Stephen King's "Pet Sematary" hasn't lived nine lives yet, but it certainly has been resurrected more times than Winston Churchill the cat.
After first being published in 1983, then turned into a movie directed by Mary Lambert in 1989, then sequelized in 1992 (we don't talk about that one), King's tale about grief, loss and evil pets has finally gotten a remake.
The irony many will mention about the 2019 "Pet Sematary," directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, is that it's a remake of a movie about the perils of bringing things back from the dead. However, the 2019 version exhumes the bones of the source material and breathes new life into it, effectively scaring a modern audience while making new points about death and grief.
The story is one of the darkest King's ever written. ER doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) tires of the Boston city life and moves to the country with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence), toddler son Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) and cat Winston Churchill (Church for short) in Ludlow, Maine, where he works as the local college's campus physician.
Upon arrival, the family meets neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow, rightfully steering away from any attempt at a Maine accent after Fred Gwynne's 1989 performance), who tells young Ellie about the "pet sematary" found on the Creeds' new land.
And, when Church dies after getting hit by Chekhov's Truck, Jud also tells Louis about another burial ground, beyond the pet sematary, where things come back. Louis buries Church there, and the cat comes back — but he's not the same.
Later, when Ellie is hit by a truck in the same spot where Church died (a change from both the book and the original movie), the allure of the burial grounds is too much for Louis to handle, and he takes Ellie's body there to bring her back to life — but at what cost?
Most kids' first brush with death comes when a pet dies. And most parents' first tough conversation with them about life, death, heaven and hell comes soon after. Death is a fact of life. As Louis tells Ellie, it's natural. But that doesn't make it any less scary, seeing as how nobody truly knows what's on the other side, despite whatever religious beliefs one may hold. That tug-of-war of practical certainty and religious questioning gets more screen time in this 2019 version, with Louis and Ellie bringing voice to the themes of King's original book.
The decision to make Ellie the Creed child who comes back, as opposed to Gage, gives this "Pet Sematary" a new angle on the same story. Ellie's and Louis's prior discussions about death and what happens in the afterlife give the third act higher stakes. That also allows the audience to probe their deepest fears about death and loss.
Here, everyone is mourning something. Before the deaths of Church and Ellie, Louis is mourning the loss of his career, and is still processing the traumatic death of a student who died during his first week on the job. Rachel is still dealing with the circumstances of her sister's death. Jud mourns his wife.
Like the fog that clouds the ground of the sematary, grief clouds the Creed family. In addition to the horrific plot, this film is also about a family's inability to process its own grief and let things go, something King's book made clear but the original movie ignored in favor of cheap scares. By the time the shocking ending rolls around, it's clear that working through grief is not only healthy, but it could save your life.
Speaking of cheap scares, Kölsch and Widmyer largely forgo cheap jump scares in favor of creepy camera placement. This is especially evident in scenes with Seimetz, whose Rachel gets much more agency this time around. Seimetz, by the way, is fantastic, doing much more than Denise Crosby's "shrieking wife" routine from the original; in fact, everyone here is doing great acting work, especially Laurence, who turns from to charming to chilling on a dime.
All that said, the new "Pet Sematary" isn't mandatory viewing. It works as a modern update to a seminal King book, but it's not reinventing the wheel. For King aficionados, though, this adaptation changes and streamlines a lot of the source material and is far superior to the original.
Sometimes, the remake is better.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
"Pet Sematary" is Rated R for horror violence, bloody images and some language. Running Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.