In 1983 Stephen King released the novel Pet Sematary. He wrote it years prior but thinking it was too dark, put it off for a while. When the book, which King claims as the one that frightens him the most, finally saw the light it proved a huge success. Six years later, the Mary Lambert directed adaptation, written by King, hit theaters and was a massive success. A film sequel came out in 1992 but critics lambasted it, and audiences stayed away.
Writer Jeff Buhler and co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have made a new adaptation of King’s novel. Pet Sematary begins with the Creed family—Louis (Jason Clarke), Rachel (Amy Seimetz), 8-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence), and toddler Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie)- moving from Boston to Ludlow where Louis accepted a position at the University of Maine.
Inquisitive Ellie goes exploring the forest that is now her backyard. She comes across the “pet sematary,” which has been a ritualistic burying ground for children’s pets for generations. It is here she meets their kind, elderly neighbor Jud (John Lithgow). On Halloween, Jud discovers Ellie’s beloved cat Church got hit by a tanker trucker that always zooms down the road in front of their houses. Later that night, Jud and Louis go to bury the cat.
Before digging the grave, Jud decides to lead Louis to a special place. Beyond the felled trees at the edge of the cemetery is a mysterious area where the wendigo is rumored to live. On top of a cliff, Louis buries Church. The next day, Rachel and Louis try to explain to Ellie what happened to her cat, but she’s confused. Church slept in her room last night and is hiding in the closet. Louis, unaware of where Jud took him, does not have a rational explanation. However, Church is much more aggressive than before, which puts everyone on edge.
“…this is not the girl he remembers. She is violent and destructive with little regard for him, her mom, or baby brother.”
During her ninth birthday party, Ellie gets crushed by a truck. Heartbroken Rachel and Gage go to stay with her parents for a time, while Louis takes care of business at the house. Louis digs up his daughter and takes her to the wendigo’s forest. The next morning, Ellie is there. Louis’s happiness is short-lived, as like with Church, this is not the girl he remembers. She is violent and destructive with little regard for him, her mom, or baby brother. Can love save her soul? Can the Creed family ever accept death?
Buhler’s screenplay finds a nice rhythm early on, balancing comedy and drama while suggesting that things are amiss, in a natural way. Ellie informs Jud that Church is short for Winston Churchill, “someone who lived a long time ago.” Jud smiles and goes “I know who Winston Churchill is.” It feels like a real conversation with an almost nine-year-old and is funny. When Rachel finally reveals why she never wants to tell their kids about death, which involves her sister’s severe spinal meningitis, is heartbreaking.
The exploration of how the cursed land takes your grief and mutates it to control you sets up quite a few effective scares, while also having something to say about how letting go is not the same as forgetting. Sadly, the screenplay does have a few snags. The movie’s first two acts feel quite rushed. The Creeds moved because Louis was doing the graveyard shift at the emergency room; meaning he was never home to see his family. Given the emphasis of slowing down and being there for each other, the Creeds don’t integrate into their new community whatsoever. At the birthday party, aside from Jud, the guests are all from Boston. It is an odd thing to ignore, as community strengthens bonds between everyone there, including family.
Kevin Kösch and Dennis Widmyer’s direction is mostly good. The house’s geography is never adequately laid out, so certain scenes near the end are confusing. Then there are moments of cheap CGI that destroy the atmosphere for the duration it is on screen. However, the duo keeps the atmosphere oppressive and creepy, so when a scare lands, it does so in a big way.
“…Jeté Laurence as Ellie…gives a tour de force performance in a very complicated role.”
The secret weapon to the success of Pet Sematary is the cast. Clarke and Seimetz share a decent amount of chemistry and genuinely come across as a loving couple. They both sell the drama and horror in equal measure. A newly returned Ellie, demands Louis sleep in her bed that night. Louis acquiesces and lays down, his eyes big and a bit confused. It is an excellent use of levity to ease the tension and is played brilliantly.
John Lithgow gives the second best performance in the film as Jud. He is brought back to life through Ellie’s wonder at the world around her, and Lithgow’s subtlety highlights this. In his first interaction with Rachel, after helping Ellie with a wasp (or bee) sting, he stutters a lot, and there are long, awkward pauses in his speech. Later on, feeling more at ease with the Creeds, Lithgow speaks faster, much more confidently than before.
However, the movie is owned by Jeté Laurence as Ellie. This young actress gives a tour de force performance in a very complicated role. Asking her parents about death, and what’s beyond, after her visit to the cemetery is natural. She is so full of life that her turn once she’s resurrected was startling. She effectively turns into a monster, whose thirst cannot be quenched unless there is bloodshed. Her attacks on Jud, whom she blames for her current state of undeadness, are full of malice and that juxtaposition is intense and is where the majority frights come from.
Pet Sematary balances humor, drama, and horror believably while exploring the inner turmoil of a seemingly ordinary couple; though the script does not go far enough in establishing their new life and dodgy special effects hurt some scenes. Happily, the cast makes up for these flaws with great turns, lead by Jeté Laurence, whose performance is reason enough to watch the film.
Pet Sematary (2019) Directed by Kevin Kösch, Dennis Widmyer. Written by Jeff Buhler. Starring Jeté Laurence, Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Lucas Lavoie, Hugo Lavoie. Pet Sematary premiered at 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
7.5 out of 10 Wendigos