Opinions tend to be split on the original “Pet Sematary” from 1989, with harsher critics dismissing it and horror aficionados looking upon it more favorably. This critic falls into the latter camp, as Mary Lambert’s rendition remains a solid and creepy flick for a lazy late night on the couch. But, much like the original 1990 “It,” that version is very much eclipsed by its recent remake.
Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer have made what may be the definitive version of Stephen King’s classic tale of grief and horror.
Many people going in will probably be at least somewhat familiar with the story: The Creed family moves into a new home in Maine, only to have tragedy befall them: Their beloved cat, Church, is killed by a truck. A friendly neighbor points them to the nearby “pet sematary” (misspelled by local children), where they bury the cat — and there the horror begins.
The previews make no secret of the fact that one significant change has been made to the original story, but if somehow you have managed to avoid all of those so far, you may want to stop reading here and go to the movie knowing you’ll probably enjoy this version very, very much.
Those of you who have seen the previews and the poster know of the plot switcheroo the filmmakers made involving the Creed children: 8-year-old Ellie is the child who dies in this version (instead of toddler Gage) and comes back as a malevolent version of her former self. This is perhaps the most significant and most successful change made to the story, and it works really well with the heavy themes involving life, death and what comes after.
As Ellie grows and discovers the concepts of life and death, naturally asking her parents about them when her anxieties of the idea begin to arise, it’s dealt with in such an impactful way by reminding the viewer of their own possible worries about truly discovering the concept of death in the days of childhood. As the plot’s catalyst takes effect and Ellie meets her (initial) fate, her character and plotline come to a satisfying full circle in terms of compelling storytelling. Young actress Jeté Laurence absolutely knocks it out of the park both as the sweet and lively Ellie in life, and as a horrifying and evil undead nightmare when she comes back.
Along with Laurence, performances are great all around, especially John Lithgow playing friendly old neighbor Jud Crandall, who was originally performed by the late and wonderful Fred Gwynne of “The Munsters” and “My Cousin Vinny.” Lithgow opts for a grandfatherly but nervous performance that helps add to the overall mood of approaching doom upon the Creed family — and perfectly conveys a sense of constant dread behind his own eyes. After Gwynne, Lithgow was probably the best person to play this character.
Jason Clarke is excellent as Ellie’s dad, Louis Creed, who drives the film forward as a loving and logical father who descends slowly into madness as grief and the discovery of what happens in the pet sematary overtakes him. This version also offers significantly more development of his wife Rachel’s character, fully exploring her own subplot of childhood tragedy and death that still haunts her traumatically. Amy Seimetz plays the loving mother, skillfully switching between the ideal mom and a haunted, grieving parent as the story progresses.
When it comes to the horror, the film takes a more refreshing route, with just one or two jump scares while the rest of the film develops a sense of dread as tension, relying on mood, atmosphere and the terrifying subject matter to do the work of frightening the audience. The cast, crew and filmmakers have all put in the work to make a horror film that will not only scare you, but will stay with you. For such a dark movie, a lot of love was put into it by everybody.
Whether or not you enjoyed the 1989 original, the new version is worth checking out for its effective deviation from the source material and as a successful horror film on its own. It’s not on the same level as Jordan Peele’s “Us,” but “Pet Sematary” continues the renaissance of excellent horror movies we’ve been getting the past few years.
On a side note, to the family in the front row with an infant and two elementary-schoolers: Thanks for letting your baby cry through the film, and good luck dealing with your other kids’ nightmares for the next six months.
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“Pet Sematary” is currently playing at the Riverside Cinemas, 1017 S. Boone St. in Aberdeen.
George Haerle holds a bachelor’s degree in creative writing for media and lives in Cosmopolis.