As with many great horror films, Pet Sematary begins with an ominous aerial shot. Traversing the grey-green treetops of a remote forest town, that elusive and troubling sense of the unknown that accompanies the untrodden countryside sets in, and we know those creepy woods, which ring of the malevolent forces of lore that have haunted us since the pilgrim days, will enclose on whoever enters them. As the God’s eye moves further north, a farmhouse pops into view, completely ablaze, and then an abandoned car with blood prints on the side window. Now it’s clear that we’ve begun at the end, and are witnessing a glimpse of the doom to come. Then we go back. Same place, just sunnier. The Creed family approaches their newly bought farmhouse.
While the highlights of the film cause me to wax poetic, there also exist noticeable but forgivable flaws, most glaring being the mishandling of a few important plot elements. Louis Creed (the talented Jason Clarke, who still can’t quite conceal his Aussie accent) works for a University Hospital and, not far into his tenure, watches a patient die from being hit by a car. The young man, Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed), then recurrently appears as a wraith, assuming the role of harbinger to deter Louis from using the dark magic within the forest. This is the first of only a smidgen of things that worked better in the 1985 version directed by Mary Lambert. Victor, here, feels sadly underdeveloped— more of a haunted house decoration than a compelling supernatural figure. Some pivotal events get a cursory treatment as well, such as the death of the family cat, Church. Furthermore, when Louis is shown that he can resurrect Church by interring him at an ancient Indian burial ground behind the local and misspelled pet cemetery, the resulting demonic feline comes nowhere close to the original in terms of creepiness. Given the hour and forty minute run time, there remains a sense that these omens would have been more effective if gradually placed rather than rushed through. Additionally, a sort of half-realized embellishment on the Pet Sematary legend includes children in a funeral procession wearing animal masks whenever a pet dies. Clumsily introduced and never meaningfully included as a visual motif, it reads like a bungled Wicker Man reference, intended to disturb but ultimately contrived and perhaps a bit too eager. Luckily, these examples prove to be exceptions, not the rule.
Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch, a directing team that made the obscure but visually dazzling indie-horror film Starry Eyes, prove to be an astute choice for this remake, utilizing dream sequences to inject ever-so-slight surrealism and fairy tale hallucinations replete with foggy swamps and menacing thunder amid the night’s constellations. John Lithgow’s casting as the rugged and careworn neighbor, Jud Crandall, who introduces Louis to the cemetery, works especially well. His sagacious charisma melds intriguingly with the mysterious and sometimes off-putting traits of his character, resulting in a performance that I found to be slightly more complex than Fred Gwynne’s in the first film. The central threat, that of decrepit and evil versions of those buried at the pet cemetery, occasionally gets overshadowed by the frightening flashbacks to Rachel Creed’s (Amy Seimetz) traumatic childhood. Her sister, Zelda (Alyssa Brooke), died from a particularly ghastly case of spinal meningitis. With sparing but vivid detail, the depiction of Zelda outsoars that of the original, and a few additions to this childhood nightmare provide harrowing frights for the slower, expository segments.
Those familiar with Stephen King’s novel will immediately foresee big changes when they see that introductory image of a burning house, a rather extreme outcome not present in said book. To avoid spoiling anything, all that can be said is that several key twists to the story produce devastating and violent results. One alteration that can be divulged involves the death of one of the Creed children early on. Previously, it had been the two-year-old Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) who succumbs. In Greenberg’s story and Buhler’s script, the victim becomes the daughter, Ellie (Jeté Laurence), and that switch ends up completely altering the established narrative path. They deserve major props for not squandering the remake form and cleverly updating the story as opposed to churning out a slightly intensified reproduction.
With Pet Sematary, the horror reboot racket has finally ascended beyond the business of cash-ins based on name recognition, along with the polarizing Suspiria remake, which completely runs away with its story, yielding varying amounts of admiration and disdain. This adaptation will likely not divide its audience, who are sure to be simultaneously satisfied by its adherence to the source material and refreshed by its calculated revisions. | Nic Champion