Pet Sematary makes shockingly bold changes to dig deep into grief and mortality

While screen adaptations of Stephen King’s works have always been popular, the commercial and critical success of 2017’s IT seems to reinvigorated audiences’ appetites for more. Some like Hulu’s Castle Rock, Netflix’s Gerald’s Game (directed by The Haunting of Hill House’s Mike Flanagan), and Mr. Mercedes have been creatively fruitful – while others like The Dark Tower and The Mist have been miserable failures. Nevertheless, the demand remains strong, and as of now, there over a dozen new adaptations in the works.

But as the production of upcoming high-profile sequels such as IT: Chapter Two and Doctor Sleep dominate the minds of horror fans, Pet Sematary (based on the seminal 1983 novel, and subsequent 1989 film of the same name) has quietly resurrected, and it demands attention. More than yet another cover of a beloved classic, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s 2019 version contracts it’s focus, expands its exploration of grief, and makes ballsy changes to the source material that lead to shocking and much darker paths.

In an era of endless remakes, it’s rare to find one that’s excitingly fresh, and genuinely superior. And yet, here Pet Sematary is, pulling off the impossible. Part of it’s audaciousness is its willingness to take narrative risks and deviate from sacred text. Based on interviews and the trailer alone, King diehards have cried foul over the alterations, but as you’ll come to discover – they are smart, and they brilliantly subvert expectations. Like The Shining or Misery, some of the very best King adaptations have innovated their own identities.

That doesn’t mean this film is blasphemous or disrespectful. It just means that it found a sharply unique take on the story, while staying staying true to the spirit of King’s themes. What’s the point of a rigidly verbatim, shot-for-shot remake? Here screenwriter Jeff Buhler streamlines Pet Sematary to focus entirely on a sinister family nightmare, digging deep into trauma to craft a study of how loss, desperation, and the uncertainty of death can consume. Visceral scares are layered with emotional complexity and encroaching dread.

As you may already know, the story centers around the Creed family (no, not the boxing one). In hopes of spending more time with his children, Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) leave big city Boston behind to move into a rural Maine home with their two kids Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), and their family cat Church. But beyond their idyllic new landscape lies a creepy patch of land – a cursed cemetery for local pets, with the uncanny ability to bring the dead back to life.

After tragedy hits, grief and the uncomfortable topic of death becomes omnipresent in the household. Being a man of science, Louis considers death as a natural part of life, Meanwhile, Rachel is tormented by the subject, viewing it as toxic. This discord, alongside other smart new wrinkles to the Creed’s otherwise loving familial relationship, make their lives feel messy and real. Sometimes the dynamic is played for surprisingly effective morbid comedy, but all levity is expelled when alarm and anxiety begin to suffocate them.

Jason Clarke’s steady performance as Louis exudes an everyman relatability, but it’s Amy Seimetz’s meatier role as Rachel (she is a far more active participant here than in the book) that shines with raw intensity. Outside the parental protagonists, Jeté Laurence steals the show by elevating Ellie beyond the genre’s “creepy kid” trope. Laurence amplifies Ellie into a chilling yet compelling character, navigating the journey from sweet innocence to unyielding terror with deft believability. There are no weak links in this wonderful cast.

In fact, the only minor drawbacks are the film’s underutilization of John Lithgow as Jud Crandall, the Creed’s kindly but gruff neighbour, and Obssa Ahmed as Victor Pascow, a young patient of Louis’. But those minor complaints are easily overlooked in the midst of an exceptionally tense feature, filled with great visuals and creative set-pieces. Special mention must also be made to Christopher Young’s ominous and atonal score, that eschews the heavy-handedness usually associated with mainstream studio horror for effective restraint.

Given it’s substantial changes and drastically distinct third act, Pet Sematary might not sit well with King purists or casuals looking for a jump scare crowd-pleaser. But those with a more open mind will appreciate this film’s visceral vision of dread, it’s thoughtful meditation on mortality, and it’s dedication to examining the implications of King’s opening line to his novel, “Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret.” 2019’s Pet Sematary isn’t perfect. But sometimes, different is better.

Rating: 7.5/10