Cinematic Releases: Every Parent's Worst Nightmare: Pet Sematary (2019) Reviewed

It's every parent's worst nightmare. A sunny, idyllic afternoon, a swing set in the front yard, a family picnic, all wrapped in the hazy gauze of a Clarendon fever dream. You turn your back for one moment, and suddenly your child is playing in the street. You scream as loud as you can, but no sound escapes as your peripheral vision fades to black. In fact, there's no sound anymore at all, save for the thumping of your heartbeat as you try to run. Only now, the ground is quicksand, and the faster you run the slower you move, all while the inevitable tragedy plays out before your eyes. You wake up at the last second in a cold sweat, spared the lifetime of grief and guilt.

Stephen King's seminal 1983 novel "Pet Sematary," long regarded as one of his most terrifying, works so well because the aforementioned human emotions are so universal, so elemental, so raw. You know you're a good parent, don't you? But how can you keep your eyes on your child every second of every day? Could you live with yourself if something happened? With Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer's 2019 remake of the 1989 blockbuster adaptation, Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) is faced with these questions, and left to decide for himself whether sometimes dead is better.

As the film opens, the Creeds are leaving the hustle and bustle of Boston behind for the L.L. Bean catalog life of rural Maine. Seriously, have they ever read a Stephen King novel? You don't move to rural Maine, EVER! Dr. Creed is tired of working the graveyard shift in the ER (pun intended, apparently), and longs for the simplicity of treating nosebleeds and STDs at the University of Maine campus health clinic. Mom Rachel (an excellent Amy Seimetz) is a bit high-strung, considering that she's dealing with unresolved childhood trauma involving her sister Zelda (chilling portrayed in a series of flashbacks). Two-year-old toddler Gage is cute enough, and amiable tabby cat Church (short for Winston Churchill) purrs laconically, but the film is anchored around the heartbreaking and bone-chilling performance of 9-year-old daughter Ellie (an outstanding Jete Laurence). Ellie has lots of awkward questions about death, and it's fair to ask if her parents exposed her to Sylvia Plath and the Cure a little too early.

Beware Harry and the Hendersons Part 2, where things get really ugly!

Unfortunately, the Creeds' criminally negligent real estate agent never informed them that: 1) 18-wheelers barrel down the highway out front of their house with no regard for the speed limit, and 2) there is a "Pet Sematary" in their backyard, which serves as a not-so-final resting place for an endless roadkill buffet of Sparkys and Fluffys. Oh yeah, and it's also a Native American burial ground with supernaturally evil powers, which is never good. With a curious cat roaming the property, and two inquisitive children prowling around, it doesn't take long for an audience who's half asleep to figure out where this is going.

Comparisons are inevitable to Mary Lambert's original 1989 adaptation, which has long been lauded by many as a horror classic in its own right. I'll be the first to admit that it traumatized me for years when I saw it as a child. I was unable to get into my bed barefoot at night without taking a running leap, because scalpels and Achilles tendons. However, it's a measured assessment to say that the 2019 remake blows the original out of the water by every conceivable metric. The acting is superb (especially the achingly believable performances from Seimetz and Laurence), and the direction, editing, and pacing are expertly helmed. Despite some lazily inferior set design midway through the film (dude, that cemetery and those woods are not scary AT ALL), this version succeeds almost everywhere the original failed--even with some major changes made to the ending.

Yet for fans of the truly terrifying 1983 novel, this iteration still can't help but fall short. Part of why the book is so effective is that it delves at length into the Native American mythology explaining why the burial ground is so evil and powerful. This goes a long way toward explaining the seemingly idiotic motivations and decisions by the adult characters, which set the subsequent chain of tragedies in motion. Despite a few token acknowledgements of an evil "Wendigo" demon-spirit, and that the burial ground "feeds on your grief," the film doesn't go far enough for an audience unfamiliar with the source material to make much sense of what's going on. Many die-hard horror fans won't care, and this is certainly filled with enough well-timed jump scares and creepy imagery to satisfy the most hardcore of them. However, if you want to truly have nightmares, my advice is to skip both films and just read the book.

-Eugene Kelly