‘Pet Sematary’ Film Review: Stephen King Remake Digs Up Fresh New Scares

SXSW 2019: Whether you’re familiar with the Mary Lambert-directed original or coming in cold, this creepy tale will get under your skin

For fans of Mary Lambert’s original 1989 adaptation of the beloved Stephen King book, the new remake of “Pet Sematary” is different enough to offer shock and surprises to even the most ardent of loyalists.

At its premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival, several audience members braced themselves for pivotal moments from the older movie, and then jumped or nervously laughed when their anticipation was met by a clever psych-out by directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, whose previous film, “Starry Eyes,” also played at SXSW.

The movie opens differently than its predecessor. This time, the family car door is open, and there are bloody handprints still fresh on the driver’s side window. A thick trail of blood leads from the house to outside, but there are no characters in the frame or much of a clue as to what’s happened. The film then jumps back to the fateful day the Creed family moved from Boston to Ludlow, Maine, teasing the high-speed danger just outside their new home’s driveway. Behind their home is a macabre grave site the local kids have named a “pet sematary” for their deceased animals. Just beyond the borders of the area lies an even scarier plot of land.

While many of the favorite characters remain almost intact from King’s book, there are a few tweaks by the actors in their performances to give this version some more twists. Louis (Jason Clarke), a sensitive doctor, seems more attuned to the needs of his family. He’s very playful and connected with his daughter and son, and his softened persona makes him a more tragic figure as the events start to turn dark.

His wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), feels more grounded than her predecessor. Seimetz displays her character’s childhood traumas on the surface, like a woman fighting down her demons from taking over. John Lithgow brings a much more sympathetic approach to older local Jud and his curiosity about the supernatural grounds. But the film’s breakout star is Jeté Laurence (“Sneaky Pete”), whose scary-good performance as the sweet and naturally curious 8-year-old Ellie recasts what could have been a silly part into something that’s genuinely creepy and heartbreaking.

This “Pet Sematary” is notably different in pacing, starting off with a disturbing image and working quickly to retrace the steps that led to that moment. The movie is relatively on the bloody side of horror, including scenes like the film’s opening shot and the unfortunate family cat that gets a mangy makeover later in the movie. Cinematographer Laurie Rose (“Stan & Ollie”) casts much of the film in a pale blue pall, as though the sun never comes out in this part of Maine.

While the trailer unbelievably spoils one of the remake’s biggest plot twists, there’s still a lot of hidden references for people familiar to the story, like an updated cover version of The Ramones’ “Pet Sematary” over the credits. For those new to what happens, this remake will perhaps act as a gateway to checking out more adaptations of King’s stories or reading his books.

One of the most enduring aspects of the narrative is how it addresses grief, our inability to let go of loved ones when they die, and our fear about discussing mortality. Louis and Rachel fight over how to talk to Ellie about death, revealing an American cultural taboo around the subject. Rachel, traumatized by the early death of her sick sister, wants to shield her daughter from the harsh sting of losing a loved one for as long as she can. Louis disagrees, and there’s a sense that the movie sides with him, although it later shows that while he can talk about loss in the abstract, and try to fight against it as a doctor, he still does not know what it means to grieve for someone and to let them go.

(When the directors and some members of the cast and crew took the stage after the screening, Widmyer described his “Pet Sematary” as “elevated horror.” There’s not an “elevated” thing about it. It’s not high-concept, paced like a slow-burn arthouse movie, or meant to shatter audiences’ expectations of what defines a horror movie. “Pet Sematary” is just a regular horror movie told with the directors’ style, and it’s not like this genre is short on stylish directors: Sam Raimi, George Romero, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, to name just a few, scared audiences with their groundbreaking works, yet their movies may never be classified as “elevated horror.” It’s a false label that sneers at the history and conventions of the genre for the sake of filmmakers’ egos and, in a way, it diminishes what Lambert accomplished with her version of “Pet Sematary” in order to “elevate” their vision above hers.)

That Q&A aside, I quite enjoyed the thrills of the new “Pet Sematary,” much like I enjoyed the scares of the old movie. Its terrifying story about death still leaves audiences with much to think about long after the credits roll, and the twists that lead to a new ending are fun to follow. Thirty years after the original movie frightened audiences, its source material has given new life to one of the best Stephen King adaptations in the past decade.