Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) relocate from Boston to rural Maine with their two young children. After struggling to settle into their new life, the family discover a mysterious burial ground deep in the woods with a horrific past.
The 1989 film version of Stephen King’s novel may have been frightening in its day, but for a modern audience, it’s awful. So many great 1980s horror movies retain a scare factor despite dated special effects and jarring soundtracks, but Stephen King’s most morbid novel didn’t get the justice it deserved at the first adaptation attempt.
If righting that was the intention with Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s 2019 reworking of Pet Sematary, they succeeded. Thirty years on from the original, the acting is more moving, the plot tighter, and the scares heightened to exercise the demons of inadequacy surrounding this terrifying tale of grief. Another talking point in adaptation theory is what version of a narrative is most well-known. For example, people more often recall John Carpenter’s The Thing film than the source novella – similarly ‘Frankenstein’ is more well-regarded as a novel than any one of its film adaptations. This rendition of Pet Sematary could well be its defining telling.
The 2019 script re-jigs many of the novel’s minor details but makes one surprisingly bold change too. This goes a long way in raising the fright factor and gives the resurrection scene a lot more weight and emotional complexity. Added to that, Jeff Buhler’s script keeps the action going, taking us through the major horror movie beats in a familiar way. Pet Sematary does deliver some irritatingly stock moments that detract from an otherwise interesting story. There is only so much mist that can creep over a moonlight graveyard before Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ becomes your first thought. Perhaps it’s a callback to the 80s film’s campiness, but it reeked of unoriginality. Ditto for the creepy child drawings and CGI wood-dwelling monster. It added little to the narrative and seemed overwrought. But these are minor issues with an otherwise watertight plot.
Luckily the acting was also an improvement on the 1989 film too. Whereas Buhler only needed small changes for a more exciting script, the acting department had a big job to erase the memory of the original film’s most wooden moments. Amy Seimetz fails as Mrs. Rachel Creed, her performance as stiff and unmoving as roadkill. The rest of the main cast, however, shine in their roles. John Lithgow has fun as the ‘crazy ol coot’ Jud, and Jeté Laurence is engaging and adorable (as well as decidedly creepy when she needs to be) as Ellie. But the star of the show is Jason Clarke, whose piercing blue eyes become the focus for demonstrating Louis’ increasing madness. A subtle performance, the Australian actor is entrancing.
Vastly better than Mary Lambert’s 1989 film, surpassing this low bar doesn’t make 2019’s Pet Sematary a classic – but it does make it suitably scary. 6.5/10.