jud warns them – sometimes dead is better.
Jason Clarke is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors of late. Ignoring Terminator Genisys, he’s constantly provided fantastic performances in everything I’ve seen him in and Pet Sematary is no different. He brings to life the character of Louis who is a loving husband and father who has given up the hectic city life in Boston in order to spend more time with his family. The chemistry between him and Amy Seitmetz is very natural and the two complement each other wonderfully whenever they share a scene. He’s warm, nurturing and responsible while hiding the fact that he is a little burnt out from his time in the ER room at Boston, desperately wanting to make it work in this new home and you really want it to work out for him. It’s such a tragedy to watch his hero character fall and fall hard.
Likewise, Amy Seitmetz also delivers an amazing performance and is perfectly cast as Clarke’s on screen spouse, someone who has been deeply affected by a traumatic childhood experience. Spiritual in nature, she’s at odds with her non-spiritual husband, which plays out with interesting consequences such as the discussion both parents have with their daughter about life after death. Their disagreement on how to parent their daughter will resonate with many parents who have differing views on what values to instill on a child. Amy portrays so much without saying a word and you can see her love, disagreement and internal suffering before she speaks.
The most surprising performance came from Jeté Laurence. There’s not many child actors who impress me because – well child actors haven’t been around long enough to perfect their craft. However Jeté impressed me with her performance as the daughter Ellie. While the role isn’t too demanding before her character is killed, it’s when she comes back from the dead where she truly shines. Creepy. Menacing. Scary. I was shocked at how good her performance was and how much intensity she had. Moments like when she lies in bed with her father after being brought back from the dead or being washed in the bathtub had me anxious, biting my nails and wondering what was this little monster was going to do next. She was simply brilliant.
Director duo Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Scream: The TV Series, Starry Eyes) have done a great job at retelling King’s classic story for today’s audience. The film feels modern, yet still has the pacing of a horror film from the 80s, and Kölsch and Widmyer have found a way to change it in ways that still retain its basic themes of the fear of death and people struggling to let go. The irony is that even after telling his daughter that death is a natural part of life, Louis himself struggles to just “let go”, knowing he has access to a way to bring her back – even though he knows it’s unnatural and evil. The directors focus so much attention on the relationship of this family that even though we know he’s making a terrible mistake, we still relate and understand why he’s doing it.
The real horror of this film aren’t the evil-looking creatures that return from the dead and the bloody violence they inflict on the living, but the fear of death and what we will do to defy it. And in these areas Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have delivered the goods.
Pet Sematary is a great remake that honors and respects Stephen King’s original story, updating it for modern audiences without exploiting its central premise for cheap jump-scares. The entire cast is great, especially young Jeté Laurence in a breakout performance, helping to deliver a carefully paced experience that focuses on the psychological tension and human fears of its characters. Those hoping for a bloodfest or gory retelling are likely to be disappointed, especially given how prevalent King adaptations have been recently. If you’re in the mood for a good mix of drama with horrific elements and intense themes, this is a movie worth watching. I just hope you like cats.