A doctor from Boston, Massachusetts named Louis Creed has just moved to the small town of Ludlow, Maine. He is married to a woman named Rachel, and they have two children: Ellie and Gage. They also have a pet cat named Church – named after Winston Churchill. Though the town seems to be a picturesque countryside, something about it seems off. A group of children are seen taking a dead dog to a pet cemetery – or “sematary” as it’s spelled on the sign. An older man named Jud Crandall warns his new neighbors not to venture in the woods alone. It seems like a strange warning, but the Creeds will learn all too well what he meant when they realize the sematary lies on their property.
Filmmaking duo Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s adaption of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary is the second of its kind. The first, directed by Mary Lambert, was released in 1989. Like many Stephen King adaptations, the 1989 version of Pet Sematary received mixed reviews. Many felt it to be a legitimately great concept marred by the slasher film tropes nigh-ubiquitous at the time. Nonetheless, the film was a success in the box office, and it became a cult classic among horror fans.
Fitting given its name, death plays a central theme in Pet Sematary. The subject is raised early in the film when Ellie asks why pets don’t live as long as humans. Being a doctor, Louis gives his daughter a scientific explanation before Rachel tells him to stop. Rachel, as it turns out, has quite a weak stomach for death, having lost her sister, Zelda, to spinal meningitis. Thanks to contemporary makeup and prosthetics, she is far more horrifying than she was in the 1989 version.
The Creeds are given their first taste of death on Halloween when Louis happens upon Church’s carcass. The cat was struck by a vehicle, but Louis decides to tell his daughter that the cat had run away instead. Jud offers to bury the cat in the Pet Sematary before leading him to a different one. It is an ancient burial ground once used by the indigenous Micmac people. To his astonishment, after burying Church there, the cat returns the following day. He is far more aggressive, however, scratching Ellie on the arm and tearing open a bird on Louis’s bed.
Jud realizes the power of the Sematary doesn’t bring back the deceased as they were in life, instead imbuing them with a spirit known as the Wedigo. Louis then decides to kill Church to prevent him from bringing any more harm to his family. However, he cannot go through with it, and abandons him on the highway, again insisting that Church ran away. It is through this decision that the Louis spells his own downfall. By being so unaccepting of the inevitability of death, he and his family deny it even as it’s right in front of them. This forbids them from ever reaching the final stage of grief: acceptance.
Their fatal flaw comes into play when Ellie’s parents throw her a birthday party. During the festivities, she espies Church in the road and rushes to him with Gage following after. His timing could not have been worse, for another truck comes barreling down the road. This adaptation throws a curveball in that Louis manages to save Gage in time. The directors explained that the original and countless other films had already covered all the ground possible with an undead three-year-old child. In accordance with this venture, when the truck comes to an abrupt stop, one of the tanks is dislodged, fatally striking Ellie. It is after Rachael and Gage leave for the weekend that Louis exhumes Ellie’s grave and buries her in the Sematary, thereby resurrecting her. Though Ellie acts relatively normal at first, her real self is clearly gone. Louis wants nothing more than to have his daughter back, and doesn’t realize what is happening until it is far too late. Because he was unable to deal with his grief, it consumed him utterly, and his entire family ends up paying the price. Had he been upfront about Church’s death, none of this would have happened.
Although the film managed to build a lot of goodwill, a lot of it ends up being wasted in the final act. I will say upfront that I actually don’t have much of a problem with the conclusion itself. Having the entire family become undead abominations allows the film’s central metaphor to be realized. The problem I have, instead, lies in the buildup. Louis decides it would be a great idea to run off to Jud’s house, leaving his undead, abnormally strong daughter alone with his wife. While Louis clearly wasn’t of a sound state of mind at the time, it doesn’t change that the narrative devolved into a stereotypical horror film wherein characters have to split up so the killer can pick them off. Given that the film did a reasonably good job channeling the greatest aspects of the 2010s savvy horror scene, this was highly disappointing.
The 2019 version of Pet Sematary is a decidedly frustrating film. The premise upon which it operates is solid, the acting performances are genuinely great, and it is shot beautifully. I also saw a lot of what allowed Hereditary to become a critical darling in this film, though I would go as far as saying that it explores the themes Ari Aster touched upon a bit more competently. Unfortunately, Pet Sematary is one of those works that is actively bad when it’s not good. Having been released in the wake of Jordan Peele’s Us, Pet Sematary came across as behind the times. This could be a natural result of the story showing its age, having originally been released in 1983, but it’s jarring seeing standard horror tropes played straight after films such as Us proved they can be subverted without lessening the tension. I can envision Stephen King fans enjoying it because it is a passable adaptation that doesn’t settle for retreading old ground, but everyone else is better off looking elsewhere.
Final Score: 4/10