It’s pretty ironic for a remake of an ’80s horror classic to choose the tagline “sometimes dead is better,” especially when “Pet Sematary” itself is a cautionary tale about the dangers of reviving the things you love. The story, and the tagline, practically beg one to apply the meta logic to the film itself. And just like the reanimated kitties, this remake of Mary Lambert’s truly chilling 1989 adaptation of Steven King’s novel just isn’t the same after being dragged out of the grave.
Kevin Kvlsch and Dennis Widmyer direct a script by Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler that hews closely to the original until it diverges wildly, making a few choices that vastly change the tone and story. The film follows a young family who move to a new home outside of the city for a quieter life. That quiet life is never achieved, thanks to a backyard full of pet corpses and a meddling neighbor who shows them they never really have to say goodbye to the ones they love.
Lambert’s film, adapted for the screen by King himself, is a weird, moving, weirdly moving rumination on the ways in which repressed trauma and grief can become so intense it mutates monstrously. The remake is more concerned with existential questions about the afterlife and whether or not it exists. It pulls the thread on the question of who bears the responsibility for the deaths of loved ones, and it purports to explore how that guilt can corrupt the human psyche. Lambert and King’s film is more purely emotional, where Kvlsch and Widmyer’s is analytical. And for that, it suffers.
However, where it excels is in casting – Jason Clarke, he of the wounded eyes and the Sad Dad energy, is the exact right actor for the role of Louis “Doc” Creed, a smart, steady doctor who slowly becomes unhinged as he suffers loss after loss. Filmmaker and actress Amy Seimetz brings a mental vulnerability to Louis’ wife, Rachel, tormented by her memories of the gruesome death of her sister in childhood. Young Jeté Laurence is a perfect creepy kid as their daughter Ellie, and it’s eerie how much the twins cast as young baby Gage bear such a strong resemblance to the unforgettable Miko Hughes.
“Pet Sematary” finesses some of the bumpy narrative moments from the original, but where it forges its own path is in rewriting Ellie’s story. This is initially intriguing, but it ultimately reveals itself to be the less original choice, relying on horror archetypes and tropes we’ve seen before. It’s just the same-old routine, but rendered without any actual scares or even a scrap of suspense. It inspires laughter instead of screams, which is disappointing when the original film is remains so surprising, spooky and strange 30 years later.
In its attempt to breathe new life into the iconic title while respectfully paying homage to its legacy, the new iteration of “Pet Sematary” overpromises and underdelivers. For all its concern about the afterlife and what it might be like, the film teases something truly terrifying without ever offering a glimpse. This “Pet Sematary” is all bark and no bite.
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