Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to honor the memory of the 1983 Stephen King novel Pet Sematary, but what's this? It's clawing out of the grave and lurching back to life!
King's chilling novel made it into theaters in 1989, and it's back for a 2019 remake. This new version is also part of the resurrection of King's stories on the big screen, as his much-loved horror best-sellers get a second go-round of movie adaptations following the success of .
Grief, loss and resurrection are at the heart of Pet Sematary, as an ordinary family wrestles with the dilemma of bringing back their loved ones, whatever the price.
Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz are the parents who relocate to the countryside for a bit of peace and quiet. It's the oldest setup in the book: a family with a troubled past moves to an isolated house that harbors secrets of its own. There's a creepy neighbor, a creepy basement, a creepy forest -- everything but the creepy kitchen sink.
Creepiest of all is the family cat, who becomes a disheveled but sinister presence in the family home. The audience is pretty much ahead of the story for the first half, but it's still an effective horror slow-burn. Things get spooky as next-door neighbor John Lithgow, alternating between avuncular and unsettling, reluctantly gives a glimpse into the nature of the horror. Small tests and small sacrifices lead to bigger tests -- and more extreme sacrifice.
What makes the story stick is the killer premise. Even if you haven't read the book or seen the previous film version -- which I haven't -- you can still see what's coming. A terrible decision lies in wait for the family, and that horrifying temptation, that grim inevitability, irresistibly draws the characters and audience to peer into the shadows.
When the characters do embrace the darkness, the film becomes like a fever dream shot in entertainingly delirious style. And then the next day dawns, and everyone has to live with the consequences.
The first half does such a great job of building a sense of dread that once it passes the point of no return the film doesn't seem to know where to go. When it descends into the nightmare, the film promises a deliciously macabre second half in which the family members have to live with their terrible decision. But instead it fizzles out, separating the characters and diluting the tension before a strangely undramatic final conflict.
As much as it's updated with cell phones and laptops, Pet Sematary still has an old-school feel. The vaguely retro atmosphere even extends to the dark place looking like a soundstage shrouded in dry ice and littered with polystyrene rocks. There's also a slow-motion window smash that's straight out of the VHS era.
Not all of the retro-ness works quite so well. There's a flashback-based subplot that looks oddly dated, even if it does provide a few shocks.
The film is also littered with little details that demand your attention and then lead nowhere. Are they red herrings? Are they Stephen King Easter eggs? Are they carelessly forgotten plot threads? The answer will be different for each viewer. In fact, there are so many odd little things left hanging it almost feels like a choose-your-own-adventure story, like next time you watch the ending will be different. Maybe next time the ending will be less of an anticlimax.
The resolution may not live up to the promise of the earlier dread and horror, but this revived Pet Sematary is well worth digging up.
Originally published April 4.