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PET SEMATARY (2019) review

April 4, 2019

 

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written by: Jeff Buhler
produced by: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Steven Schneider and Mark Vahradian
directed by: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer
rated: R (for horror violence, bloody images, and some language)
runtime: 101 min.
U.S. release date: April 5, 2019

 

It’s been thirty years since “Pet Sematary”, the first adaptation of Stephen King’s popular 1983 novel, was released. Directed by Mary Lambert, that movie was memorable for being weird and sprinkled with a few legit shocks, but mostly for being unintentionally funny. Out of the many adaptations of King’s work from the 80s, it would definitely seem like his macabre take on death, loss and resurrection would be ripe for a remake worthy of the psychological terror of the source material. That’s probably what co-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (“Starry Eyes”) had in mind with his remake, but unfortunately it seems there was a good deal of material that went missing on the way to the big-screen, or at least not included altogether.

That’s not the only disappointing aspect of this remake. Even before its release, the marketing team over at Paramount Pictures crafted a trailer that gave away entirely too much. Despite being an affective and unnerving trailer, it’s unfortunate that the directors apparently had no say in what was revealed in the marketing for their movie.

Recently, the Creed family, consisting of Dr. Louis (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two children, 2-year-old Gage (played by twins Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie) and 8-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Ellie’s cat Church, relocated from Boston to the rural town of Ludlow, Maine. The spacious farmhouse they move into sits on a large plot of land that’s mostly populated by a dense forest and faces a two-lane road which is often used by speeding semi trucks. As Louis settles in at the local university clinic, curious Ellie meets their elderly neighbor Judson “Jud” Crandall (John Lithgow) one day, who warns Ellie and Rachel that the woods is a dangerous place to wander about alone. Indeed it is, especially the portion of land behind their house that’s been used as a pet cemetery (Ellie notices that the kids who made the sign post misspelled it “Pet Sematary”) for generations.

 

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Knowing that there is a cemetery behind the house gets Ellie curious and sparks a conversation on death that she starts with her parents. While her mother purposely informs Ellie that our loved ones are looking down on us, her father takes the opposite approach and sees no reason to hold back the truth that we all die. Ellie asks Louise why pets don’t live as long as humans and asks Rachel questions about her older sister who died years ago from a long-standing illness. It’s an uncomfortable conversation that neither of the parents are truly prepared for, causing something of a rift on the subject between the couple.

As the Creeds try and make the most of their new transition, they are troubled by unsettling situations and haunted by inexplicable visions. Louis is shaken by the appearance of Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) a local college student he wasn’t able to save from a fatal auto accident earlier that day. Still racked with grief from her past, Rachel is haunted by certain sounds and images that recall her sibling Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine), who was crippled by spinal meningitis and died inside the walls of their family home. It’s unclear exactly how the eerie place in the woods behind their house is linked to these visitations, but a viewer can only assume its all connected somehow, considering the movie’s title.

Unfortunately, screenwriter Jeff Buhler (“The Midnight Meat Train”) would rather drop exposition than offer any discernible connection to the story. The inclusion of Pascow and Zelda are definitely unsettling additions to the story, yet both feel like subplots that are never fully satisfyingly explored. One gets the idea that these are rich elements that are heavily mined by Kind in his novel, but since this a movie so focused on hitting certain beats, there’s no time for any exploration or character development.

 

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The dilemma of death comes back to the family on Halloween when Jud finds Ellie’s cat dead on the side of the road. This is secretly brought to Louis’ attention and he assumes his daughter won’t be handle such a loss. That’s when Jud offers a solution which finds the two men taking the feline carcass to a mysterious burial ground beyond the pet cemetery. It turns out it’s an ancient Native American burial ground that revives the dead and when Church returns the next morning, Louis is delighted, although there’s something noticeably different about the cat. This resurrection procedure is tested out again (despite the regretful Jud’s protests) when a horrifying tragedy befalls the Creeds, resulting in an even greater horror that Louis and Rachel are completely unprepared for.

There’s no doubt that as far as King’s stories go, this is one of the more challenging ones to take in with its unspeakable acts of violence involving children and animals. The problem is that even if you haven’t read his novel, one gets the impression while watching this adaptation (and the 1989 one) that what King wrote has to be more disturbing than what we see on the screen. It feels like the movies could’ve been pushed into even more unsettling and challenging territory, rather than relying on the jump scares, fog-laden sets and one pivotal transformation that grows tiresome after a while.

Right from the start, I found the way in which Louis and Rachel were written to be both formulaic and problematic. I’ve grown tired of seeing married couples on the big screen who keep secrets from each other. Not that I don’t think that doesn’t happen in real life, but it’s just that it happens all the time in movies. A husband won’t share something with his wife out of embarrassment, confusion or fear, yet all of those feelings usually develop into something even harder to deal with. Why wouldn’t Louis and Rachel fully divulge to each other the disturbing visions they’re seeing?

It also doesn’t help that for most of the movie it felt like Clarke’s portrayal of Louis was flat or catatonic, whereas Seimetz portrays a more fully realized character (and far more interesting) as Rachel. By far, the performances from Seimetz and Lithgow provide the movie’s highlights. They seem natural and lived-in and legitimately disturbed, while what we see Clarke and young Laurence engage in feels very predictable and cliched.

It’s really disappointing that bereavement and desperation is never fully explored here for this married couple. It certainly is needed considering what they go through. The story could’ve benefitted from more time fleshing out and developing characters, but it seems like Buhler and the directors were more concerned with hitting familiar beats and genre tropes. I may not have read the book but as I watched this adaptation, it definitely seemed like there was a ton missing.

I wasn’t ever much of a fan of Lambert’s ’89 adaptation, but I did get a kick out of her 1992 sequel. Yes, there was a “Pet Sematary II” that only die-hard horror fans remember probably. Granted, it’s not that good, but I have a better recollection of it since it was the next movie Edward Furlong starred in after playing John Connor in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”). It also starred Jared Rushton (“Big”), Anthony Edwards and a gleefully ghoulish Clancy Brown. That sequel focused on a different family, albeit with the same goal as the Creeds: to dial life down a notch and take it easy by relocating to Ludlow, Maine. I don’t know what the draw is to this suspiciously low-key town, but you’d think word-of-mouth would spread that it’s not the most ideal place to raise a family…or at least one with pets.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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