As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. You’ve been warned.
The remake has always been a standard for Hollywood – a much less risky undertaking than trying to develop and market something original. So in keeping with that spirit of adventure, some of Stephen King’s novels from the 80’s – which have already been made into movies/miniseries/series – are getting remade again (I guess that would be re-remaking, then). Sounds incredibly lame, doesn’t it? And more than half of the time, remakes are lame. But in that hazy, hard-to-capture remaining percentage, lie the good ones. And I would say that’s where this new retelling of Pet Sematary resides, even though it definitely has its issues.
So this time around the story starts at the end before going back to the beginning (a way overused device). A house burning in the woods, muddy footprints leading to another house with blood smears on a door left ajar. What the hell happened? Well, let’s go back, shall we…
Meet Louis and Rachel Creed (Jason Clarke, Amy Siemetz), a handsome couple from Boston where Louis had been an ER doctor. Burned out and looking to create more family time with their 9-year old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) – the couple pulls up stakes and moves to rural Maine. When the family arrives at the house, they’re thrilled with the quiet and the acres of deep woods that are now their backyard. That is, until an oil tanker speeds right by the house at what looks like 90 mph. More on that later.
Rachel and Ellie see a group of kids heading into the woods wearing animal masks (because people in animal masks automatically increase the creep factor), banging on a tinny toy drum and pushing a wheelbarrow with a dead dog in it. Ellie asks her mom what they’re doing, and Rachel just says they’re doing a little ritual – “It’s like a parade, but not for fun,” she says.
Louis starts his new job at the local clinic and back at home, Rachel starts unpacking boxes – not paying attention to Ellie, who wastes no time taking off into the woods. She follows the path and finds the makeshift pet cemetery, full of graves with homemade monuments and the infamously misspelled sign. A deadfall – a giant mound of tangled, dead tree limbs – sits just beyond, cutting off the path into the rest of the woods. Of course, Ellie decides she has to climb it – but she doesn’t get far before their next-door neighbor, an old guy named Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) shows up and startles her. Ellie falls and lands on her butt with a bee sting in her leg. Luckily, scary-looking Jud turns out to be a nice guy and helps Ellie get the stinger out. The two become fast friends, but then Rachel finds them and immediately snatches Ellie away, not nearly as taken with Jud as Ellie is.
That night as her parents tuck her in, Ellie asks why animals don’t live as long as people do. Louis gives her a basic scientific explanation – but as Ellie asks more questions about death, it’s clear there’s a major difference of opinion between Louis and Rachel as to how to handle it. Rachel bristles at the idea that there’s nothing beyond death – no afterlife, no Heaven. Louis feels badly for her, knowing his wife still suffers over the death of her sickly sister Zelda (Alyssa Levine) when they were kids, but he still doesn’t believe in filling Ellie’s head with fairy tales.
Things start to change after a terrible accident brings a young man named Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) into the clinic after being hit by a car. His injuries are far too severe for Louis to treat and Victor dies – but when Louis turns back around, Victor’s sitting up and looking at him (complete with a whole side of his head falling off) telling Louis, “the barrier must not be broken.” Of course, as soon as Louis blinks, Victor’s back to being dead – but Louis is pretty freaked out. And back at home, Rachel starts hearing creepy, all-too-familiar noises in the walls – noises that bring back the memory of Zelda’s horrific death.
Things go from bad to worse when Jud finds the family’s cat, Church (short for Winston Churchill), dead on the side of the road after being hit by one of those speeding tanker trucks. He shows Louis, and they decide to hide the body before the kids see it and bury the cat in the pet cemetery later that night. Louis says he’ll just tell Ellie that Church ran away. But once the guys get to the cemetery, Jud has second thoughts – he adores Ellie and doesn’t want to devastate her with the loss of her beloved pet. So he tells Louis to follow him over the deadfall and way, way, way into the much darker and scarier woods beyond. Finally, they end up at – you guessed it – an ancient tribal burial ground where Jud tells Louis to bury Church. Louis is suspicious (though not nearly suspicious enough – dude never questions why they’re doing this), but does what he says.
Louis returns home and tells Rachel that they took care of Church – but the next day, when they tell Ellie the lie that they couldn’t find Church anywhere, she tells them he’s already back. A stunned Louis can’t believe it when he sees the cat that was just dead sitting there in the closet. He’s dirty, messy and way meaner – but it’s definitely Church.
Louis wastes no time confronting Jud, who gives him the info dump about the woods beyond the deadfall and what the Native American tribes who used to live there knew about it – that it’s inhabited by a Wendigo, a huge man-eating demon of the woods who cursed anything buried there to return to life as an evil version of its old self. Information that Louis no doubt would have appreciated hearing the night before, but what fun would that be, right? So Louis then uses the other way overused device in movies – the internet search montage – and finds old stories about other animals and even people who returned after being buried in the woods.
Meanwhile, Ellie tries to clean Church up – but his fur is so matted and mangy that it pulls. Church hisses at her, scratches her and runs off. As Louis takes care of her cuts, Ellie tells him to keep her door closed from now on – she doesn’t want Church getting in. Oh, and by the way, she hates the new place and wants to move back to their old home. And when Louis and Rachel then try to get some much-needed alone time, they find Church at the foot of their bed feasting on a bird. Yum. Church runs off but then Louis finds him in Gage’s room about to attack him.
Fed up, Louis loads up a syringe of drugs to put Church out of their collective misery and goes looking for him in the basement – but inside the darkest door he finds Victor instead, who leads him into the woods. “The ground is sour!” he warns, and then bam! Louis is back in bed with little Gage jumping on him to wake him up. Crazy dream, right? Well, when Louis throws off the blankets, he finds his bare feet covered in dirt. Yikes.
Louis drives Church a good way from the house and lets him loose. And while all this is going on, Rachel’s frightening waking dreams/memories of Zelda continue to get worse and worse. She tells Louis their moving there was a mistake and there’s something not right about the house (no, really?). Louis does the only thing he can and hugs her tight, telling her (and no doubt trying to convince himself) that they can turn things around. They’ll throw a birthday party for Ellie, invite her parents up, and everything will be okay.
Well, cut to the birthday party, and right after Louis gives a depressed Ellie a new stuffed animal to replace Church, they play hide-and-seek. Ellie of course, runs in another direction than the other kids – and Gage follows her. Then Ellie sees Church out in the road and goes after him, followed by Gage. Louis spots him running toward the road and races after him. Of course, one of those tanker trucks just happens to be barreling down the road – and while Louis manages to grab Gage just in time the truck swerves and jackknifes, and poor Ellie gets hit by the tanker.
At this point in the movie, things start moving really fast – way too fast. Cut to the funeral, where Louis and Jud trade knowing looks as Ellie’s casket gets lowered into the ground. A grieving Rachel decides to take Gage and head back to Boston with her parents, leaving Louis alone to do what we all know he’s going to do. But before he heads out, he visits Jud and drinks with him – making sure to dump tranquilizers in Jud’s glass so the old guy won’t try to stop him. And then in rapid succession, Louis is off to the church yard to dig up Ellie, he’s carrying her to the woods, and re-burying her in the ancient, sour ground.
Then Louis goes home and waits – and waits. And eventually Ellie returns, but she doesn’t look good. She’s disfigured, disoriented and doesn’t know where she is or what happened. Louis just hugs her and takes care of her like normal, giving her a bath – and pretending everything’s okay even though he can see the staples holding her head together. As he puts her to bed, Ellie starts to remember what happened, which Louis tries to ignore. Ellie asks him to stay with her and hugs him – and Louis looks like he’d rather be anywhere else than with his beloved, undead daughter.
Jud wakes up and gets a call from Rachel, who’s decided to come right back after calling Louis a million times and not getting an answer. She asks Jud to go check on him – and Jud goes right over, banging on the door. Louis answers but won’t let him in, saying he’s fine, Jud doesn’t need to worry. But of course, Jud knows exactly what’s going on and runs back home to get his gun. Unfortunately, undead Ellie’s already way ahead of both of them and gets into Jud’s house, savagely killing him.
Rachel returns with Gage, just in time to meet undead Ellie – who Rachel immediately rejects. An enraged Ellie goes on a full-on rampage, doing her bloodiest, most violent best to kill them all. While Louis runs over to Jud’s to find him, Ellie goes after Rachel, her face morphing into Zelda as she attacks her. Rachel manages to barricade herself and Gage in another room, lowering him out the window as Louis returns just in time to catch him. Ellie busts through the barricade and fatally stabs her mother.
Louis locks Gage in the car, telling him not to open the doors for anyone but him. He races to Rachel, but it’s too late. She begs him not to bury her in the woods before she dies, but then Ellie appears and knocks Louis out – and then does exactly that. When Louis wakes up, he goes to the woods to look for them – Ellie attacks him in a vicious fight, but Louis manages to get the upper hand. He’s about to kill her (again) with the shovel when he’s suddenly impaled from behind.
Louis falls to reveal undead Rachel with the stake (she must have gone through the express resurrection line to get back so fast). Then she and undead Ellie drag Louis over the deadfall to get the same express resurrection job done on him. And once the reunited, undead family burn Jud’s house down, they return to the house to pick up Gage – and they all live happily ever after in their undead-ness.
So what this new version of Pet Sematary does that most modern horror shies away from is take full advantage of its R rating. It doesn’t settle for creepy atmosphere and jump scares – once undead Ellie starts her rampage, it’s full-on violence with lots of blood and gore. When Ellie murders her mother, it’s especially vicious and cruel – which makes it truly terrifying. But the flick also uses mood and jump scares to their full potential – they’re especially effective early on in the story, when everything moves at a much more even pace, and takes its time to develop the characters.
The bad news is that once Ellie comes back from the dead, all that thoughtful writing goes right out the window in a mad and completely unnecessary rush to wrap things up. And Louis suffers the most character-wise – his descent into the kind of grief-fueled madness that would make a smart guy reject all reason and dig up a corpse to resurrect it isn’t a descent at all – it’s a switch flip. Instant crazy. And as a result, Jason Clarke’s awesome performance comes off as kind of goofy and not believable at all.
As for the changes in this new adaptation of King’s novel, I can actually buy a lot of them. Adding the kids’ funeral procession was a really nice touch. And the most major change actually makes a lot of sense, switching the deaths of the kids from Gage to Ellie. An older child can do more and perform better, and Jeté Laurence is fantastic as evil, undead Ellie. Speaking of fantastic, I also have to give major props to the trainer of the five cats who played Church so beautifully.
On the other hand, one of the book’s best moments – the fight between Louis and his in-laws at the funeral – doesn’t happen at all, in fact the in-laws barely show up. And while the new ending pretty much accomplishes the same thing as the novel’s, I’m not sure it was an absolute necessity. But Pet Sematary’s main issue is that last act. It moves way too fast, and in doing so pretty well trashes all the good work they did in character building. So overall, it’s a mixed bag – enough issues to make it problematic, but I still enjoyed the flick as a decent remake, and a decent horror movie.
Directed by: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer
Written by: Stephen King (novel), Matt Greenberg, Jeff Buhler
Release Date: April 5, 2019
Run Time: 1hr 41 min
Distributor: Paramount Pictures