In many ways, the new version of Pet Sematary improves upon the original film adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel. The acting is appreciably better: yes, Jason Clarke will never be taken for the second coming of Laurence Olivier, but Amy Seimetz (who already proved she could do parental anguish, back in The Killing) is exceptional as always, and Jete Laurence is lovable and much more believable as Ellie Creed than her 1989 counterpart. The 2019 edition exhibits a much tighter focus, paring down characters and incidents (the reprehensible Irwin Goldman–listed simply as “Rachel’s Father” in the film’s credits–doesn’t even get a line of dialogue this time around), while sounding thematic concerns with death and afterlife more distinctly. Patient first-act set-up, coupled with an intoning score, creates a palpable sense of foreboding, and the film is darkly atmospheric, with the misty, forested surround furnishing an unnerving mise en scene.
I just wish I could have liked this film more.
Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer know they have a tough act to follow in the flawed yet memorably frightful 1989 film, and clearly assume audience familiarity here with that earlier version. For better and for worse, the directors employ the precursor as a cinematic touchstone. The infamous run-down-in-the-road scene is cleverly re-choreographed to gut-wrenching effect (but shame on the film studio for blunting the shocking impact by including a major plot spoiler in the trailer for Pet Sematary). The mindful variation on the original’s Zelda scenes is far less successful, with Kolsch and Widmyer serving up lame, predictable scares involving a dumbwaiter.
Like any horror film, Pet Sematary shoots to chill, yet ultimately leaves the viewer cold. This is perhaps best exemplified in John Lithgow’s portrayal of Jud Crandall. Contra the avuncular Fred Gwynne in the original, Lithgow’s Jud is gruff and unendearing, even a little creepy in his affection for Ellie. Overall, the film is too stony-hearted, failing to make us care enough about the characters and the stakes. The concluding twist strikes a satisfyingly mordant note, but fails to resonate tragedy the same way King’s novel or the first film does.
Visually, the titular graveyard proves unremarkable: we hardly get a glimpse of the grave markers, and the “sematary” itself is reduced to the site of imitative pagan ritual (performed by anonymous adolescents in animal masks). The depiction of the Indian burial ground (I don’t believe the Micmac tribe is ever identified by name in the film) likewise disappoints. Filmed in murky close-up, it lacks the scope, the eerie grandeur, of the sour-ground setting in the 1989 film (recall that breathtaking overhead shot of the spiraling sequence of cairns). Worse, the film severely abridges the backstory of the burial ground (e.g. Timmy Baterman’s grim return is deep-sixed in this version), and the sense of a place of supernatural evil is resultantly limited. Missing a golden opportunity to surpass the 1989 film and rectify one of its most glaring errors, the new Pet Sematary gives mere lip service to the Wendigo legend. The imposing creature is shown only as a crude drawing in a book that Jud sticks under Louis Creed’s nose for a brief perusal.
This film is obviously determined to be different from its predecessor (sometimes via facile revision, as in the turning of Victor Pascow into a character of color). Unfortunately, different doesn’t equate with better; there’s little chance this version of Pet Sematary will be remembered and revered by horror fans three decades hence. Straying from the familiar path, the film ends up lost in the woods.