Is Dead Really Better? A Review of Pet Sematary (2019)

First of all, I don’t want to spend too much time dwelling on the 1989 movie. That one was good, clean, and full of scares. Starry Eyes‘ (2014) Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Pet Sematary doesn’t make any effort to reach out or dig up the past. The new movie cuts ties to the original and, like the recent It (2017 – read our review here) incarnation, turns its attention to the original King novel. What’s more, it was revealed in the Pet Sematary trailer the controversial decision to change which child dies. It’s pretty clear to the creative minds behind the 2019 film that, when it comes to what’s been done, dead is better.

Once we disconnect ourselves from that context, what we’re left with is a relentless, hermetically-sealed dollhouse spook show on par with The Conjuring (2013) and Hereditary (2018 – read our review here). The screen story by Matt Greenberg (Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later 1998) and the screenplay by Jeff Buhler (Prodigy 2019 – read our review here, Nightflyers TV series, Tales From Beyond the Pale audio drama) honor the Stephen King book, although they change it when necessary. 

The tension and dread of every character pull back and release with surgical precision. They come to full, anguished life in the performances of each actor. Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty 2012) breathes shaky, ragged life into Louis, a doctor and father losing his grip. Amy Seimetz (You’re Next (2011), The Sacrament (2013), and 2011’s underrated Bitter Feast) reminds audiences why she’s a dominant force in the genre as Rachel, a death-phobic wife and mother with a dark secret stabbing into her conscience. John Lithgow’s warm and affable Jud Crandall reminds us all over again that he’s lovable and charming, much more than his iconic performance as Dexter’s Trinity Killer.

But I’m here, most of all, to tell you about two performances that change everything for me. The first is obvious: Church. Played by a rotating cast of four expertly trained cats (Leo, Tonic, Jager, and JD), Church does everything right. He’s an adorable living cat you’d want to pet for days. He’s also as a convincing vessel of Satan that gave my own cats a sinister quality when I got home.

Secondly, Jeté Laurence (The Ranger 2018 – read our review here) dominates this entire film as the family’s daughter, Ellie. Trailers revealed that she would be the one to die and come back, rather than 3 year-old Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie). She handles both roles with skill and ingenuity that elude actors many years her senior. She’s endearing enough to gut you when the moment on the road finally does come. However, she’ll have you biting your nails past your knuckles once she comes back. We can look forward to a long career from this new talent.

The film’s scares were consistent and deliberate. They used every tool in the woodshed, from masterful sound design to surrealist imagery to makeup and, yes, CGI. Highlights include Rachel’s sister, Zelda (newcomer Alyssa Brooke Levine), and the scalpel scene (both considered unassailable, unbeatable moments in the 1989 version).

Pet Sematary shocked and startled me with its movement, its heart, and its courage to stand up to what fans expect. This film took those expectations, killed them, and dragged them to the rocky ground of their own Pet Sematary. Then, it waited for something wicked, terrible, and thrilling to come back to them.

It did. And it was a privilege to greet it with my movie ticket.

About Billie Wood

Billie is a horror obsessed writer with a love of Giallo, Vincent Price, and any horror movie set in the West. She can't wait to tell you about how Videodrome is a sci-fi horror love letter to trans girls like her.

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