Released: 4th April
Seen: 3rd April (Advanced Screening)
Picture it. Hollywood, 1989. The film Pet Sematary, based on the 1983 Stephen King novel of the same name, was released to cinemas to some serious aplomb. Getting really great critical reviews and slamming the box office, it’s currently the 5th highest earning Stephen King adaptation before you account for inflation (after inflation it gets to 6th). It’s a genuine masterpiece of horror that leans more on the concepts than actual scares and lets the situation itself be where the horror comes from. With genuinely great performances by most of the cast (let’s just pretend the lead actor isn’t in this discussion), it’s a film that you absolutely need to see because it’s a genuine heart stopper… and because knowing about what happens in the original actually makes this movie have a much more powerful effect on you as an audience member.
Pet Sematary follows the Creed family who have just moved to a remote little woodland home just outside of the town where the father, Louis (Jason Clarke) is working in a clinic that allows him more time to be at home with his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), his daughter, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and his youngest son, Gage (Hugo/Lucas Lavoie). All seems to be going well for them as a family, they’ve made friends with their neighbour, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) and they’re happy in their new home. At least, they are until Halloween comes around and Ellie’s cat Church (short for Winston Churchill) is hit by one of the many trucks that barrel down the street outside the Creed’s house. To try and keep Ellie from being devastated by the loss, Louis and Jud go to bury Church late at night in the pet cemetery behind the Creed’s house when no one is looking so that Louis can lie to his daughter and tell her that Church ran way. Just before they do the deed and put Church in the ground, Jud has an idea to bury the cat in the place just beyond the cemetery. A place where the ground has turned sour and where things that’re buried don’t stay dead for long. They come back, but they come back wrong.
When it comes to remakes is that you are going to need to make changes to the material in order to, essentially, justify its existence. We’ve seen what happens if you just remake a film frame for frame, you end up with the remake to Psycho and no one wants that. The magic trick is that the changes should be enough that it’s a different movie, but not so different that it loses the magic. To pull an example out of thin air, the remake of Dumbo made significant changes and lost a lot of the magic. Pet Sematary doesn’t do that, in a move of genuine brilliance the writers of the script keep almost the entire first half of the film completely intact from the original. Mild dialogue changes happen, but the story structure is pretty much identical and everyone settles into a rhythm. If you’ve seen the original film (which I watched roughly 7 hours before seeing the remake, I live tweeted my experience of that viewing, if you’re in any way interested in a less thought out version of the opening paragraph to this review) then you know exactly what’s about to happen that’ll push the story towards the finale… and then the film does something else, something that was not in the original film at all. It’s a subtle difference, one that they kind of spoiled in the trailer but I’m not going to mention by name just in case you didn’t watch the trailer yet and don’t know what they changed, but it’s enough that a person familiar with the original film or the novel will sit up and go “Wait, that’s not meant to happen” and instantly, you’re even more off balance than the rest of the audience because you thought you knew what was coming, and now you have no idea where the madmen running this operation are taking you. It’s a change that alters the entire dynamic of the film, even if nothing else was altered (and there’s a few alterations, especially at the ending), this one shift of expectations forces the viewer to completely rethink what’s going on and puts the viewer who knows what came before off-balance.
This wicked little trick is aided by the performances which are universally great. Every single person is bringing their A game and while they aren’t copying what the original people did (which in some cases is a blessing because I like my main characters to have personality), they’re echoing it. They’re also given so much more to work with here. The story from Rachel about her sister Zelda not only is terrifying, it’s expanded upon significantly so that we get more time to see just how much the death of her sister has affected Rachel. We get to see how quickly Louis falls under the spell of the cemetery, the anguish and grief evident in his face from the very first time he visits. Jud is given a lot more pep in his step and while I can’t say Lithgow’s performance is as good as Fred Gwynne’s from the original, that’s only because Gwynne was working at a 15/10 for that entire movie and it’d be impossible to top it, but Lithgow comes close enough that he’s still the best part of this film. Even the child actors are great, which is so rare to see in horror films but here they absolutely own the film with every moment they’re in it. They are what this entire idea is built around after all and we’re meant to connect with them, and oh god do we ever.
When it comes to handling the key idea behind the film, namely the grief of losing a child and how that grief can and will consume you, this film takes that idea and ramps it up to the extreme. While the original was a little slower to hit just how crushing grief can be, this film goes for the jugular and slams you right against the imagery of the loss of a child tearing worlds apart. It’s awesome just knowing that with a few minor changes, these film makers managed to push the already intense ideas of the original to a whole new level that, by the end, had my jaw on the floor because it was insanely awesome to see a horror reboot that did something interesting to the source material. Even little things like making the sequences where Louis would go from his bedroom to the land beyond the pet cemetery a lot more dreamlike so it was actually questionable if he did or didn’t go out there. They also cut a large amount of stuff with Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed), which was handy because that character was basically pointless so here they just made him actually pointless, except for occasional moments of atmosphere because that’s what they used him for in the original… again, taking what the original did and twisting it just enough that the people who knew the original story will be on their toes the entire time.
Pet Sematary is that rarest of breeds, a good horror movie remake that manages to pay homage to the original work while still creating a relatively unique experience. It’s scary and isn’t afraid to slap you over the head when it really wants to grab your attention. Chock full of atmosphere and some of the best performances in a Stephen King adaptation, its proof that there is a way to retell an old story in a way that’ll still have one hell of an impact… and that in some cases, when some story is laid to rest and it’s brought back differently than it was before, it can turn out OK.