Pet Sematary (2019)

Pet Sematary first published by

True story (with an old spoiler or two): in Stephen King’s best-selling novel The Shining (1977), the hotel chef Dick Halloran is summoned from his Florida vacation by the psychic powers that he shares with Danny Torrance, and rescues little Danny and his mother Wendy from terrifying supernatural events at the snowbound Colorado hotel where Wendy’s husband Jack has been working as caretaker. Yet in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation, after we have followed Hallorann on his arduous trek through appalling weather conditions to get to the Overlook Hotel, the chef steps through the front door and immediately receives a fatal axe blow to the chest. King has very publicly disowned Kubrick’s film, not least for the many liberties (like this sequence) that it took with King’s source novel – but the point is that Jack’s axe delivered a violent shock not just to Hallorann, but also to King’s readers who, up until this point in the film, thought they knew exactly where the narrative was headed, but who now found its symmetrically patterned carpet being pulled right from under them, so that they were left with no idea where they were now being taken. From this point on, the story is no longer King’s, and anything goes. In terms of its jarring, disorienting effect, this is a stunning coup for a horror film. 

This story might resonate with viewers as they watch Pet Sematary, from directing team Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes, 2014). It is not just because this is another King adaptation (from the 1983 novel of the same name), and not just because Kubrick’s The Shining is directly evoked by a couple of its scenes (an impossible abundance of blood gushing from under closed doors; a little boy pointing in alarm and squeakily repeating a disyllable) – but because Pet Sematary too sets itself up faithfully to follow the narrative trajectory of both King’s original and Mary Lambert’s 1989 film version, only to veer off violently down its own pathways, ensuring that even fans of the original book and film are in for some real surprises by the third act. 

Pet Sematary (2019): always looking back, while following its own path…

In fact, some changes are obvious from early on. Where the look of Lambert’s film – with the Pet Sematary itself, and what lies over its tangled deadfall, colourfully stylised – might be described as baroque gothic, here a muted palette of mud and grit and darkness bespatters everything in now voguish ‘dirty realism’. No matter whether this shift in aesthetics is regarded as better or worse (who knows?), it certainly marks an ever-present difference between the two films. Lambert’s film, for all its strong story and memorably nightmarish imagery, was always let down by bland, perfunctory characterisation – and Jeff Buhler’s screenplay for Kölsch and Widmyer genuinely does improve upon this, stripping away several subplots (especially the protagonist paterfamilias’ friction with his in-laws, and the lonely death of a housekeeper) from the original to focus more tightly on the Creed family’s loving yet lost dynamic.

Change not only affects the adapted structure of the new film, but is also one of its principal themes. For the Creeds – father Louis (Jason Clarke), mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz), eight-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) – have just moved from Boston to the backwoods of Maine in search, precisely, of change. In Boston, Louis’ stressful medical career working ‘the graveyard shift in ER’ took its toll on his psyche and kept him from ever seeing his family, so now he is hoping for a quieter life in smalltown Ludlow, and more regular hours at the local university hospital.

Rachel comes with her own baggage, and hopes that a bit of distance from her childhood home in Boston might help put behind her a deep-seated sense of guilt and trauma over the death, decades earlier, of her diseased and disfigured sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine). Yet the past is not so easy to escape, and soon Louis is again having to deal with the trauma of compound fractures and severe head injuries in his office, while Rachel remains haunted, even in their new rural home, by the spectre of Zelda. Meanwhile Ellie, approaching her ninth birthday, is becoming curious about death, even if her father’s scientific rationalism and her mother’s euphemisms and evasions offer up contradictory lessons about mortality and eschatology. 

Early in the film, we see Ellie dressed in a coat with a butterfly motif. The ancient Greek word for butterfly, psychē, also means soul, and throughout the history of western art butterflies have been a symbol of the soul, most typically as it departs the human body. Butterflies are also, for obvious reasons, embodiments of transformation, their phased metamorphoses a common metaphor for any kind of change. So Ellie’s coat is also a suitable costume for her film, dealing as it does in death, the soul and transformation.

When Ellie’s cat Church dies, the Creeds’ elderly neighbour – and lifelong Ludlow resident – Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) will show Louis a secret, sacred place where the dead can be brought back to life, even if they are not the same as they were before. After a horrific accident – not one that the audience will quite see coming, as Kölsch and Widmyer carefully manipulate expectations raised by the original film – Louis will again head beyond the Pet Sematary, hoping to restore his broken family to what it was. He will gradually realise, though, that for the family to move on from its damaged history and to face a future without grief or regret, it must first undergo a radical change. That change also represents a considerable alteration of Pet Sematary‘s original literary and filmic materials, as something grotesquely new emerges from what was once set in stone. 

Pet Sematary is one of those self-conscious remakes that is, in a sense, about its own remaking – about the digging up of ancient plots and the resurrection of old motifs in novel variations. It does, however, have two problems, one internal, the other external. The first is the song that plays over its closing credits – an upbeat indie cover of the Ramones’ track (with the  refrain, “I don’t wanna be buried/in a Pet Sematary”) that featured at the end of the 1989 film. While this might be seen as a reflexive nod towards the sort of soft rock scores that so often featured in Eighties horror, we have long since moved on from there, and the jaunty, jokey tone set by this soundtrack choice is, I think, rather misjudged in a broadly humourless film about mourning and scars (both mental and physical). Given how many other self-conscious changes Kölsch and Widmyer’s reimagining makes to the original film, dropping this track ought to have been another.

The other problem, attributable not to the film itself so much as to its initial reception, is hype. Early, extraordinarily effusive responses to the world première at SXSW will have viewers expecting the second coming of horror – but, as suggested, Pet Sematary is a film that keeps upsetting audience expectations, and while certainly decent, and arguably superior in many ways to Lambert’s version, it is hardly bringing the genre back from the dead. Indeed, horror never dies, it just constantly changes form…

Summary: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s remake resurrects the spirit of Stephen King’s and Mary Lambert’s originals, while still coming out different. 

© Anton Bitel