‘Pet Sematary’ is scary enough to make you hate cats

A man walks through a dark cemetery at night as fog forms behind him.
Paramount Pictures/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

One doesn’t have to look very hard to find the moral of “Pet Sematary.” If watching a mangled, zombified cat stink up the screen wasn’t enough to clue you in, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) spells it out about halfway through the film: “Sometimes, dead is better.”

This anti-resurrection platform seems a touch ironic, considering “Pet Sematary” exhumes its plot from the 1989 film of the same name and Stephen King’s original 1983 novel. Some elements of the film — namely, a poorly paced screenplay that has one too many cheap jump scares and leans a little too heavily on barefaced foreshadowing — may convince viewers that sometimes, not remaking a movie is better. But for the most part, 2019’s “Pet Sematary” justifies its reincarnation with elevated performances and nausea-inducing visuals acting as the foundation for a film rooted in real-life horrors.

“Pet Sematary” follows the Creed family — father Louis (Jason Clarke), mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz), daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence), son Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) and their cat, Church — as they move from Boston to an isolated home in rural Maine. Soon, Rachel and Ellie discover the crowded pet cemetery near their house, an area that their neighbor Jud shiftily warns them to stay away from.

When Ellie’s cat Church is hit by a truck, though, Jud fails to take his own advice, shepherding Louis to a foggy corner of the woods and cryptically instructing him to bury Church there. The next day, Ellie tells her parents the most-definitely-dead Church was in her room last night, and the Creeds are treated to the miracle of their cat’s resurrection. Church is different now, though — stinkier and more prone to vicious scratching. It’s not until another death occurs — one unfortunately and inexplicably divulged in the film’s second trailer — that Louis decides that sinister corner of the woods deserves another look.

It’s a story solely concerned with death and the all-consuming nature of grief. In an early scene, Louis and Rachel argue over how to discuss the subject with Ellie when she brings it up; later, when Church dies, Rachel pleads with Louis to tell their daughter the cat ran away instead: “Anything but dead,” she chokes out.

It’s in moments such as these, ones that explore the omnipresent fear of life’s terminability, that the film achieves its most effective terrors. Rachel’s dwelling on the death of her sister allows Seimetz to sink her teeth into some effective flashback sequences, and her anxiety-stricken performance ratchets up the tension in every scene she’s in. Clarke, too, epitomizes Louis’ descent into grief in the latter half of the film; the gaunt expression on his craggy face as he digs a grave with his bare hands is almost as scary as the repulsive, reanimated corpse that shows up as a result.

But the Creeds aren’t just haunted by the idea of death — this is a horror movie, after all, so the physical manifestations of that fear are sumptuously icky. From the bloody, exposed brain of Louis’ ill-fated patient to the crunch of a bird’s wing as it’s chewed on to the sickeningly drawn-out ripping of a brush through matted hair, directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer engineer the film’s visuals and sound design so that every scene of “Pet Sematary” serves the central theme and reeks of decay.

If only “Pet Sematary” had the wherewithal to rely on those strengths instead of cheap tricks. As it is, the film is littered with simple jump scares that undermine an otherwise admirable commitment to emotional realism and extended dream sequences that needlessly telegraph the events of the third act. The story, too, seems oddly paced; even though the film clocks in at a sparse hour and 40 minutes, viewers will most likely find themselves waiting for the central twist to occur, only to find that the climactic carnage that succeeds it is much too short to provide ample payoff.

But though the carnage may be cut short, the film’s scare factor still satisfies, tapping into universal fears and exploring the dark underbelly of the Creed family psyche. By its end, the story has seen a family so desperate to avoid death that it has become completely subsumed by it in the process.

And really, nothing could be scarier than that. Except maybe a mangled, zombified cat.

Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected].