‘Just anything but dead’ is a phrase that haunts Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Ricocheting off every decision made from the moment poor Ellie Creed’s cat Church is ran over outside the family’s new home, death, grief and the afterlife are grappled with in their varying forms. Taking a much more spiritual route than Mary Lambert’s 1989 film, Kölsch and Widmyer pose the questions: what happens to us when we die and how do we save our loved ones from it?
Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) would do anything for his family, even uproot their city lifestyle to take a less exciting job in rural Maine so that they can spend more time together. Not long after moving into their new home his daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) runs off into the forest backing onto the house, discovering a local burial ground for pets, incorrectly signposted ‘Pet Sematary’. It is here she meets their new neighbour Jud (John Lithgow in a wonderfully caring role), a since-birth resident of the town of Ludlow and once-user of the Pet Sematary, burying his beloved dog as a young boy. He divulges that the local children have come to attach quite ritualistic elements to their pet burials, and it has become something of a generational tradition – we see one such group of children in a masked procession taking a dead dog to the grounds in a wheelbarrow. The relatively mature, and surprisingly not-sinister nature of such an event is not only a nice addition to the themes of grief and their depictions within the film, but lends to its visual style, latching onto a kind of folk-horror element that really works well with the imagery one would expect from a Stephen King adaptation. It’s a shame this idea of local tradition was only explored in one shot, with none of the Creed family interacting with it.
It is not until Ellie’s pet cat Church (truly the star of the show – deserved way more screen time) is ran over on the deadly busy road outside the Creed home that Louis spikes an interest in the pet cemetery, having heard tales from Jud about reanimation. With his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) completely against letting her daughter deal with the idea of death (due to memories of her sister’s horrific death from spinal meningitis) Louis takes it upon himself to take Church up to be buried.
Certainly not returning good as new, Church eventually turns back up at the house, mean, and covered in blood with matted fur. The reanimation process clearly isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but the guilt felt by Louis over Church’s death is enough to make them tolerate his new form. It’s said in the film that the burial grounds feed off grief, so when even more devastating accidents happen, Louis is driven to the edge in desperate attempts to cling onto the living. I won’t spoil the film’s climactic moment as it seems that if there is any necessary reason to produce a remake, it’s to introduce new and probably younger audiences to the material. Potentially having never read the book, it’s a pretty rubbish move to completely annihilate the films entire plot with a poor choice of footage for the film’s second trailer, which makes watching the film after having seen it essentially pointless. Even a pretty interesting deviation from the book’s plot is spoiled from that promotional footage, which could have caught King fans off-guard for a nice surprise.
For returning fans of both King’s work and Lambert’s adaptation, there is at least some striking visuals to get you by. The cinematography from Laurie Rose is drenched in blue greys almost to the point where it’s hard to distinguish person from woodland, with a seemingly never-ending amount of fog surrounding the cemetery. There’s a high sense of atmosphere and these misty moments are used to their full effect, particularly in Louis’ dream sequences. The lingering nature of so many of the shots plays into a well-tread balance between psychological creeps, jump scares and gruesome moments. The jump scares mainly come from flashback scenes of Rachel as a child with her sister Zelda – however, it lacks the really haunting image that Lambert’s adaptation had of Zelda’s face, but her twisted contortions in this version are still particularly chilling.
Amy Seimetz wracks her body and mind through all the physical and emotional stages of grief in a fine performance, a shivering wreck clinging onto a bloody toy and fraught by images of her sister are quite impressive. In fact, the whole cast deliver great performances in deep and upsetting moments. Ellie’s younger brother Gage played here by Hugo/Lucas Lavoie bears an incredibly eerie similarity to Miko Hughes of the 1989 film.
Kölsch and Widmyer certainly delve more into the themes King was concerned with communicating, and all of Louis’ actions can be traced back to a poignant conversation with Rachel in the films earlier stages. Discussing what they believe to happen after death, Louis claims he believes there is nothing; we are committed to the ground and return to the earth. His belief makes the rest of the film seem all the more desperate and tragic; Clarke exceeds in the role of doting father and husband. At times though, it just feels like the story trundles along, never truly exploring the lore of the burial ground or the reanimated that come from it, halting to an abrupt end way sooner than expected. A story about a burial ground for pets definitely has no right being that good, but the director pair maneuver the story to focus assertively on the human anxiety that comes with questions about death. While confident in its visuals and distressing performances, it oftentimes feels rushed or with some cool opportunities left unexplored. It’s by no means a dead offering, but its mediocrity won’t have anybody rushing to reanimate it any time soon.
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her lifesource is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here