[Note: This review contains minor spoilers for the 1983 novel Pet Sematary and its 1989 film adaptation.]
Unhappy endings are hardly a recent phenomenon in horror cinema. No less a film than Night of the Living Dead (1968) boasts one of the bleakest finales of all time. Over the decades, the genre has offered up endings characterized by howling shellshock (The Last House on the Left, 1972; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974), disturbing ambiguity (The Shining, 1980; The Thing, 1982) and sadistic fake-outs (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978; A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984). Something definitive shifted in 1999, however, with the one-two punch of The Ring and The Blair Witch Project. Those films offered not just unhappy endings but doom-drenched assertions of Evil’s might, reach, and inexorable triumph. In the 21st century, it’s now the norm for horror films to punch out on a malicious twist, undoing whatever victory the heroes thought they had achieved against the forces of darkness. (Just look at last year’s theatrical horror features: The majority boast endings that range from cryptic to sorrowful to downright pitch-black.)
Outside of the zombocalypse subgenre, few modern horror tales have been able to top the sheer, perverse bleakness that characterizes the final stretch of Pet Sematary. That would be the 1983 novel by Maine’s master of the macabre, Stephen King – as well as the book’s 1989 film adaptation, which boasts a screenplay penned by King himself. Over the decades, the author has generally resisted the darkling allure of unhappy endings. At least in his novels, King tends to favor conclusions where Evil is ultimately vanquished, albeit typically in a manner that entails great sacrifice. (It’s in his short stories that King is disposed to indulge his skepticism, pessimism, and taste for utter desolation.) Pet Sematary is the exception that proves the rule: a morbid and supremely nasty piece of work that King himself purportedly regards as his most upsetting novel, one where he perhaps pushed things a little too far. And that’s coming from the man who wrote It’s notoriously icky Scene That Shall Not Be Named. There’s nothing even remotely bittersweet about Pet Sematary: It’s a meticulous character study, a primally repellent occult fable, and a deeply unsettling rumination on death and dying.
Director Mary Lambert managed to preserve that gangrenous sensibility in her 1989 film adaptation. In part, this was because Paramount Pictures didn’t expect the film to do well: The diminished scrutiny from the studio gave both her and King the freedom to go much darker than mainstream horror features typically dared at the time. Admittedly, Lambert’s Pet Sematary hasn’t aged all that well: Everything except the ghoulish makeup effects is cheap-looking, some scenes feel repetitive, and the pacing is inexcusably sluggish in spots. Still, it’s a solid and remarkably faithful adaptation, especially where the novel’s rotten, gnarly core is concerned. Notwithstanding Paramount’s expectations, Lambert’s feature proved to be a sleeper hit, and it helped cement the late 1980s through mid-1990s as a fecund period for adaptations of King’s works.
King’s brand of pulpy New England horror has been experiencing yet another renaissance over the past couple of years, with adaptations of 11.22.63, The Dark Tower, It, Gerald’s Game, 1922, and Mister Mercedes, as well as the “King universe” series Castle Rock. It’s unsurprising, then, that Paramount decided to take a 30-years-later whack at Pet Sematary, whose repulsive and despairing tone makes for a snug fit in the current landscapes of both multiplex and arthouse horror. The filmmakers that have birthed this new version of King’s tale are co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Absence, Starry Eyes, Holidays), with a story and screenplay credited to Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler, respectively. Forebodingly, the most promising item on these filmmakers’ collective résumé is probably Buhler’s script for the nascent 2008 cult classic The Midnight Meat Train. No matter: The new Pet Sematary might be a decidedly mixed bag, but it’s still a creeping, squirming, tendon-slicing bad time in all the right ways.
Kölsch and Widmyer deviate from Lambert’s film right out the gate, by giving the viewer a flash-forward glimpse of their story’s cryptic, bloody aftermath. It’s a questionable opening flourish, but one that’s admittedly consistent with King’s penchant for dribbling ominous, omniscient-flavored forewarnings into his third-person subjective narratives. Even audiences who have not read the novel or seen Lambert’s adaptation will likely find the film’s setup familiar. The Reed family – physician Louis (Jason Clarke), homemaker Rachel (Amy Seimetz), pre-tween Ellie (Jeté Laurence), toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), and Ellie’s beloved cat Church – are relocating from the bustle of Boston to sleepy small-town Maine, where Louis has recently accepted a position at a university campus clinic. From the moment that the Reeds’ station wagon pulls into the driveway of their new, perfectly quaint Yankee homestead, however, a shadow is discernible. For starters, there’s the terrifying speed with which the Orinco Petroleum tanker trucks thunder down the country road in front of their house. There’s also the pet cemetery, which Rachel and Ellie discover when they spot a silent procession of masked children reverently carrying a dog’s remains across the family’s property.
Ellie later explores this eerie burial ground, which is tucked away just behind the house in the adjacent woods. There, she runs into the family’s elderly neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), who sharply warns her against climbing on a massive tree deadfall, and then softens to explain a little bit of the place’s history. (It turns out his own childhood dog is buried there.) In the following days, the Reeds quickly warm to Jud, a widower and lifelong local fixture, and he in turn takes a shine to Ellie’s precocious energy. The cemetery nags at Ellie’s thoughts, however, eliciting uncomfortable questions about mortality, the afterlife, and how such matters might apply to her cat. Louis favors a blunt, rationalist approach to these inquiries, but Rachel – whose own childhood was spent caring for an older sister twisted physically and mentally by the ravages of meningitis – prefers to shield their kids from such horror with a liberal application of benevolent lies.
Louis has morbid preoccupations of his own, unfortuantely. When a grievously injured auto-accident victim, Victor Pascrow (Obssa Ahmed), is rushed into the university clinic, Louis quickly ascertains that the man cannot be saved. Even though his brains are spilling out of his skull, Victor manages to sit up one last time and uses his final breath to wheeze out an enigmatic warning, calling Louis by name and admonishing that “the barrier must not be broken.” As if this encounter wasn’t harrowing enough, Victor’s gruesome shade later visits Louis in a dream, leading him to the pet cemetery and offering yet another warning, this time regarding the woods beyond the deadfall: The ground is sour. Louis is inclined to chalk it up to a trauma-induced nightmare – if not for the fact that he awakens in his bed with muddy feet.
Late one afternoon, Jud discreetly escorts Louis to an unwelcome scene: Church, stiff and bloody on the side of the road, evidently struck by one of those speeding tankers. Louis makes the fateful decision to conceal the animal’s death from Ellie, and Jud offers to help him bury Church in secret after nightfall. When the time comes, however, the older man doesn’t stop at the pet cemetery, but instead leads Louis over the deadfall, through a swamp, and up a set of ancient hewn stairs to a stony plateau. There, tiny cairns mark what is self-evidently sacred ground. “What are we doing here, Jud?” Louis demands. “We’re burying your daughter’s cat,” is the matter-of-fact but evasive reply. Jud insists that Louis must dig Church’s grave in the thin, rocky soil himself – and then build the cairn as well. Louis does so, and the men return home in silence, with Jud extracting a final promise to keep their nocturnal mission a secret.
What unfolds the following day will be unsurprising to the canny viewer, but it’s still horribly unsettling. Church comes back: disheveled, stiff-limbed, and cockeyed. “Church, you stink!” Ellie exclaims, but whatever is wrong with the girl’s pet goes way beyond the stench of the grave. The animal has become furtive, irritable, and simply off in some elusive but undeniable way. Louis demands an explanation from Jud, who reveals that the place they interred Church is a forgotten Mi’kmaq burial ground, a secret place known only to a handful of locals. Whatever is buried there returns, a phenomenon that Jud witnessed with his own childhood dog – before his father put a bullet into the animal for a second time. Which begs the question: Why the hell did Jud think it was a good idea to bury Church in such a place? Whatever the problems with Buhler’s screenplay – and it has plenty – this Pet Sematary alludes to the dark, otherworldly nudges from King's novel that Lambert’s film elided: “That place … all at once it gets hold of you … and you make up the sweetest-smelling reasons in the world.” This sets the stage for a much more profound tragedy for the Reeds, as well as a downward spiral into blasphemous evil that will haunt many a viewer – especially those with children.
The 1989 film was often plodding and raggedy – the inclusion of the subplot about Rachel’s dead sister was a fruitless miscalculation that the new adaptation repeats and amplifies into a full-blown sub-Insisious haunting – but King’s screenplay possessed something invaluable that Buhler’s script lacks. Namely, the novel’s rich, gradually escalating atmosphere of inescapable doom. Plot points in Pet Sematary 2019 unspool with a kind of dutiful obligation, absent the immersive illusion of cause and effect. It’s a fine distinction, but one that is essential in a story that hinges on the viewer accepting the story’s slow-motion supernatural tragedy. Some of this inelegance is attributable to the substantial changes that Buhler makes to the novel’s plot, and some of it is due to subtler shifts in emphasis. Louis is no longer the only point-of-view character, which makes it difficult for the film to steep in the surrogate father-son relationship the develops between Louis and Jud – a bond that forms the emotional spine of the novel's story. However, the screenplay doesn’t deserve all the blame here. Kölsch and Widmyer seem eager to rush negligently through the story’s first act, so impatient to get to the grave-robbing and grief-wracked madness that they neglect the slow burn. It doesn’t help that Lithgow seems oddly miscast; certainly, he doesn’t have Fred Gwynne’s ease and credibility in the role of a hard-bitten Maine old-timer. (The late Gwynne nailed the region’s characteristic “ayuhs” better than any other actor in any King adaptation.) Lithgow’s performance just feels too soggy and anxious, a poor fit for a character that demands a certain oaken steadiness.
There are plenty of other missteps in this iteration of Pet Sematary. Victor’s apparition never becomes the literally haunting presence he was in the novel or the 1989 film – there’s that whiff of obligatory inclusion again – and Kölsch and Widmyer indulge in one too many winking, sadistic callbacks to the previous adaptation. Morsels of more expansive world-building are sprinkled into the film – such as those creepy masked kids glimpsed at the beginning, or a hulking, shadowy presence in the swamp that may or may not be an evil Algonquin spirit – but these never result in anything other than the most negligible payoff.
Perhaps it’s for the best: Pet Sematary works precisely because it’s an intimate, domestic story, one concerned with universal experiences as seen through an intensely personal lens. Kölsch and Widmyer’s version of the tale might be clunky in terms of storytelling, but it still handily conveys that fundamental stench of wrongness that undergirds King’s novel. The revisions that Buhler makes to the plot don’t necessarily result in a story that’s “better” or “worse,” just one with different shadings to its horror. What the 1989 screenplay left somewhat mysterious, the 2019 film underlines in hellfire. What was conceptually grotesque 30 years ago is now more explicitly revolting, thanks to some truly unnerving makeup and visual effects. Kölsch and Widmyer never quite replicate the hideous (if cheesy) transgressiveness of Lambert’s film, but they make a respectable go at it – capping things off with a new ending that feels delightfully appalling for a multiplex horror feature.
Regardless, it’s undeniable that the new Pet Sematary is a more formally polished film than its forebear. The shots composed by the directors and cinematographer Laurie Rose are more striking, and the production design by Todd Cherniawsky is more lavish and redolent. Some of this is simply attributable to the film being a $20 million production in 2019, but Kölsch and Widmyer don’t approach the material with mercenary dispassion. They’re self-evidently besotted with King’s disturbing vision, and they often find ways to put an artful yet creepy spin on the genre’s visual and narrative conventions. Indeed, some of the feature’s more self-consciously fakey effects – a creeping white mist straight out of a classic Universal monster movie or an obviously green-screened nocturnal sky roiling with thunderheads – serve to position the film within a slightly older and scruffier cinematic context.
Among the adult performers, the perpetually undervalued Seimetz acquits herself most effectively, although even in its expanded and more phantasmagorical form, Rachel’s subplot still feels somewhat unnecessary. (One can envision a more resonant version of said subplot if the novel were adapted into a limited series and Rachel given her own stand-alone episode.) It’s the 10-year-old Laurence who runs away with the film, however, in a role that requires her to be endearing but a little uneasy, and then later oozing with overripe sweetness – like candied fruit that’s begun to ferment into mold-furred mush.
There’s plenty of little things in this Pet Sematary that linger: that gargantuan deadfall of bone-white trees, more intimidating here than in the novel; the twilit aerial shots of the blue-gray forest crown, more primeval than seems possible for New England (the film was actually shot in Quebec); even the way that zombie Church’s droopy, unblinking eyes never quite seem to follow each other. There’s a moment late in the film when an undead abomination launches into a brief spasmodic frenzy that’s so chilling it’s guaranteed to squat in a corner of the viewer’s subconscious for years. These details notwithstanding, however, it’s the ineffable darkness at the heart of the story that makes Pet Sematary worth revisiting, no matter how imperfect its form. It’s the same darkness that once made King shudder and file his manuscript away, fearful that he had dug too deeply into the festering bowels of love – love for a pet, a child, a partner, or whoever might compel one to do the unthinkable.