What if your favorite pet died and you buried it in a place where it could come back to life? It’d maybe be a little different — and definitely a lot scarier — but hey, it’s still your beloved pooch, kitty or tweety bird, right? Bonus question: What if the same applied to humans? That was the premise of Stephen King’s hair-raising 1983 novel, a fan favorite that never achieved the above-the-board status of, say, The Shining or Carrie. (Even the author himself thought the book was way too dark.) But for serious King enthusiasts, Pet Sematary on the page was a death-obsessed hell ride for the ages, with chills only fitfully captured in Mary Lambert’s 1989 film version (with a screenplay by the Master of Horror-Lit himself).
Things improve substantially in Pet Sematary 2019, a blood-curdling chiller that adds new twists to King’s novel yet stays incredibly faithful to its dark spirit. Smartphones and other products of the digital age have been added, but the plot trots along the same surface: Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), a Boston doctor tired of living in the big city, moves his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two kids, eight-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (played by twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), to rural Maine. Everyone seems to like their rustic new house, even Church the cat. The catch is that the house butts up against a superhighway with speeding trucks that can squash critters in seconds. Poor Church.
Enter the neighborly Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), an old coot who befriends the Creeds — he’s especially partial to Ellie — and tells them about the old Native-American graveyard out back where kids bury their road kill. A sign nailed to a tree reads, “Pet Sematary,” speaking to spelling deficiencies among the young locals. The immortal Fred Gwynne played the character in the 1989 film, with an outrageously thick Maine accent; luckily, the reliably superb Lithgow puts his own stamp of empathetic and eerie on the veteran New Englander. It’s Jud who tells the Creeds about the burial ground’s powers of reanimation and the rituals needed to pull off the miracle. Unfortunately, resurrection puts Church in a terrible mood. This prompts Lithgow, like Gwynne before him, to say the line, “Sometimes dead is better.” It gets you every time.
[Warning: Spoilers Ahead.] You may want take a timeout for this one paragraph if you want surprises preserved about what happens next, even though the film’s trailers blithely — pardon the expression — let the cat out of the bag. It’s Ellie who’s next to die, horribly, a switcheroo from the novel in which the victim is baby Gage. King purists are up in arms over the change, though making the victim the older child — whose experiences with death had given rise to haunting discussions about the beyond — enriches the material and sends the fright factor soaring. Like one of the doppelgängers in Jordan Peele’s Us, the returned Ellie is not the Ellie we know … and what she is freezes the blood.
[OK: Spoilers Over.] So what makes the new Pet Sematary such a powerful addition to King cinema? Credit directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, whose 2014 Starry Eyes effectively predicted the mounting female dread that precipitated #MeToo, for plumbing the psychological depths of King’s novel. Don’t worry: There’s no shortage of delicious, demented scares. It’s just that this one goes further. Working from a nastily knotted script by Jeff Buhler (Midnight Meat Train), Kolsch and Widmyer rush past the usual exposition to get to the juicy stuff that grounds the film in a psychological strain of violence. Everyone in this version is haunted by past tragedies that resonate in the present.
And while the remake has its fair share of laughs, the humor is cutting, not campy, and the performances, especially by Lithgow and young Laurence, go beyond the call of genre duty. Pet Sematary is hobbled by some cheesy special effects, crude misdirections and frustratingly undeveloped ideas. But the movie honors King by raising fresh hell for a new generation. It will make you jump out of your seat, but what matters are the provocations you take home and can’t shake. That’s the stuff of nightmares.