Thursday , 7 July 2022

Pet Sematary digs up some new ground – review

“I don’t want to be buried, in a pet cemetery.”

Death – the great unknown. There is nothing more terrifying, and nothing more inevitable. Every organism known to science has a limited lifespan, which varies from species to species. There are giant sequoia trees, which can tower over the landscape for over three thousand years. Greenland sharks can live for several hundred years and giant tortoises well past a hundred. Humans, if we’re lucky, get to reach their mid-70’s and 80’s. But our most popular pets, cats and dogs, generally only get 10-15 years, which means the normal animal-loving person will go through several furry friends in their lifetime. Yeah, cats and dogs, thanks to their speedier metabolism, though you sometimes wonder if that’s the case with all the laying around they do, get a raw deal. When a beloved pet gets sent to the farm to live out its old age, it can be particularly tough on any children in the family, who may be experiencing such grief for the very first time. And for a parent, there is no loss more devastating than that of a child. Enter, if you dare, the Pet Sematary.

Left to right: John Lithgow as Jud and Jeté Laurence as Ellie in PET SEMATARY, from Paramount Pictures.

Based on the terrifying 1983 novel by Stephen King, Pet Sematary was first brought to the big screen in 1989. Starring Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby and Fred Gwynne, and directed by Mary Lambert from King’s own screenplay, the film was a very dark, unsettling tale of a family mourning over the sudden and violent loss of a child who discover a way to bring that child back from beyond the grave. However, this comes with a caveat, that being the child returns, but he’s not quite like he was before. Gone is the sweet, innocent toddler, replaced by a homicidal little terror. This new adaptation follows the King story, and its film predecessor, fairly closely in many respects, but makes a number of changes, including a rather interesting and significant one.

Left to right: Amy Seimetz as Rachel, Hugo Lavoie as Gage, Jason Clarke as Louis and Jeté Laurence as Ellie in PET SEMATARY, from Paramount Pictures.

Once again, we are introduced to the Creed family, where Louis (played by Jason Clarke (Terminator: Salvation), a doctor, has moved his family, wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and children, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage, to rural Maine, where the ER should be a less busy and stressful place than where he worked before in the city. While that may be true, their new home is nestled right along a highway that is traversed by 18-wheelers careening along at maximum overdrive. You just know that this does not bode well for the Creed clan. Also nearby is a cemetery that children use to bury their furry loved ones, marked by the charmingly misspelled sign, PET SEMATARY (kids, go to school!)  When Ellie wanders off into the woods one day, she stumbles upon the burial ground, along with kindly neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow). When the Creed’s cat, Church, is found dead along the highway, Jud takes Louis to a spot beyond the main gravesite to bury the feline, an apparent supernatural place that will give Church a new lease on life, and spare Ellie the loss of her beloved friend. But when that darn cat comes back a shell of its former self, the nightmare is only just beginning for the Creed family.

“Sometimes dead is better.”

As stated earlier, the filmmakers (directors, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, written by Jeff Buhler and Matt Greenberg) have kept most of the major character and plot points from the King novel and earlier film, but they’ve also made some notable changes. One is adding some major backstory to Rachel’s character regarding her traumatic relationship as a child to her sick, invalid sister. Because of her history, Rachel is at odds with her husband, who, being a doctor, is much more practical when it comes to teaching their children about life and death, with Rachel wanting to protect their kids from the harsh realities associated with death, and Louis being more straightforward. When Ellie asks “why don’t pets live as long as people?,” her dad takes a scientific approach and explains it has to do with biological clocks. When the horror begins to unfold for the Creed family, the two parents again have opposing viewpoints in how to handle and/or accept the nightmarish situations thrust upon them. Another added element is that given to the cemetery itself in the form of a procession of kids wearing animal masks that Ellie comes across. This not only provides some striking imagery, it gives additional human dimension to the sinister cemetery. As for some of the other changes the filmmakers have made, it’s best not to spoil them, but one in particular allows for some engaging dialogue and a deeper exploration of life beyond death.

Pet Sematary, befitting its dark subject matter, has a pervasive, gloomy atmosphere and tone throughout. It also wastes little time getting to the heart of its story. The f/x are top notch. When Church the cat comes back, he has a disheveled appearance that’s sufficiently askew to exhibit his now malevolent demeanor. Similarly, when anyone else returns, they’re given a disturbing look that’s off just enough to let you know something’s not right. The cast is great, with John Lithgow exuding a warm presence as Jud that’s especially evident with his scenes with the excellent Jeté Laurence as Ellie. And both Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz perfectly display incredible sadness to outright horror over the course of the film.

As strong, and horrific, as Stephen King’s novel and script for the original film are, the added elements and changes made do improve the story. While it may have been interesting to replace the Creed’s cat with a dog, perhaps, or even change the characters’ names, having a deeper exploration into what death means and what might come after is far more compelling. Death and horror are inexorably intertwined, and it’s one of the reasons why horror remains the most fascinating of genres, because it deals with the great unknown that is death like no other. In watching Pet Sematary, we can’t help but wonder if we too might jump at the chance to bring back a loved one, even if they come back not quite the same as before. Would we be doing it for them, to give them another chance at life, or is it more for our own benefit because we cannot bear such a loss? Generally, whenever the dead are brought back to life, no matter the degree of brain function that remains, they are essentially zombies. Again, as one of the greatest taglines in the history of horror states……Sometimes dead is better.

— review by Brian de Castro