Sitting proudly next to the recent remake of Stephen King’s classic, It, Pet Sematary 2019 is a new, much darker version of the story idolised in 1989 by director Mary Lambert and may well have set itself up as one of the years best horror films.
As with many a King adaptation, Pet Sematary takes place in Maine and involves a family in need of a break from city life, while the patriarch needs to collect his thoughts and rest. Just as in the ’89 original, the set-up involves the Creed family moving into the American countryside to their idyllic new home only to find they are dangerously close to a busy intersection of road which corporate lorries cannon down at horrific speeds. Unbeknownst to the Creeds, they have also inherited a large plot of land with a literal forest as their back garden. Tragedy soon ensues for the family though and both moral and ethical questions are soon asked about how far you would go for the ones you love.
Jason Clarke leads the way as Boston doctor Louis – who has promised his family a much quieter life, while himself hoping to slow down and reconnect with his wife and children. Solidifying himself in films such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Clarke has pinned down the strong-sensitive male type with easy aplomb. Moving towns should have meant a less stressful life, but that is soon shattered when a patient dies from a car accident in his emergency room. Haunted by the figure of the boy he couldn’t save, literally and figuratively, Louis begins a slippery slope into madness, brought even more to the fore when multiple tragedies strike his family.
Wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) attempts to share the burden with Louis, but for reasons I am unsure on she comes across as more of a peripheral character. With a story that revolves more around father and daughter, it is perhaps inevitable that this would happen. A side story involving her terminally ill sister and the effect this has had on Rachel’s life since, seems tacked on for dramatic tension, rather than for propelling the story or the character – in the former though it does work with one flashback being particularly sickening. John Lithgow’s Jud is the old man with a terrible message warning the Creed’s away from the forest and the pet sematary it holds, but his rustled routine brings more to the role than expected. Less the hick-lite Jud we saw Fred Gwynne play in ’89, this newer Jud is steeped in remorse and an all too relevant experience of why some things should not be meddled with.
It is Jete Laurence though, who steals the show as young Ellie Creed. Enjoyably innocent, yet holding the glimmer of a child who knows how to misbehave, Ellie can turn from charming to spiteful in an instant. Holding onto that is a key part of how Pet Sematary plays out, and is telling of how this young actress bravely anchors the film alongside Jason Clarke.
Going much darker than the original film ever did, directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer fill Pet Sematary full of bloody visuals and never relent on how far they are willing to go. Taking a similar aesthetic to that of the recent It remake, Pet Sematary is dark & twisted and has the sense that this could all be happening in the same universe. Whether this is intentional seems unlikely, but it does come as a welcome feeling knowing there are some places that are just destined to have weird shit happen to them. Pet Sematary does, at times, run the gauntlet of horror clichés but does not always stick to that well-trodden path. The film and its directors are smart enough to keep a few tricks up their sleeves, even if you have seen the recent trailer that goes out of its way to spoil some of the film’s best moments. Played straight, for the most part, Pet Sematary contains laughs but it’s not clear how deliberate these were with some coming off as unfortunate asides rather than planned tension breakers.
Continuing the trend in recent horror films, Pet Sematary feels like a worthy addition to the Stephen King canon while also being a rare remake that improves on the original. Dark, brutal and bloody – Pet Sematary is gut wrenching & powerful, especially by the end, and may already be one of this year’s best horror films.
Pet Sematary is released in cinemas on 4 April