If you read my 30th Anniversary Pet Sematary review, you know that Mary Lambert’s 1989 film adaption of Stephen King’s beloved novel is quite dear to me. One of the first horror movie experiences I ever had, Pet Sematary unnerved and gutted me for years with its tragic portrayal of a family that just could not accept its fate. Now 30 years later, Starry Eyes directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer have placed their own spin on this classic horror tale, and I’m feeling less than whelmed by it.
Just like the novel and the first film, we meet the Creed family– Louis (Jason Clarke), Rachel (Amy Seimetz), Ellie (Jete Laurence), Gage (Lucas Lavoie), and Church the cat (played by various Maine Coon cat actors, mind you)– who move to a countryside home to get away from the city life, only to be surprised that their home is directly in front of a dangerously trafficked road with speeding semi trucks and behind an eery graveyard where local children bury their pets. When they meet their neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) they even ask him if the “sematary” is part of their property. Didn’t y’all ask the realtor about that when you bought the house in the first place? Shortly, Church falls victim to a semi truck accident, and Jud encourages Louis to bury the cat in the Sematary, which brings him back, not quite the same, and simultaneously begins a slew of unfortunate events.
After the film establishes its chilling cold opening– complete with an overhead shot of a burning car and bloody handprints on the door handles– we waste no time jumping back in time to the day where the family first pulls up to their new home. In fact, not only do we not waste any time, not enough time is spent getting to know these characters nor establishing much of an empathy for any of them. They feel almost as one-dimensional as most B-horror movie characters tend to do. (Ok, maybe they’re not THAT bad. These actors are doing their best with the bland dialogue they are given in this script.)
We assume from his on-the-nose hating of the “graveyard shift” statement (since the film doesn’t do a great job at digging deeper into why) that Louis’s main reasoning for wanting to leave the big city in the first place was so that he could get away from the stress of being a doctor that deals with nightly gun shot injuries, stabbing wounds, and other violent traumas, since SURELY being a doctor in a rural area won’t bring him anything too nasty to look at, right? Of course, those of us who are familiar with this story know how wrong Louis is, and what happens next. We then meet the yawn-inducing Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) the 20-something college kid who notoriously gets brutally killed by a car accident, and whose ghost warns Louis about the “sour” ground before Louis even understands what he’s talking about. As someone who was terrified of Brad Greenquist’s portrayal in the 1989 film, unfortunately this version of Pascow may have a ghastly head wound created by pretty awesome practical effects, but is underutilized and treated as an afterthought.
And don’t get too excited about the 2019 version of Zelda either. Sure, Rachel’s sister was always a bit of a campy, over-the-top excuse to scare the bejeezus out of filmgoers in the 1989 film, but she still had her moments to shine. In Kolsch and Widmyer’s version, she’s still a deformed, resentful, and creepy bitch– but her visuals won’t be keeping anyone up at night anytime soon. Not to mention the way they choose to kill Zelda in Rachel’s flashbacks just feels kinda lame.
If you made the same mistake I did and watched the spoiler-filled second trailer, you know that a major change is made to this iteration of the story. (SPOILER WARNING if you haven’t and want to be surprised): Instead of son Gage, this time Ellie bites the dust from getting hit by a truck, and she is the one who Louis buries in the Sematary and brings back from the dead. I do feel that this was exactly the right decision to make for this version, as Ellie is the older sibling who is more curious about the consequences of death, and therefore, brings higher stakes and capabilities to her undead afterlife. But I just wish that I had felt anything at all during THAT infamous scene where a truck comes barreling down the street and takes (her) out. Like seriously…I didn’t even flinch…Whereas, the Gage death scene in the ’89 version destroys me, even to this day.
As I had briefly mentioned at the top, the performers absolutely do their best with what little they are given. Even though Clarke’s Australian accent bleeds through at times, he still does the wonderful one-tear-drop-falling-down-the-cheek cry, as he attempts to stoically make rational sense out of all of the crap that he has to deal with. And he’s quite nice to look at too. I would argue that this version of Louis is unfairly bland, compared to Dale Midkiff’s written version of the 1989 film, but Clarke still manages to impress. Amy Seimetz ups her character’s relatably raw trauma from her past to give Rachel depth, even though the film suffers from her lack of screen time. John Lithgow gives a very understated performance as Jud, even if his character is nowhere near as warm and inviting as Fred Gwynne’s version was written as. He is also often treated as just an excuse for exposition dumps. Jete Laurence is nowhere near as annoying as Blaze Berdahl was during her turn as Ellie, and she definitely goes there during the film’s outrageous climax. She flips from sugary sweet to the spawn of the Wendigo after she is brought back, and I admired her commitment.
Not to sound nitpick-y, but certain elements of the film just completely took me out of the experience. All of the scenes that took place at the graveyard felt completely fake and sound-stagey. Even glimmers of fake lightening look like some of the worst CGI I’ve seen, even compared to smaller horror films with lower budgets. During a Halloween/early fall sequence, the filmmakers made no attempt to add some red and orange fall foliage to the forests in an allegedly Maine setting. Lastly, something you’ve probably noticed I’ve been harping on is just the overall lack of a soul that Pet Sematary has, including dimension to its characters and their arcs. One thing in particular I sorely missed was the depiction of bitterness and strain between Louis and Rachel’s father. Who could forget that gut-wrenching scene from the first movie when Rachel’s father and Louis get into a fistfight and accidentally knock Gage’s casket onto the floor? Not that they necessarily had to include that specifically, but couldn’t you give us some arguments, some background to these people that we’re supposed to be feeling sorry for?
After a fairly lackluster two acts, the film’s final act attempts to ramp up the volume to levels that don’t necessarily feel earned– even feeling straight-up silly. The ending feels emotionally detached, as if it came straight out of a slasher movie. And for a film that King considers to be his bleakest and most tragic narrative of all his stories, this iteration simply does not do it justice. With the exception of the very last shot before the credits roll, the ending concerns itself more with the likes of Day of the Dead than profundity found in other grief-stricken horrors, such as Don’t Look Now. It hits all of the horror tropes checklists, and then leaves you feeling empty– and not because you’re hollowed out in your own sympathetic despair to what you just witnessed for 100 minutes. You just don’t really care.
The film’s biggest crime by far is its lack of weighty impact in regards to its themes. Sure, the ’89 version was campy and tonally messy at times, but you cannot deny the emotional impact it has during pivotal moments that depict the pain of loss, grief, and lack of understanding and acceptance. Never did it feel as if lessons were learned or perspectives were changed. Additionally, whatever poignance could have come from the filmmakers’ slightly more paid attention to the Wendigo’s Native American roots and a Black version of a deceased Pascow is completely left in the dust.
I wish this movie would have given me more to love (other than Church, who I neglected to mention, 100% delivers) but instead I just felt cold. However, I still felt mildly entertained with its schlockliness– it’s perfect for a rainy day, Saturday afternoon watch on a streaming service, but it’s nothing to run to the theater for.
Consensus: Sometimes the flawed original is better. Grade: C