Burned out at working the graveyard shift at a Boston hospital, Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) decides to seek a quieter life by moving to rural Maine with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two children, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie).
The quiet lasts about 24 hours.
On his first day at his new job as a doctor at a nearby university medical center, Creed is called upon to try and save the life of a young student who has been horrifically injured in a car accident. He desperately does his best, despite the fact that the kid’s brain is practically leaking onto the floor, but can’t keep him alive.
The student stays dead for about 24 seconds before he bolts up from the gurney and starts warning the doc in a spooky movie voice that bad things are about to happen to him and his family. And all this is before we even learn about the spooky burial site of the title.
Fans know that this isn’t the first time Pet Sematary, based on the classic 1983 Stephen King novel, has made its way to the big screen, and most of them will walk into the theater to see this latest rendition filled with generally fond memories of the 1989 version directed by Mary Lambert from a screenplay penned by King. That’s fine, as long as it doesn’t lead them to spend the 101-minute running time comparing the original movie — or the book — to what directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have come up with for 2019 because that will keep them from enjoying a fine horror film.
Following his confrontation with the spooky half-headed guy, Creed does his best to try and settle back down into his new country life and even goes so far as to host a dinner party with his neighbor Jud (Jud Lithgow) where his daughter provides the after-dinner entertainment with an impromptu dance recital. It’s all folksy and fun if a bit cheesy. It’s also the last time the family — or the audience — will feel safe.
A few days later, just as he’s getting ready to take his daughter trick or treating, Creed is quietly called to the end of the driveway by Jud to see something: The bloody and mangled body of the beloved family cat, Church. Both men decide it’s best to protect young Ellie from the truth and make a pact to bury the body that night and just tell the kid that Church ran away. The town Pet Sematary just happens to be located in the creepy woods behind the Creed house, so it should be easy enough to pull off. What could go wrong?
As it turns out, everything. A few hours after they bury the cat, just as the parents are trying to tell Ellie about his running away’, Church is found hiding in her bedroom closet. He looks a little worse for wear and must smell like death warmed over, but none of that matters because his daughter is happy and that’s enough for dad. It’s only over the course of the next few days that the family begins to realize there’s something different about Church since his Pet Sematary resurrection. Something very, very wrong. Just not wrong enough for Creed to realize what’s bad for a dead cat could be 10 times worse for a dead child.
The last half hour or so of Pet Sematary is a real roller coaster, both in terms of the horrific images on the screen and the emotional turmoil running just below the surface as the Creed family tries to survive. Directors Kölsch and Widmyer play the audience like a violin, using light and sound as much as guts and gore to manipulate them into near madness. And it’s done so beautifully they won’t even know they are being played. Take, for example, the soon-to-be-famous ‘ankle scene’. It’s something familiar to fans who can remember what happened to the original Jud as played by Fred Gwynne (that’s right — Herman Munster) back in 1989. Kölsch and Widmyer know there will be high audience anticipation once they are shown images of a scalpel and Jud’s bare ankle, and they work with it to build the scene to a shattering climax. The fact that it all takes place in daylight and is still so frightening only underscores their mastery of the material and the genre.
The cast, for the most part, does a fine job of supporting the director’s vision. Clarke (Winchester, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) is effective as the father so desperate to keep his family intact he’ll do anything, even after he saw what happened to the cat. Likewise, young Laurence (The Snowman) is good as the daughter, both before and after her trip to the woods and the Pet Sematary; better, in terms of her performance, after.
Unfortunately, Lithgow (Dexter, Raising Cain) doesn’t ever really get a handle on how to play the neighbor, Jud, in the movie, alternating between creepy and cuddly (which is creepy in its own way), often in the same scene. The result leaves you feeling emotionally unclear how to react when bad things happen to him, other than to squirm as you watch it happen.
The best performance in Pet Sematary is the one given by Amy Seimetz as the mom/wife of the Creed family. Not only does she have to sell a parent’s reaction/revulsion to what is happening to her family, but also has to show us her personal struggle over memories of a secret from her past which surfaces in a bizarre subplot that is as cringe-worthy as anything else in the movie.
- Pet Sematary (2019)