The cinematic resurrection of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary — foggier than before, in every way — wastes little time forcing flop sweat on a tale that felt so effortlessly eerie onscreen the first time. It’s not even 10 minutes before the box-ticking group of kids in “spooky” animal masks shows up, banging drums as they wheel a fallen furry friend to the “Pet Sematary” in the woods near where the Creed family has retreated for small-town solace from big-city anxieties.
“What are they doing?” young Ellie Creed (Jeté Laurence) asks of her mom Rachel (Amy Seimetz) as they pass. “It’s a procession,” Rachel replies. “It’s like a parade … but not for fun.”
More a feeble remake of Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation than its own imaginatively febrile vision of King’s novel, Pet Sematary isn’t much better than the other 2019 film in which a father tries to resurrect a dead family member. It’s certainly safer in its perfunctory march toward paterfamilial pain and suffering.
Although Lambert followed it with a so-what sequel, her original remains the preeminent King adaptation on a level of pure gross-out ghastliness. It’s also written with alternately tender and devastating trappings of comfort and grief among spouses, families and friends. King wrote that screenplay himself. The new version hails from Jeff Buhler. In the early going, it seems his spin is a sobering inquisition of what, if anything, awaits us in the afterlife. There’s also a late feign toward an assertion of female power, but it literally comes in some characters’ dying breaths.
Mostly, Buhler settles for light chiropractic adjustments to the narrative, some more faithful to King’s novel than others and few with jolts. It’s now less about our impetus to pervert a natural order through a chance to resurrect love of which we’ve been robbed and more about … well, if you saw The Prodigy, which Buhler wrote, it’s the same sort of thing only less compelling.
This version opens on a note of deeper mystery than the original, jumping back from a harrowing scene of fire and blood to the Creeds’ arrival in Maine. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) has tired of the graveyard ER shift, retreating to head a clinic at a nearby college and hoping to spend more time with Rachel, Ellie and their towheaded toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie).
After their cute cat Church meets the bad end of a speeding truck, their neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) lets Louis in on a secret. Beyond that pet cemetery lies ground where whatever you bury comes back. Jud’s boyhood dog was never the same after he returned, but that dog had a mean streak anyway. Church would never hurt anybody … right? Louis finds that the plots there are plentiful but their prices steep in a way that leads only to moral, and mortal, ruin.
Co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) certainly lend this ritualistic burial ground an electric charge where all elements of nature seem to have spun sideways — filming it like a hopped-up Hammer horror set. Meanwhile, their animal wranglers have done a fine job of eliciting prime side-eye from a quartet of quarrelsome cats playing Church. And King would almost certainly approve of the new ending, even if it would make more sense in a superior movie.
Beyond that, the filmmakers essentially pledge their fealty to frights from the original (and the occasional brief in-joke, like a blink-and-miss band reference on a cell phone). The unexpected brain injury Louis treats one day is both more realistic and less gruesome. Church’s zombified disposition reflects a more triumphant expression of animal hairstyling but is less frightening than a cat whose eyes are changed. There’s more of Zelda, Rachel’s spinal meningitis-stricken sister, but less discomfort in viewing her mangled body. It’s telling that what you notice in a centerpiece moment are dodgy visual effects meant for more oomph that make it less unsettling.
That general mode of “more but less” extends to the casting in Pet Sematary. Clarke is a beefier presence, lacking the yuppie noodgedom through which Louis is so easily tempted. Meanwhile, Lithgow would seem a coup, and such a natural fit for a King adaptation that it seems crazy it hasn’t already happened. But he’s mainly here to make a wink-wink joke about his work on The Crown that maybe .4% of the audience will get and, frankly, you get more accent out of Clarke hiding his Australian roots. Fred Gwynne’s Jud felt ripped from the novel. Lithgow’s feels ripped from a checkbook. (Louis is also kind of a dick for no reason to Jud, a far cry from a believable cross-generational friendship in the book and Lambert’s film.)
If Clarke never makes you believe Louis’s existential plight as he should, at least Seimetz sneaks under your skin with Rachel’s explosive ball of anxiety, confusion and grief. Hers is a smart and savvy turn in a film that could have used more of her energy. Like a pop song manipulated from a major to minor key, this version of Pet Sematary is smirky and novel for a short verse and chorus. But there’s no need to hear the entire thing.