One of the problems the makers of the latest adaptation of author Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (and it’s not really a problem at all) is that most people going to see it already know the basic plot. Either they read the 1986 novel, which is easily one of King’s great early works, or they saw the original film version from 1989 (directed by Mary Lambert), which is quite faithful but not really that scary. And the trailers for the new version from co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) have done a fairly solid job of laying out the basic idea of a family discovering an ancient burial ground where things come back to life shortly after you bury them there. But as the saying often goes: that’s what happens in the movie, but that’s not what it’s about.
Adapted this time around by Jeff Buhler, Pet Sematary is a tale that uses guilt and grief as its primary foundations. Boston doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (the wonderful Amy Seimetz), their daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and young son Gage (played by twins Lucas and Hugo Lavoie) move to rural Maine for reasons that are never quite spelled out, but Louis getting a chance to slow down his life and spend more time with his family seems to be the primary reason for the change. Although it’s never explained or expanded on, there’s a sense that his move is a marriage-saving necessity, and while boredom may set in a little quicker than it used to, it’s worth it to the good doctor.
Soon after their move, the Creeds discover two thing about their surroundings. One is the kindly, elderly neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) who lives next door (has lived there all his life, in fact) and seems to know a great deal about the goings on in the area. The other is a creepy little pet cemetery on their property where generations of pets are buried. And the cemetery itself is a bit unnerving; it’s the wall of dead trees and other things of the woods that sit just beyond the area that captures Louis’s attention. Is the wall keeping something out or something in? Whatever it is, there’s a force that draws him to it.
The other member of the Creed family is their stately cat Church, who is sadly killed one day. Seeing how tied Ellie was to the cat, Jud suggest they bury Church not in the cemetery, but in an area far beyond its borders, over the barrier. There’s a great exchange early in the film, in which Louis and Rachel are talking to Ellie (more like politely debating between themselves) about what happens to things when they die. Do they go to heaven, or are they just gone? Ellie is at that perfect age where she’s just starting to get curious about how death works, and it’s a great family teaching moment that almost inadvertently spells out many of the themes of the movie.
To spare telling her that her cat has died, her parents say that he ran away; but almost immediately, Church has returned, with clumps of blood and dirty in his fur and a seriously pissed-off attitude. It’s Church, but he doesn’t seem happy about being alive (if that’s what he is).
The true, unfiltered guilt that runs through the film comes through Rachel, who, as a child, was forced to take care of her physically deformed sister when her selfish parents wanted to go out some evenings. Her sister’s accidental and quite horrific death is something that Rachel has always felt responsible for, and her thoughts about that time in her life manifest themselves with unsettling clarity after the move to Maine, as if whatever dangerous force lives in the wood is getting into her brain and feeding off her guilt. Like many of the recent, powerful horror films in recent years, Pet Sematary uses the destruction of the family unit as its framework. It’s a family drama first, and it just happens to also have horrific elements weaved through it. But the reason we care is because the filmmakers have placed us within what feels very much like a lived-in, authentic familial unit. The horror comes from the familiar—a family being attacked by a force that appears to be giving it what it has asked for. But the price for these gifts is high.
As mentioned before, because the story is familiar to many, the filmmakers have built in a few key changes just to keep the King faithful on their toes, and for the most part, the changes are for the better. I don’t think I’m giving anything away to mention that one of the Creed children dies and Louis does exactly what you think he’s going to, with disastrous results. But he’s so far gone with grief and a deep-seated need to make everything right again (he too is tormented by guilt; in his case, it’s a young man, played by Obssa Ahmed, who died in Louis’s new office after being hit by a vehicle, resulting in half his skull caving in).
Young Laurence as Ellie is the film’s secret weapon. She plays sweet but contemplative like a master, but later in the film, she’s required to get quick awful, and she has no trouble making the transition. Pet Sematary is flawed, especially in the execution of its final act, but it’s a scary film that earns its scares by making us care deeply for its characters. And while that isn’t as much of a rarity in horror as it used to be, it still feels particularly special when someone gets it as right as this film does.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!