Horror movies are a dime a dozen these days. A quick scan of any movie database will confirm this. Currently, Jordan Peele’s Us is taking the box office by storm, and later this year we’re going to get several more horror blockbusters including the second half of Stephen King’s IT, a modern Chucky, and a film adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. For whatever reason, audiences have proven time and again that they love to be scared. Horror is somewhat of a niche market in both books and film, but it always manages to sustain itself with a few yearly gems, and this year’s spate isn’t likely to be an exception.
Whenever a Stephen King film gets the Hollywood treatment, it’s a boon to the industry for a multitude of reasons. King films, while they aren’t all box-office darlings, inherently have an audience in the fans of his work. The King name has transcended the world of fiction and become a pop culture touchstone; love him or hate him, it’s impossible to deny the impact he’s had on the arts over the last 45 years. Horror fans flock to theaters for his films, and those who normally pass on the blood and guts make exceptions to see the characters they love brought to life. In rare cases, a King story is so beloved that it gets multiple adaptations. 2019’s Pet Sematary is an adaptation of the 1983 novel, but it’s also a remake of the 1989 film of the same name. The new version is a relatively true-to-source retelling, but modernized. What results is a truly scary film that benefits greatly from 21st century cinematography, but doesn’t do enough to set itself apart from other contemporary horror. It’s terrific, as far as book-to-movie adaptations go–however, fans of horror movies in general who are looking for this one to stand out in a crowd may leave underwhelmed.
When Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) leaves his job in Boston to practice medicine at the University of Maine, he ships his family miles away from everything they’ve ever known. Their new house is situated in a heavily wooded area, and their only neighbor in sight lives across a road where oil tankers habitually go too fast and drive with reckless abandon. At a clearing in the woods, Louis’s daughter, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) finds the titular “Pet Sematary”, a place in which the town’s children bury animals who have passed on. It’s creepy, but the creepy-factor is ratcheted up a notch when the Creed’s neighbor (John Lithgow) tells Louis the town’s secret mythos–that the things buried in the woods don’t always stay dead. As one might expect, this theory is quickly put to the test when the Creed’s family cat dies; Louis and Jud (Lithgow) bury him in the dead of night, and he’s back by morning. The cat, however, has changed, prompting Louis to second guess his actions. When tragedy strikes the family again, Louis’s grief leaves him with a decision–does he visit the burial ground a second time and hope things turn out differently, or does he live with survivor’s guilt for the rest of his days? Though the story contains more nuanced themes, viewers will leave pondering whether humans have the right to play God or if it’s better to let life run its natural course.
Regardless of how one judges Pet Sematary —as an adaptation or as a standalone movie– one thing is undoubtedly clear: the film looks beautiful. Though gray seems to be the primary color, it works to establish a sense of dread from the very beginning, a visceral unease that permeates every shot, even the happier ones. “Comfort” is a feeling the the directors sought to eliminate, and they did the job well. Vast, sweeping shots of the forest show off the ability of modern cinema, while at the same time making audiences feel insignificant and reminding them of their own mortality. Powerfully-charged character close ups reveal tacit motivations just briefly enough to foreshadow sinister events. The gory scenes are tasteful and not overdone–enough to make stomachs squirm, but they’re contained to ensure it doesn’t feel like an 80s slasher. Though it stumbles a bit at the end –particularly during a key chase scene– on the whole, Pet Sematary looks great. At the very least, thirty year advancements in technology have all but guaranteed this film is much more frightening than its predecessor, from start to finish.
Speaking strictly to the film as an adaptation of the 1983 novel, 2019’s Pet Sematary stays remarkably close to its source material for the first hour or so of the movie before making some key changes for logistical reasons. The cemetery itself looks as if they built the set right from the page, and key lines of dialogue are mined directly from book to script. Though John Lithgow may not strike many fans as the ideal choice for kindly Jud Crandall, his portrayal adds to the darker undertones in the film and is more than serviceable. Jeté Laurence is pretty much perfect in her role as Ellie, and the other characters exist almost exactly as King wrote them. The film does have a rather different ending than the novel, but it is quite possibly more unsettling than the original, which is almost unfathomable. Fans of the story would do well to check this one out, because all of the key story beats are present and there are numerous nods to other King works throughout.
Those who have not read the book and are looking to Pet Sematary as the next big horror film may want to look elsewhere. It’s very scary, yes, but it does little to buck convention. There are numerous jump scares that get tiresome the second after heart rates return to baseline, and the overplayed “what’s behind this door I probably shouldn’t be looking in” trope abounds. Admittedly, there are several intense buildups (and the scenes with Rachel’s sister are downright terrifying), but there’s nothing audiences haven’t come to expect. Aside from nailing the tone, Pet Sematary is no more than average on the scare front. Everything about the story exudes opportunities to do some really creepy stuff, but it seems the directors played it safe, which may be why the film screens so well as an adaptation. A ticket on this movie is not a ticket wasted, per se, but don’t expect to see anything remarkable.
The directors of Pet Sematary knew they had two major target demographics with significant overlap: fans of Stephen King and fans of horror. Given that the two aren’t mutually exclusive, many people will enjoy some aspect of the movie, though it skews a bit toward the Stephen King side. The story contains themes that are unsettling to even the most grizzled horror veteran, and those audience members who typically avoid the genre will be willingly sacrificing a night or two’s worth of sleep, but it will probably be worth it. Pet Sematary ranges from “standout” to “slightly better than okay” depending on which lens one uses to view it, and that choice is, of course, up to the viewer. In a movie all about resurrecting the undead, this resurrection of an old Stephen King favorite is an enjoyable one, but time will tell if it manages to be one of the better films of 2019.