REVIEW: Pet Sematary (2019)

Theatrical Release Poster – Paramount Pictures

The following is a review of Pet Sematary — Directed by Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmeyer.

A couple of months ago, I decided to rewatch Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. My father is a big fan of that film, but, I hadn’t seen it in years, and I barely remembered if I even liked it. Much to my father’s disappointment, I really didn’t enjoy rewatching Lambert’s film. This experience, I’ll be honest, actually made me more excited for this year’s remake. Perhaps I would now get the Pet Sematary film to ‘call my own.’ While I ultimately do, based on my first viewing, believe Kölsch and Widmeyer’s 2019-version is better and more effective than Lambert’s film, I was still very disappointed by what they gave us here.

Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmeyer’s Pet Sematary 2019, like the version before it, tells the story of a family of four — Louis (played by Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (played by Amy Seimetz), his two children Ellie (played by Jeté Laurence) and Gage (played by Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), and their pet Church the cat — moving to Ludlow, Maine, where they are met with tragedy and loss.

The family lives next to a wooded area which includes an old graveyard for pets — misspelled as ‘pet sematary’ — one that they’ll quickly find a use for when their cat is run over by a truck. Hoping to help his new neighbors, Ludlow local Jud Crandall (played by John Lithgow) guides Louis to another graveyard deeper in the forest, which will bring the cat back to life. There is a catch, though, the ones buried there never return in quite the same state as when they left you, which is something Louis and his family will learn the hard way.

If you were at all familiar with the first film or the novel, then you would know by the first big trailer for the 2019-version that they were changing at least a couple of things here. There are some neat changes, and the big one, as advertised in the trailer, mostly works. But I can’t help but feel that the filmmakers didn’t go far enough to distinguish itself from the 1989-film. At one point in the theater, I found myself utterly bored by how there were certain plot points they were insisting on ‘hitting’ in the exact same way as the 1989 film.

One of the ways I think this film could’ve worked much better is if they had considered letting the film be seen just a little bit more from the mother’s perspective. Her backstory and trauma, which I thought was executed hauntingly well, is far more interesting to follow than anything about Jason Clarke’s character. I needed more reason to dig into his character than what we were given, and the focus on his dreams didn’t work for me at all. The obsessions and nightmares of Jason Clarke’s character come up out of nowhere as the Victor Pascow-character doesn’t quite work, even though his appearance here is frightening. I never really got a good understanding of Clarke’s character, and though I was far more intrigued by Seimetz’, she, unfortunately, is given far too little to work with as well.

There are some visuals that are undeniably frightening. Just the image of seeing someone in-frame behind the character can be terrifying, but more often than not these moments of tension are drowned out by startling sound effects in jump-scares. Like I mentioned, Amy Seimetz’ character has an intriguing and nightmare-inducing background, and I desperately wanted more of this. What little we saw was effective and sometimes included brutal body horror highlights, but I think there is a real missed opportunity in how few times they decided to focus on the mother’s trauma and perspective.

I will also add that, even though the effects are certainly better in 2019 than in 1989 — of this, there can be no doubt — some of the visual effects in this film took me out of it. The ‘pet sematary’ looked like the inside of a studio and the greater burial ground looked fake, plain and simple. The noisy and frustrating truck that drives past Louis’ home over and over and over again, also looked fake in one pivotal scene.

To its benefit, though, I will acknowledge that I thought the ending was very good, but I think they could’ve gone a little bit farther with it. I would also say that I think Church is handled well. Church is one of the iconic horror pets, and, once again, the cat is the most memorable ‘character’ in a Pet Sematary film. Though I don’t think the performances here are memorable, I will single out John Lithgow, who I did enjoy as Jud, Jeté Laurence who, in spite of her character being a horror trope, worked well in the enlargened Ellie-role, and Jason Clarke whose performance as Louis is a vast improvement on the 1989 film, even though I didn’t connect with his character as much as I had hoped.

We’ve heard the iconic line “Sometimes dead is better,” before. It’s almost a little infuriating that a sub-par remake with that tagline has not realized how that statement also works against the film. Maybe they should’ve left well enough alone. Sometimes the remake is better, and, in this case, I do think it is, but that is not saying much as I never really had a lot of love for the 1989 film. Kölsch and Widmeyer have not managed to make a film that justifies its existence. I can’t state this enough, I really wanted to love Pet Sematary 2019, but, when it came down to it, it was just another average horror film with cheap scares, poor pacing, and missed opportunities, even though there are some haunting horror movie images here and there.

6 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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