Firstly let me say that PET SEMATARY (2019) is amongst the best contemporary mainstream horror films of the moment. It is a quality horror film - better than most theatrical horror releases - and it is definitely worth the price of admission. But the problem I have is that I had planned on approaching this review without ever referencing the previous 1989 version. I was adamant on treating this as a new adaptation and not a remake, and yet you can imagine my frustration when the new film ends up relying so heavily on the audience's knowledge of that original movie, that ignoring it would be a mistake. Oy Vay.
Fans will know the story well and PET SEMATARY adheres to the familiar plot... for the most part. Louis and Rachel Creed (Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz) move to the small town of Ludlow with their two children, Ellie and Gage (Jete Laurence and Huge & Lucas Lavoie), and discover an old pet cemetery in the woods behind their house. When their pet cat is hit by a truck they follow the advice of their elderly neighbour, Jud (John Lithgow) and bury its body in an ancient burial ground beyond the cemetery. The feline is resurrected and returns a little different... and undead. Tragedy later strikes the family and the ritual is repeated, leading to macabre consequences. Fans know the drill but I will say no more for the benefit of newcomers.
Co-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) come to PET SEMATARY with a few tricks up their sleeves, and by playing on the viewer's awareness of the story, they shake things up a bit to catch everyone off guard. Of course I am not going to spoil those surprises, but I will do my best to work around them. The most fundamental shift in the story is also the most audacious, and the result is open to interpretation. Where it could be argued that the story's dramatic and emotional crux is sacrificed, there is merit in the adverse effect of the gratuitous horror being amplified. Various iconic moments and themes are shuffled about to catch viewers off guard and many of the tropes are exploited to the max, while a few components are abandoned entirely (most notably an entire character is excised).
I imagine the response from fans will go either way, with those who cherish King's underlining themes being confused and disappointed, while open-minded viewers may relish in the trickery and manipulation of the story. I have tussled with my feelings since seeing the film and I have ebbed and flowed towards my conclusion. I am sorry to have lost the raw emotional charge of the previous film (and the novel) but I am grateful that consideration was given to my want for something fresh. And having witnessed the movie and its horrors with a willing & responsive audience, I am landing on the side of praise.
Despite the cinema itself playing the film without it's full stereo mix (an unfortunate accident), PET SEMATARY was delivered with a completely atmospheric production and sound designs. From eerie fog-swept forests to effective sound-stage set pieces, the look and sound of the film is torn straight out of the pages of King and unfurled before our eyes. The iconic cemetery itself looks much the same, as described in the novel, and the two houses central to the story are effectively located. The interiors are also as described by King and reminiscent to the 89' film and each room is used effectively as the horror unravels.
The one notable weakness is the addition of several fantasy sequences, which replace some of the original story's most effective cautionary elements. That iconic spectre who haunts Louis to forewarn him of his actions is given less significance, despite being emphasised, and is obscured by an overriding series of dreamscapes. It's one of the sillier misdirections that the filmmakers use to differentiate the film from the other, and their divergence from King's source material seems pointless. It is, however, just as easily overlooked.
The cast is excellent and all three central adult players approach the material with the sincerity it deserves. Clarke and Seimetz are very good and hone in on the true horror of the story, although their emotional arch is not as effective as previously portrayed by Dale Midciff and Denise Crosby. This is no fault of theirs given that the script never allows for them to explore too deeply. John Lithgow assumes the role of Jud perfectly and embodies the same ol' timer qualities of Fred Gwyne in the original, although less frivolously. Lithgow's portrayal is more stoic and remorseful, with perhaps the most emotional reach of the entire cast. And of course the children are fantastic, as is the adorable kitty. The less I say about them the better.
PET SEMATARY is a solid exploit, which takes the audience into the depths of horror without any apologies. It is a suspenseful, tense and unnerving cinematic experience that – like the book – offers no light. This is as grim as Stephen King gets, and that feeling of horrified invigoration also comes with a weighty sense of despair and melancholia. As a fan of the novel and the 1989 film I have no reservations recommending this latest adaptation. All three incarnations proudly occupy the horror landscape and will impress those open-minded King devotees.