Movie review: “Pet Sematary” (2019)

Pet Sematary

“But it’s all okay. You’re back now.”

“Back from where?”

The specter of unimaginable loss hangs, as it should, like a pall over Pet Sematary – not merely the loss of a beloved pet, say, which would be awful enough on its own; nor the loss of a sibling, maybe one you loved, or maybe one of whom you were scared enough as a little kid to secretly, shamefully, wish dead; nor the loss of a spouse, nor a parent, nor, worst of all, the sudden and heartbreaking loss of a child – but of everything, the loss of seemingly everything you ever loved and fought for all at once, crumbling away to nothing before your frantic, helpless, unbelieving eyes. What would you do in that moment, honestly, without the benefit of foresight or rational thought, to get it all back? Wouldn’t you do anything? Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s stoic horror parable touches the heart with a clammy, room temperature hand and presses down firmly, until our breathing is rendered involuntarily shallow. This second filmed adaptation of Stephen King’s classic literary chiller is spare and soaked in dread, buoyed by superb, generally understated performances and, though the enterprise plays fair on the whole, a sense of narrative adventure, that, however slight, is still noticeable enough to provide clear elevation above its workaday reboot peers. King’s spark of genius, which lay not only in his willingness to pose impossible human questions but to answer them in stark, unblinking, inevitably horrific, ways, filters down to much but not all of this latest take, which shines flickering light into enough dark places to be judged a success on its own terms, if perhaps not quite to its fullest potential.

Pet Sematary posterThe major story beats here employed align with both Mary Lambert’s alternately grim and goofy 1989 cult classic and with the pitch black original novel, whose tone it more closely mirrors, and should therefore be familiar to horror fans. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke, of Zero Dark Thirty and Terminator: Genisys), an overworked Boston doctor seeking countryside quiet and a more relaxed pace of life, moves his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz, of Upstream Color and multiple underrated TV series) and their two children, nine-year-old daughter Ellie (relative newcomer Jete Laurence, punching above her weight and landing consistently) and toddler son Gage, to a multi-acre plot of wooded, untamed land nestled among the rural backroads of Maine. Also along for the ride is Ellie’s cat, Winston Churchill (“Church” for short), who will go on to play perhaps the most disproportionately significant narrative role by a housepet in horror history. Among several points of emphasis likely left out of the realtor’s sales pitch, along with the encroaching highway with its deadly blindspot that begins where the Creed driveway ends and delivers eighteen-wheelers as if shot from a cannon, there is clearly something unnatural going on in the surrounding forest. While still settling in, Louis and Ellie happen across a silent, macabre procession of local children, dressed in drab clothing and animal masks, guiding a wheelbarrow down a winding path into the heart of the woods. They follow from a distance and eventually come to a makeshift graveyard nestled into a clearing beneath a fearsome outcropping of rock. This is the “sematary” (sic.)* of the title – a place for and by kids, in which they might bury their beloved dogs, cats, hamsters, etc., and, in the process, work their way through sudden and overwhelming grief – and though innocent enough on its face, there are sinister forces at play that bear further investigation.**

*I bought the King novel during one of its initial paperback runs back in 1985 or ‘86, which would’ve made me, at approximately eleven years old, far too young to properly digest such varsity level scares. Oops. I can still both remember my officious great aunt informing me that the title was “misspelled” when I presented the book for her inspection, and not quite understanding enough contextually at the time to inform her otherwise.

**“Church” will become the principal to die here whose demise, ironically enough for a cat, is among the least attributable to base curiosity.

These mysterious woods have a presence about them – equal parts aura and unseen affliction – that radiates outward to variously touch and tweak their neighbors. Something about the rustic Creed farmhouse seems…off. Louis and Rachel begin to see fleeting glimpses of inexplicable things, especially after he loses a gruesomely mangled car accident victim on his first day in the ER. Church begins to act skittish. One day, Ellie chases her cat back down the path to the cemetery, where she encounters Jud Crandall (a masterfully modulated John Lithgow, balanced on the edge of personal torment), a grizzled, good-intentioned community fixture whose own house abuts the Creed property. Louis strikes up the sort of faux-cordial friendship with Jud that new neighbors so often do, choosing to overlook the emotions roiling beneath his amiable surface. I mean, if you’d spent the majority of a largely solitary lifetime keeping impossibly grave secrets (pun intended) and involuntarily communing with the dead, I’m sure you’d be ill at ease too. This Pet Sematary plays at being more of an overt haunted house movie than did its compartmentalized but still effective predecessor, and Jud fills the “Keeper of Lore” role that so often pops up in those sorts of tales. It is he who lets slip the dark history behind the animal graveyard, how that rocky outcropping leads to an ancient Native American burial ground, and, in a misguided effort to assuage Ellie’s grief, finally shares a fateful secret after Louis finds Church dead by his mailbox one morning. The two climb the deadfall so Louis can bury Church out where the ground is “stonier”, and by the succeeding dawn, he is astonished to find the shorthair tabby running around the property, almost as if nothing had happened. Almost.

It’s rare that a modern reboot makes me want to seek out and re-watch the original for any reason other than washing a foul taste from my mouth, so the achievement of Kolsch and Widmyer’s reimagining – which, for a change, stands of its own accord and on its own two feet without degrading or negating its forebear – is fairly substantial. I loved almost every second of, let’s say, the first 75 minutes of this movie (the cultish kiddie funeral march was a little much). Shadowy without being showy, smoothed out and suggestive, but still oblique enough to intrigue, I found myself far more focused and involved as this denouement approached than I had during the build-up in 1989, which seemed herky-jerky by comparison, not to mention possibly fueled by excessive studio notes. Each movie’s climax has its own issues as relate to motivation or credible menace, but it’s significant at least that they’re working off of different lists. Both iterations, of course, were gifted prize material, since absolutely nobody does setup like Stephen King. For over four decades, his imagination has been the genre’s single, predominant influence, as well as mine when working within those confines. It’s little surprise then that, as a rule, I’ve always been more taken with the build-up to horror than the climax, a condition that, much as I hate to say it, can be at least partially attributed to a lifetime of reading King’s fantastically frontloaded work, high concept potboilers that often fizzle comparatively at the end (The Stand, It, Misery, Cujo, Salem’s Lot – basically take your pick of the classic early novels outside of Carrie and, maybe, The Shining). It may be simpler mechanically to set the scene – an area at which the 2019 Pet Sematary adaptation well exceeds its already accomplished predecessor*** – than it is to stick the landing. That doesn’t make it simple, however.

***There is, of course, simply no standing up to the literary source material – for either movie, on either count – which is among King’s all-time best.

If Pet Sematary didn’t already exist in two well-known versions, Kolsch and Widmyer’s adaptation would boast more potency than it does. As it stands, the considerable power generated in its telling is somewhat diffused, a condition the movie combats byusing the hypothetical viewer’s knowledge against them and, both cruelly and cleverly, subverting expectations. Some of the detours and digressions here entertained will not sit well with viewers who hold the Lambert film, which, to be fair, never seemed to cry out for reassessment, in higher regard than I do, and they may throw the few viewers wholly ignorant of the property’s history for a careening loop. More than that I will not say, despite already having likely said too much, except that I loved Pet Sematary right up to the point that I didn’t love it, which coincides roughly (but not exactly) with the unsettling return of Louis’ second untimely burial. For over three-fifths of its runtime, Pet Sematary is a pressurized, precisely calibrated study of internal erosion, focused as much on Jud and Rachel, who are literally haunted by the formative, shattering deaths of his wife and her sister, respectively, as on Louis, who not only seems to recognize the coming reckoning, but is compelled by escalating fear and loss into a series of rash if understandable decisions that only hasten and sharpen its arrival. That’s the power of King’s original story, refined here by thoughtful filmmaking and acting of understated quality and palpable intensity. If, in its desire to stand out, Pet Sematary 2019 also jumps the rails and takes an uncharacteristically cheap and frustrating detour home, that doesn’t much diminish the moments that brought us to that point. The mood and performances will stay with you. At any rate, you’ll never look at a dumb-waiter the same way again, not that anyone outside a screenwriter’s imagination ever really has the opportunity.

“Pet Sematary” (2019) 3/4 stars

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