Review: ‘Pet Sematary’ 2019 (take me to Church)

Dealing with death, loss, grief, inevitability… and the not-so great beyond.

After moving to a country home outside of rural Ludlow, Maine away from stressful Boston city life to spend more quality time with his family, Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) takes a job at a local college. An accident delivers Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) into his care, a student he is unable to save. An atheist at heart, Louis receives a waking vision of his dead patient, delivering a warning. Shaken by the experience, Louis returns home to his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) who has mental baggage of her own when she’s alone. With Rachel preoccupied with her toddler son Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), eight-year old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) discovers a pet cemetery on the back of their property (complete with misspelled sign) and a widower neighbor Jud (John Lithgow). When Jud finds the Creed’s cat Church dead on the side of the road, he offers Louis an option to spare Ellie an early lesson in adulting… setting off a chain of events with dire consequences.

Remakes, remakes, remakes. It got one, so why shouldn’t every previous Stephen King work? There are plenty that haven’t been done yet, but Gerald’s Game and the recent The Dark Tower movie question whether some even should be adapted. Still, as one of the few King stories that actually gave readers a final chapter rather than five or seven choose-your-own-adventure endings, most people can’t remember the 1989 version except that Herman Munster was the meddling neighbor and Tasha Yar was “the mom.” Can thirty years of improvements in filmmaking breathe new life into Stephen King’s novel about cheating death?

Everything herein is a step up — from acting and animals to sets and effects — but not quite in a Peter Jackson shot-for-shot remake of King Kong kind of way. The improved production has a few Tim Burton-worthy theatrical bits, specifically with regards to the burial ground that we (conveniently) never seen in the daylight. Fortunately, the script departures are enough to argue a new edition and provide Jeté Laurence with an amazing opportunity as Ellie 2.0. As the original It was made for television, the 1989 Pet Sematary almost looked as if it had been, so both new editions now benefit from the stepped-up production values on 4K home video. Feel free to enjoy the new score from Hellraiser composer Christopher Young, too.

While Jason Clarke plays plenty of everyman parts with little distinction, he’s a far more memorable Louis than in the original. John Lithgow replacing Fred Gwynne’s Jud is such a different role for him he’s initially unrecognizable… and that’s a good thing. Jeté Laurence, however, is the one who gets the meatier parts, not only stepping up for the regrettable performance in the 1989 version but getting to go beyond that; it’ll be fun to see what she gets to do next. There’s a bit of an ethnicity flip on the character of Pascow, but it’s the kind of part that transcends that detail anyway; it isn’t clear if his effect is all-practical or CGI enhanced, but it’s the most horrific visual in the film… and it disturbs perfectly.

Details abbreviated in both cinematic versions truncate Rachel’s backstory to a mere haunting childhood, leaving her as a princess-to-be-rescued caricature shored up with disapproving silent-yet-dirty looks from her parents toward Louis. Similar to the unknown past of Louis himself, it was one of many things left unexplored… and what kind of monsters leave their kid at home to care for an embittered invalid sister? While not as visceral as at could have been, the case is made for this improved remake of one of the author’s more enduring works. But wait: no Stephen King cameo? The 1989 original can retain that feather in its cap, but then again, so can Maximum Overdrive.

This 2019 incarnation of Pet Semetary is rated R for horror violence, bloody images, some language, and the real legend of Zelda.

Three skull recommendation out of four

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