Film Review: Pet Sematary

The Classic Story, Remixed

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The 2019 Pet Sematary remake deviates wildly from previous iterations, but the fable remains the same: let sleeping cats lie. Directed by the relatively green duo of Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer and starring familiars like Jason Clark, Amy Seimetz, and John Lithgow, the film touts few impressive scares, but wins points for its ultra-eerie and unsettling ambience. Minor spoilers ahead…

Once again, we set the scene: Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) relocates his family, including his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), two children Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) and Ellie (Jeté Laurence), and cat Church, from the Chicago burbs to Ludlow, Maine. Louis has a brand new gig as director of student health at University of Maine, however, it’s quite clear that the Creeds didn’t prioritize location when picking their idyllic new home: they soon discover that their house is built on a mysterious Indian burial ground and situated next to a busy road, dominated by screaming semi-trucks. Not to mention, their backyard doubles as a pet cemetery.

Pet Sematary is an exceptionally quiet film. It carefully unpacks its setting as unassuming and quaint. Opening with the Creeds still in the car, the story quietly takes in establishing shots of Ludlow before our protagonist family arrives at their new home. Ambient noise - closing car doors, the whistle through the trees, their shoes on the gravel - establishes their home as remote from an otherwise active town. The home is in a vacuum, so soundless that when a truck does scream by, it’s unsettling even more than it is startling. It’s a low stakes shocker for the Creeds: The children are safely away from the road, Rachel is startled, but everything settles into stillness just seconds after its passing.  Louis’ only reaction is to murmur, “Son of a bitch,” in response to its roar. The threat is looming, but not to be taken seriously, establishing the eerie mise-en-scene for what's to come: a series of unusual and paranormal happenings prior to the resurrection of their own daughter, a swerve from the novel and the original film, well telegraphed by the film’s spoiler-heavy marketing.

“Deviating from staple King camp, the film instead attempts to establish a narrative that is unsettling from beginning to end.”

The Creeds’ can’t connect these hauntings with what’s to come, and so the audience is forced to watch and wait, knowing what they don’t. Louis Creed is haunted by Victor Pascal, a University student killed violently on campus, who delivers mysterious warnings about the Indian Burial Ground. Meanwhile, Rachel is subject to panic attacks and stalked by the ghost of her sister Zelda, who suffered from spinal meningitis prior to her accidental death at Rachel’s hands. The film prioritizes Rachel’s character development, earning her understanding from the audience: Rachel does not like the idea of death; she does not want her children exposed to death and does not want to talk about death. And because we fully understand the toll her sister’s gruesome expiration has on her sometimes fragile psyche, we even sympathize. The film cues us into the bodily reactions she has to the hauntings: we feel her sweat, hear her hushed breath, see her fingers pulse into fists. The sound manipulation is masterful. Plus, Victor Pascal’s ghostly presence looks almost immature, compared to Zelda’s distorted body, crawling out of the dumbwaiter - the imagery is as evocative as it sounds. However, the characterization of these two ghosts is purposefully contrasting; Louis is unconsciously invited to play in the Pet Sematary by Victor Pascal, despite the ghost’s warnings not to, while Rachel is being forced out by Zelda, frightened in her own home. 

Because the Creeds are subject to this terror early, the threat of the road is nearly non-existent until neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) finds the body of the Creeds’ beloved cat, Church. And suddenly, we understand, but the Creeds continue to operate in ignorance. Jud instructs Louiss to bury Church where Victor warned him against, and the cat is resurrected, demonstrating what’s to come for Ellie Creed. The personal horror that Louis and Rachel experience has finally trickled down to their children: Ellie notices that the zombified Church is hostile, different, and it’s the beloved family pet’s return that tempts her into the road directly before her gut-wrenching death. 

It’s clear that Kölsch and Widmyer refuses to cheapen Pet Sematary: the scares are few, but earned. Deviating from staple King camp, the film instead attempts to establish a narrative that is unsettling from beginning to end. The redux of the classic story makes two major deviations from the source material: it sacrifices Ellie instead of Gage to the road, recognizing her relationship to Louis as the more pivotal relationship in the book, and it also dedicates more screen time to Ellie’s resurrection, giving her more agency even after death because as an older child, she would be smarter post-mortem than two-year-old Gage. This allows for some truly unnerving scenes and exchanges between Louis, Rachel, and Ellie, in which only Rachel identifies the difference between the living demon and her dead child. Ellie’s consciousness, her eerie statements, disjointed body, the cadaver staples in the back of her head create a truly cringeworthy screen presence. She “practices” ballet and destroys the living room in the process, smashing frames of family, dismantling her innocence during the disjointed dance. These creative choices allow for a smarter, more poignant statement on loss, and a parent’s unwillingness to grieve, and readies us for the elevated ending. 

Speaking of the film’s ending, it’s a third act that isn’t so much a deviation from the novel and original adaptation, but more of an extrapolation. Pet Sematary preserves the dark trajectory of its 1989 counterpart, but goes much further in plumbing the depths of consequence. Stephen King’s story, in all its iterations, has always been about decent people making horrifically stupid decisions - it just so happens that this most recent film stretches beyond the canon into a gruesome terminus. Overall, this introduces a little more flavor and inquisition into a well-loved, maybe even repetitive, storyline. 

If you’re looking for a frightfest, you’re not going to find it in Pet Sematary, but you will find a quiet and unsettling observation on death and loss. It’s more reflective than reactive, and there’s something skillful in its emotional precision. Still, I miss the potential camp that could have been incorporated into the film. 

KT Heins is a social media manager operating out of Denver, CO where she lives with her partner and two chihuahuas. She is an avid horror enthusiast and prefers ghosts over ghouls. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @ktotheheins  

GRADE: B