Review: Pet Sematary

Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary receives its second film adaption, thirty years after Mary Lambert’s 1989 original.

A new job at a university hospital and the hope of spending more time with his family brings Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), along with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), young daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and her baby brother Gage (Hugo/Lucas Lavoie) to rural Maine. When Ellie’s cat Church seemingly loses all nine lives, friendly neighbour Jud (John Lithgow) guides Louis to what lies beyond the titular graveyard, a decision he later regrets when the Creeds are dealt a more heart-wrenching blow.

While Lambert’s original grabbed the source material by the scruff of the neck, this incarnation is surprisingly tame. An underwhelming effort from the co-directors of 2014’s Starry Eyes, which through the realm of horror swiped at Hollywood’s seedy underbelly, eerily released before the true extent of Tinseltown’s darkest secrets were exposed.

A handful of minor changes and slightly more significant swerves don’t benefit the film, but just serve as a reason for the remake to exist. Wicker Man-style animal masks offer nothing but aesthetics and an eerie ancient burial ground is swapped for an overzealous smoke machine that borders on hokey. Even the sizeable modifications fail to validate this so-called reimagining as they appear to be for sheer shock value and actually hinder the film’s main takeaway.

Adapting his own novel, King wrote the screenplay for the original, adding some much-needed humour. While Louis’ patient Victor Pascow’s introduction was alarming, the ghostly guardian (similar to Jack’s beyond-the-grave antics in An American Werewolf in London) offered guidance with a helping of playfulness. Here (played by Obssa Ahmed), he’s simply just a generic zombie built for jump scares.

That playfulness also created a fluidity to the Creeds’ everyday life. From the kids amusingly picking up expletives to side characters such as Fred Gwynne’s Jud stealing the show with his warmth, booming voice and charming turn of phrase. As good as Lithgow is, once more the memorable is made forgettable.

Clarke is an improvement on the wooden Dale Midkiff (who did pull it out of the bag during pivotal scenes) and the rest of the cast turn in solid performances that create a believable, albeit bland, portrayal of family life. The film’s smaller moments translate well, even if they were bolder in its predecessor. Broaching the subject of death and the myriad of tricky questions that accompany it, as well as the supposedly harmless lies we weave in an attempt to shield young minds.

The agonising process of grief and the cautionary tale of how not letting go can consume everybody you love is again central, however, it does become somewhat muddled here. Unnecessary heft is added to Rachel’s already upsetting backstory involving a sick sibling. Which then descends into various horror tropes rather than focussing on the barrage of relief followed by guilt that overwhelms with the passing of a terminally ill family member.

1989’s original also put its characters out of their misery. Firstly showing how in the pits of despair we attempt to rationalise insanity, then sharply cutting to credits as we hear the family’s fate and the Ramones’ catchy title track joyfully kicking in. The remake prolongs the inevitable until it loses all meaning. Amounting to a drawn out, creepy kid killing spree that’s topped off with a lacklustre cover courtesy of Starcrawler.

Despite its rigid attempts to deviate from its predecessor, Pet Sematary’s dull, modern glaze revived my appreciation for the oddity that is Mary Lambert’s original.


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