Pet Sematary (2019)
Written by Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler
Directed by Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer
It’s hard to pinpoint where the nostalgia begins, but Stephen King’s current film renaissance started somewhere between the homage of Stranger Things Season One and the recent IT adaptation. One of the remakes it has led to is this recent Pet Sematary film, which is just as much taking on the novel as it is reworking the 1989 Mary Lambert film. The book and original movie have found an essential place in the hearts and minds of the general public and especially horror/King friends. I wonder what the long-time fans think of this picture and its decisions to change and not change certain elements.
Our protagonist is doctor Louis Creed, who has moved his family out to the Maine country, quaint rural home with a dark secret in the woods. Louis’ eldest child, the precocious Ellie befriends neighbor Jud Crandall, a grizzled Mainer who warns her about the pet cemetery behind the house. There’s a wall made of timber that warns of something darker behind it, a force that exists in the realms of the dead that can use lifeless bodies to manifest in the world of the living. Inevitably the family cat Church is run over, and Jud decides to let Louis in the secret of the soured land. Church comes back but not like his old self, and we start to see where this ultimately tragic tale is going.
For the most part, this is almost a beat for beat remake of the first film, which I was astonished about. The directing duo of Kolsch & Widmeyer had first brought us Starry Eyes, a terrific horror film that takes the experience of being a woman trying to break out in the Hollywood system and infuses it with satanism and ghouls. The screenwriters appear to be the culprits of how terrible this remake turned out. Jeff Buhler has penned the scripts for the mediocre Clive Barker adaptation Midnight Meat Train and the overwhelmingly panned Nightflyers series on SyFy. Matt Greenberg has been the business of adapting or making sequels of horror properties for decades (Children of the Corn, Halloween, The Crow). Neither of these writers inspires much confidence in a challenging and exciting script. What they deliver ultimately feels like the same sort of quickly ejected from theaters material they have written their whole careers.
There are the seeds of a fantastic story in this movie, but nothing is ever given space to breathe and develop into an emotionally meaningful experience. The screenplay feels more interested in hitting plot points regardless of the audience caring about any of these characters. The big death moments feel hollow, and I never felt that Louis was really tormented by how his family was falling apart. I think it was a great idea to change the child who dies from Gage to Ellie because there’s more you can do with an older kid. Gage, the toddler, dying and coming back in the original was dark, but he lacked any ability to communicate. Ellie challenges the audience to ponder what it is that came back from the dead. Is this Ellie or another entity? Is it Ellie but with something piggybacking into the world of the living?
The subplot of Rachel Creed being haunted by memories of her deceased older sister always felt tangential in the original film but especially feel disconnected here. I struggled to see why they included it because other than a third act hallucination no throughline connects that trauma to what is happening in Rachel’s life now. Maybe I’m just dense, but I didn’t comprehend why this is in the movie. Speaking of awkward plot beats and themes, Louis and Rachel have an argument about whether or not to tell their nine-year-old daughter about death, if they should add talk about an afterlife. It struck me as a very odd that a couple who’d been married for over a decade never had this talk before. I get why it was in the movie for the plot, but it made the relationship between Louis and Rachel feel that much more false.
Overall, the 2019 Pet Sematary is a colossal disappointment. Apparently, the reputation of the directors didn’t matter when the screenplay they were handed was done so poorly. I wouldn’t be surprised if the studio also interfered, making sure to shape the movie for the audience they perceived wanted it. I felt entirely emotionally unsatisfied, the film never delivering a real sense of dread or horror, just hitting some plot beats that anyone who saw the first movie will already know are coming.