Pet Sematary is a book that author Stephen King called his “worst” because of how much is scared him. And it is a terrifying story, dealing with the monstrosity that is grief. While it was adapted into a film by Mary Lambert in 1989, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have adapted it again, in a move that made horror fans wary and begged the question: why do we need this film? But this recent adaptation, offering callbacks and homages to the original film while also creating a fresh take on a classic horror story, establishes a more terrifying tale that examines the deep psychological trauma of grief and the horrifying actions people wrapped in grief are capable of.
The film begins with the Creed family moving from Boston to the sleepy town of Ludlow, Maine. Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) has taken a position as a campus doctor with the goal of slowing down and spending more time with his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), daughter, Ellie (Jete Laurence), and baby son, Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie). Shortly after they move in, Rachel and Ellie discover a pet cemetery in the woods behind their house. They learn from their neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), that the children of Ludlow have buried their pets there for generations, making a sort of twisted ritual out of it. But something sinister lurks around the cemetery, a force that seems to feed on grief.
Tragedy then starts to befall the Creed family, starting with the death of the family cat, Church. But he doesn’t stay dead for long after a burial in a Native American burial ground by Louis, with assistance from Jud. Church comes back but he is changed; the loving family cat has returned with matted hair and a bad attitude. To delve into the rest of the tragedy would spoil the film, but suffice to say that it only goes downhill from there for the Creeds. This film excels into delving into psychological trauma of grief and weaving a terrifying story that isn’t just about the supernatural, but also what it means to lose someone.
While Pet Sematary follows similar beats to its predecessor, one of its main deviations in how it deals with its female protagonists, particularly Rachel. In this film, she’s given more room to develop as a character. Her grief is explored more in-depth as her fear and trauma around death is more deeply explained. She is allowed to be more than a mother, but a grieving sister who still has not dealt with the traumatizing death of her sister, Zelda. The female cast of Pet Sematary is what truly shines and makes this film stand out from its previous forms; screenwriter Jeff Buhler’s script works to decentralize the narrative on solely Louis’ grief and while it may not always be successful, Rachel is still given more depth than previously seen.
Jason Clarke as Dr. Louis Creed as OK, but I found myself wishing this film was just all about Rachel with him as the supportive spouse. John Lithgow is of course a joy and while it’s disappointing he didn’t incorporate the New England accent, he made Jud Crandall his own, rather than an imitation of Fred Gwynne (who played Jud in the 1989 film). And it wouldn’t be a proper review without mentioning the phenomenal feline performances by Tonic, Jager, JD, and Leo as beloved Church. These cats dominate each scene they’re in, either as adorable Church or recently-dead Church. That could just be my love of cats talking, but Pet Sematary wouldn’t be what it is without iconic cat performances.
It is difficult not to constantly compare this film to both the first adaptation and King’s novel. However, constant comparison will inevitably lead to overlooking the film’s strengths. Kölsch and Widmyer work to juggle both fan expectations while also creating their own spin on a well-known story. There are moments where the narrative falters because of their attempts to adhere to parts of the original story. But their script shines brightest when they navigate their own additions to the story, such as Rachel’s grief. In fact, this is a rare instance of a film needing more time to let a narrative breathe and unfold. But regardless, Pet Sematary is another example of horror navigating the psychological trauma of multiple levels of grief. It lets Rachel grieve without her becoming as secondary to her husband. While the slew of horror remakes and adaptations are exhausting, Kölsch and Widmyer, along with Buhler’s script, show there are ways to handle existing material in new and refreshing ways. While their method may not be perfect, it shows creativity, thoughtfulness, and hunger for telling stories. Sure, sometimes dead is better, but not in the case of Pet Sematary.