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Pet Sematary (2019) Movie Review

Pet Sematary (2019) movie poster Pet Sematary

Theatrical Release: April 5, 2019 / Running Time: 101 Minutes / Rating: R

Directors: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer / Writers: Stephen King (novel); Matt Greenberg (screen story); Jeff Buhler (screenplay)

Cast: Jason Clarke (Dr. Louis Creed), Amy Seimetz (Rachel Creed), John Lithgow (Judson Crandall), Jeté Laurence (Ellie Creed), Hugo Lavoie (Gage Creed), Lucas Lavoie (Gage Creed), Obssa Ahmed (Victor Pascow), Alyssa Levine (Zelda)


2019's Pet Sematary invites comparisons. Obviously, there is its source text, the 1983 novel by Stephen King. There's also the moderately well-regarded 1989 film, for which King himself wrote the screenplay.
Less directly, there is 2017's It, the biggest horror blockbuster of all time, and one with strikingly similar origins (1980s King novel, first adapted in 1990). Finally, there is A Quiet Place, which Paramount Pictures opened on this same week a year ago to massive acclaim and dynamite ticket sales.

With these comparisons come expectations, many of them difficult to meet. But I'm pleased to reveal that this new film from directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer meets just about all of them creatively. What remains to be seen is how my fellow critics and moviegoers receive the film.

Sematary opens with an eerie overhead shot of Ludlow, Maine. This rural small town is where the Creed family is moving. Emergency room doctor Louis (Jason Clarke) has gotten a job at the local hospital, while his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) will stay home with the kids, 8-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and young Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie).

Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and next door neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) bury the Creed family's deceased cat in a remote corner of "Pet Sematary."

Ludlow immediately proves to be less than comforting. Rachel and Ellie observe a group of children in animal masks creepily processing with a dead dog they're going to bury in a pet cemetery (with a misspelled sign, as noted) that the family later learns is part of their property. Louis has an upsetting first patient on the new job in a severely wounded young man (Obssa Ahmed) who freaks him out. And the first neighbor they meet, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), is friendly but gives off unsettling vibes. He has a beard that is yellowing in places, for crying out loud. It doesn't help that Ellie, as sweet as she is, seems to have no awareness of "stranger danger."

The sighting of those masked kids raises questions from Ellie about mortality. Her parents do not see eye to eye on how to answer them, with Rachel opting for comfort, while Louis favors scientific candor. Those questions take on new significance when Louis and Jud discover the family cat Church (short for Winston Churchill) dead on the side of the dangerous road next to the Creed house. Jud takes Louis to a deep pocket of the pet cemetery, where they bury the cat, only to find it alive again the next morning.

The cat is worse for the wear. He's bloodied, mangy, and no longer his sweet self, prone to hissing and scratching. Now, Louis is the one with the big questions and Jud is compelled to answer them, sharing his own experiences with the evidently resurrective burial grounds that once belonged to an American Indian tribe.

Uttered by Jud, the film's tagline -- "sometimes dead is better" -- seems inarguably true regarding Church. But there's something about the place that beckons the mournful and when another incident drives Louis back to the cemetery, the consequences are even more extreme and disturbing.

Rachel and Ellie get an unsettling introduction to their new hometown of Ludlow, Maine when they see this procession of animal-masked children heading to the titular "Pet Sematary."

Kölsch and Widmyer are not names you'll likely know. Their body of work is slight and obscure, consisting of two little-seen, lowly-regarded horror movies (Starry Eyes and one segment of the anthology Holidays), a documentary about author Chuck Palahniuk, some shorts, and three episodes of MTV's "Scream: The TV Series." They're getting a big break landing this major studio film with a 3,500-theater opening. They do not fumble this opportunity, crafting something that ranges from slightly spooky to downright chilling in a polished and tasteful manner.
It is a slight but certain improvement over the Mary Lambert-directed original film, which is helped by thirty years of nostalgia. The story is not dramatically changed, but the execution is more befitting present-day viewer tastes. The filmmaking duo largely resists the urge to go too big. Jump scares are kept to a minimum and there is no attempt at the muddled mythology that sunk last year's critically adored Hereditary with the general public.

While it will not have the commercial impact of 2017's It (whose much-anticipated sequel opens later this year), it has comparable effectiveness and doesn't need so much time to tell its tale. Sematary suffers from no lulls and the closest it comes to superfluity, a backstory involving Rachel being haunted by her bed-ridden older sister, manages to pay off. Credited writers Matt Greenberg (1408, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later) and Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy, with more to come) and uncredited contributor David Kajganich (2018's Suspiria) do a very good job of giving the themes of King's novel weight instead of just using them for scares. It manages to serve as a striking portrait of grief, which isn't something you expect of a mainstream horror flick.

Clarke, an Australian who will turn 50 this summer, is a great actor who has yet to truly get his due from supporting roles in acclaimed, widely-seen films like Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, and First Man to leading ones in big-budget fare like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Terminator: Genisys where he somehow got upstaged by apes and cyborgs. He's a perfect fit for this film and much of Sematary's dramatic success can be attributed directly to him. On the other hand, we never warm up to Seimetz (Upstream Color, Alien: Covenant). Lithgow provides strong support in the intriguing role that Fred Gwynne did justice last time around. And one cannot overstate the power that Jeté Laurence (the younger sister of Southpaw and Pete's Dragon's Oona Laurence) has in pulling off the film's trickiest material with grace beyond her years.

Pet Sematary's commercial prospects are hard to pinpoint. It is expected to open in second place this weekend after Shazam!, a ho-hum superhero movie that my fellow critics are curiously getting behind in great numbers. With a production budget of just $21 million, Sematary should end up plenty profitable, but strong box office holds are notoriously hard to come by for horror films (which is why A Quiet Place's enduring crowds last year were such a story). Whether it catches on or not, I encourage you to check it out. And yes, to answer your question, there is a new cover of the Ramones' catchy titular theme song performed over the end credits.

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Reviewed April 4, 2019.

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