04th Apr2019

‘Pet Sematary’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jete Laurence, Hugo Lavoie, Obssa Ahmed | Written by Jeff Buhler, Matt Greenberg | Directed by Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer


Mary Lambert’s 1989 film adaptation was a decent stab at Stephen King’s 1983 novel. It was fairly faithful and had a pleasing sense of the surreal – the latter mostly thanks to some ingenious casting (the sickly sister character was played by an emaciated male actor) and clever editing (it’s amazing how you can make a three-year-old look so evil just by juxtaposing scowls and giggles). The 2019 version, co-directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, is a more rampant reimagining of the source material. Slower and more sombre than your common or garden Conjuring fare, but rather cheesy compared with some of the modern horror classics with which we’ve been recently blessed, it has some great moments but doesn’t do quite enough to rank among the best of King’s crowded cinematic canon.

Jason Clarke plays Louis, the world’s least busy doctor, who brings his young family to the rural Maine town of Ludlow. On their 50-acre property is the titular animal graveyard, itself built on an ancient Native American burial ground. Local old-timer Jud (John Lithgow) privately tells Louis of the magical powers of the place. This comes in handy when the family cat dies. The zombie cat is an ill-tempered shadow of its former self. But at least it’s back on its feet, right?

When a more serious and sudden death occurs, the overwhelming grief threatens to shatter the family. Louis and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) need a moment of space. Louis and Jud look knowingly at each other. Is Louis really going to go there? Is he going to bury the person he loves most dearly, just to see their body reanimate? The soil is spoiled – and so too is their resurrected soul. Playing god, a grieving father unleashes hell on his once peaceful home.

Pet Sematary is a mashup of subgenres – psychological, undead, supernatural, body horror – so you get plenty of bang for your buck. And it can’t be said that Kölsch and Widmyer fail to nail a consistent tone: it’s a relentlessly bleak downward spiral into one man’s madness.

To the script’s credit, there is a major (and majorly spoiler-sensitive) change to the source material in this version, and it really works, opening the door to a genuinely disturbing turn of events leading into the final act. It’s the kind of off-the-wall, uncanny sequence we rarely see in mainstream horror. However, the very reason this section stands out is because so much of the rest of the horror is reliant on loud sudden sounds and lurching jump shocks.

While the scares may be somewhat forgettable (sadly, the Zelda subplot is a mess of haphazard editing in this version), the family drama is solid. There’s an admirable clarity about Louis and Rachel’s debates about death. They couldn’t be more clear on their philosophical divide if they conducted interviews to the camera. Subtle it isn’t, but at least the psychological stakes are clear, and the essential conflict – body versus soul; existence versus essence – is embedded in the on-screen action.

Crucially, it’s a pair of impressive performances from Clarke and Seimetz, while Lithgow is enjoyably cast against type, ditching his dotty avuncular charm for something more cantankerous and calculating. It’s in the breakdown of communication between Louis and Rachel that the relationship between Louis and Jud blossoms.

I’ve always felt that Pet Sematary is a story about men. Specifically, a peculiarly masculine response to death: the need to fix things. Louis tries to get Rachel to face up to her grief in a brutal and rationalist way. But how well is he really doing? His resurrection plan is, in the end, just another form of denial, as deluded as any religion. Stanley Kubrick reckoned that ghost stories are inherently optimistic because it means death is not the end. Pet Sematary is King’s retort to such a position: the dead want to stay dead, and death is a natural barrier that should not be crossed. It’s just a pity that here “crossing the barrier” usually means crossing into a realm of dodgy greenscreen. In other words, Pet Sematary lacks the production values of Andy Muschietti’s gorgeous It.

Slightly more thoughtful on its subject of grief than many of the ghost train rides of this generation, Pet Sematary aims for a tone closer to the recent Netflix adaptation of King’s 1922. Caught in the no man’s land between big screen schlock demands and heaving psychological drama, it serves neither wholly effectively and ends up slightly diluted, but it’s very watchable nonetheless.

Pet Sematary is out in cinemas from today, April 4th 2019.


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