Pet Sematary (2019)
Though he’s typically worshipped as the patriarch of modern horror, filmmakers have had mixed results in adapting Stephen King’s stories for the big screen. The latest incarnation of Pet Sematary is one of the better versions of his work lately, if still by no means perfect.
Taking on one of the better known and more successful King films, the directing duo behind the indie gem Starry Eyes put their own spin on the story of death and resurrection. The film follows a family as they relocate from Boston to Maine. Mom and dad (Amy Seimetz and Jason Clarke) have moved their kids up to the country to intentionally pump the brakes on their hectic lives so that they can spend more time together and less time in the craziness of the big city. Eight-year-old daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) seems to acclimate quickly, along with her cat Church and toddler brother Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie). Their new house is less than perfect, mostly due to the dangerous highway at the end of their short driveway and that pesky animal burial ground on their property lot behind the house. That’s quite a real estate sandwich. Just next door is a gruff neighbor (John Lithgow) who, despite first impressions, is actually a mostly helpful and protective guy. Mostly.
When the highway takes Church’s life, all of these elements collide to get the plot twisted into the classic King tale of the dead not staying dead, and the painful lessons that must be learned when the laws of nature are tampered with.
This version of Pet Sematary is clearly aware of the level of horror literacy the audience will bring into the theater. Rather than wholly ignoring Mary Lambert’s 1989 film, this one knows that movie will be at the front of everyone’s mind in the theater. Certain scenes toy with assumed expectations and have a little fun at our expense.
And “fun” is the word when Pet Sematary goes off the rails in its final act. Leading up to the inevitable mayhem that this family is careening toward, the film is mostly a balance of atmospheric horror with kinda cheap jump scares. Mom’s history with death, in particular her sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine), haunts her from time to time, and these flashbacks add tension to an already tense world. Dad is a doctor at the local college and an incident that’s not at all to be expected in such a small town leaves him with a visiting phantom he just can’t shake. All of this makes the air heavy in their home, and that taut atmosphere is teased every so often with gimmicky shock effects. While these scares sometimes cut any semblance of real horror the film has worked hard to build, they also telegraph that the movie isn’t taking itself too seriously and neither should you.
By the time the film ramps up into its insane climax, it fully embraces the absurdity of the premise and exploits that to the fullest. I truly enjoyed this ascension into the high drama of the grossness and ridiculousness of the resurrected dead, but I know it won’t be for everyone.
That’s not to say that Pet Sematary is anywhere to close to perfect. While Seimetz is as emotive and transformative as always, Clarke’s approach to being a wooden and hardened father makes his performance hard to read and difficult to offer empathy towards. Without seeing his open and enthusiastic affection for his children, it’s a struggle to then accept his profound losses when they start to stack up. However, his turn to the darker side of himself later in the film is spot-on.
Pet Sematary enjoys playing in the wake of both the legacy of previous adaptations and the ludicrous nature of the King story. Bringing levity to the genre can be tricky, but for the most part the movie still brings the scares.