2019 | rated R | starring Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Alyssa Levine | directed by Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer | 1 hr 41 mins |
Pet Sematary 2019 ends surprisingly strong and then cuts out with a fun, poppy remake of The Ramones original Pet Sematary theme song by Starcrawler. It’s a film highlight but also emblematic of the film as a whole – not better or worse or that different, just modern. Made out of the stylistic tropes and storytelling handrails most horror movies right now are. It’s a comforting approach to button-pushing material. The latest stop of the nostalgic Stephen King remake roulette wheel, Pet Sematary plays pretty tightly to the original story with just a few interesting turns we’ll get into. Despite doing almost nothing new, it’s reasonably well made and entertaining while it lasts. Though I don’t trust that my likeness for it isn’t due to years of Hollywood brainwashing.
Count them off. It opens with a very fashionable flash forward to the end. Cut to the family car driving through the woods to their new/vacation house. We get children in creepy Wicker Man-esque animal masks. It does a gender flip in the child roles and it washes out the “Indian Burial Ground” theme from the original film to something more generic and PC. It has a blow-out slasher movie chase finale. It keeps the evil cat from the original but leaves out Jud’s killer dog because in 2019 people are very sensitive about dogs. It replaces the grainy low-fi appeal of Mary Lambert’s original with a glossier picture with a moody surround sound. I’m not one that would consider 1989’s Pet Sematary sacred. It’s another zombie movie riff that’s primary legacy seems to be cementing the image of the evil cat and Fred Gwynne unforgettable voice (kept alive for another generation by South Park).
A refresher on King’s plot, the classically perfect set-up-pay-off premise involves a couple, Louis and Rachel (Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz), moving into a country house next to a fabled town pet cemetery where as legend, and it’s old caretaker Jud (John Lithgow) have it, buying a pet in it’s grounds will bring the animal back to life. A point hit smarter in the remake is how King’s story cleverly uses the short lives of pets to introduce death to children. In both versions, tragedy strikes the family and the pet cemetery’s resurrection grounds are used for horrific purposes.
As is the style in 2019, for the big moments the movie has been instructed to go big. The truck that meets the fate of one of the children doesn’t just crash, it spins out and slides down the road in grand slow motion. We don’t just get a flashback of mom Rachel’s sister’s traumatic childhood, it gets taken up to a weird only-Stephen-King extreme. The movie dials up Rachel’s paralyzing fear of death to such a degree that it passively prompts the question that maybe she should be the one to visit the pet cemetery and bring our ill-fated cat to life. That’s where the gender reversal should be. Apt actor as he is, Jason Clarke’s Louis’ passivity toward death – the movie adds a debate between him and his wife over how to teach there child about death – makes him the least interesting person to do this.
We get a few improvements in the mix. John Lithgow is really good as Jud. Even better, the movie has him bond with young Zelda (Alyssa Levine), delivering more warmth and depth to Jud’s actions. A little pet peeve of mine is how movie usually divide up the grief when a child dies and show only the mother grieving and the father ready to move on (Hereditary even does it). This Sematary actually shows the father grieving too. I also really like how Starry Eyes directors Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer have built out the actual Pet Cemetery. Louis and Jud wind through a lake and a path that look like they’ve stepped through a 1930s Frankenstein film. It feels like a Universal monster movie tribute by Kolsch and Wildmyer.
After a raucous climax where the movie turns into a 2nd rate Orphan it shows its final hand. The big turn here is what Kolsch & Widmyer have in store for the end. Let’s just say it’s very Starry Eyes and I’m surprised it passed through the studio. It is different but also perfectly fitting and makes the opening flash forward work. Dead pets, dead kids, digging up graves. Pet Sematary in any decade is an offshoot of the zombie genre spiked with it’s willingness to get down and roll around in darker and more taboo stuff than mainstream movies usually do. It gets both very studio and anti-studio depending on the moment. Making plays for bigger, louder moments, when sometimes smaller is better. It is slicker and makes a few character connections the original doesn’t, but at the same time those cheesier, rougher, moments are part of the original’s charm. Choose your own style. Pet Sematary 2019 does ultimately have a mechanical quality. I wish it had a little more personality, or was put in the hands of someone who could mine it’s absurdity for dark humor. Can’t you just see someone like Steve Buscemi in the Louis role, stomping over to his neighbor indignantly demanding “Why is my goddamn cat still alive, Jud?!”. Maybe in 2 more decades.
“Pet Sematary” by Starcrawler