Pet Sematary (2019) Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer - Movie Review
Pet Sematary (2019) Directors: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer, Writers: Stephen King (novel), Matt Greenberg (screen story by) Jeff Buhler (screenplay), Stars: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jeté Laurence, Obssa Ahmed, Hugo & Lucas Lavoie, Alyssa Brooke Levine Runtime: 101 min Rated: 18A (Canada) 14A (Alberta) 13+ (Quebec) R (MPAA) for horror violence, bloody images, and some language
Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on IssuesEtc.org where Christianity meets culture. This review contains spoilers (as does the film’s official trailer). The first part of the radio interview contains a review of the 2019 Jordan Peele film "Us."
Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer Pet Sematary (2019) is based on the book by Stephen King and is another reimagining of King’s story previously made into a film in 1989.
When Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) moves his family to the small town of Ludlow, Maine to work as a doctor they discover a local pet cemetery on their property. After the family cat, Church (named after Winston Churchill), is hit by a semi truck their neighbour, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), shows Louis an ancient and cursed Mi’kmaq burial ground behind a deadfall on the pet cemetery’s edge. Louis, an atheist, buries Church to avoid talking to his daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) about death. Ellie’s mother, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), who as a child had a complicated experience with death following the death of her disabled sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine), is haunted by death. While more open to talk about it with their daughter and son Gage (Hugo & Lucas Lavoie) she is at odds with her atheist husband when it comes to discussing death and dying. Ellie for her part has questions about death and dying.
Upon Louis’ return from burying the cat he and Rachel decide to tell Ellie her beloved Church had run away. Jud had confided in Louis that anything buried on the other side of the deadfall by the pet cemetery would come back to life. Louis’ atheism inclined him to dismiss the claim, keeping it a secret from his wife, and expecting life to simply carry on. But Jud was right; Church returns. But the cat is not the same. Amazed and disturbed by this inexplicable turn of events Louis also begins to be haunted by the ghost of Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) a man who died in his hospital’s emergency room.
On her ninth birthday Ellie is struck and killed by a semi truck in the same way as her cat and is buried in the town cemetery. Seeing with his own eyes how the cat had returned from death, Louis, overcome with grief, exhumes his daughter while Rachel is away, and reburies her in the same cursed ground. Again, the inexplicable happens and she comes back to life. But as Jud says, “sometimes dead is better” because “they don’t come back the same.”
Where the original Pet Sematary (1989) film by Mary Lambert (for which King wrote the screenplay) focused more on gore and used humor to break the tension of the horror, Kölsch and Widmyer’s film is more dour and serious. In the book and in the 1989 film the child who dies and returns is the young boy Gage where in this film it’s their daughter Ellie. This new film’s advertising campaign “lets the cat out of the bag” on this twist so that what should have been a shock to viewers familiar with the book and the previous film is emptied of its dramatic impact.
While Pet Sematary (2019) is a more serious film and contains some genuinely disturbing moments of horror it is still nowhere near as textured and honest an investigation of grief and loss as King’s book. King’s 1983 novel truly delves into some dark thoughts and feelings surrounding death and the way in which modern North American culture often struggles to deal with it. Almost Shakespearian in scope, King breaks his tragic book into three acts each introduced with paraphrases of the account of Christ Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead as recorded in the Gospel of St. John. This new Pet Sematary fails to capture the profoundly psychological aspects of King’s book in the way that other King adaptations achieved like Misery (1990) or Dolores Claiborne (1995). Even Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), which takes great liberties with King’s source material, still manages to capture the psychological horror within a family unraveling under supernatural pressure.
In Pet Sematary (2019) when Rachel discovers what her husband has done, the grieving atheist Louis says, “I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to her … I needed more time with her.” He’s experiencing a mix of emotions and when pressed further by his wife, as the true nature of their now zombie daughter becomes apparent, he says in anguish, “I did what I thought was right, God can have His own Son.” What Louis wanted was a second chance but what he received was not joyful but horrifying and dangerous. After Ellie’s return to life, father and daughter had spent an agonizing frightening day together. This might be some of the film’s most successful material. For example, while brushing Ellie’s hair Louis’ brush keeps getting caught on something. When he pulls her hair aside he discovers a line of staples the mortician used to prepare her body for burial. That moment highlights the reality of her death. And when tucking her into bed the slack-faced Ellie starts asking Louis about her death saying she remembered everything going black. He tells here not to worry about that because she’s “back now” to which Ellie responds, “Back from where?”
Whether viewers are Christians or not they may want to reflect on the resurrection of Jesus in the Gospels and Epistles of the Bible and on the famous resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus. It’s fair to do so. The character of Louis brings up God and His Son Jesus in the film and King’s 1983 book references the resurrection of Lazarus, not just in the introduction to its three parts but also in the story. There’s a moment when Louis remembers Ellie telling him, “[Jesus] called ‘Lazarus, come forth,’ … because if He hadn’t called for Lazarus by name, everyone in that graveyard would have risen.” Since both Pet Sematary films and the book deal with death and resurrection it’s more than fair to contemplate the topic in light of the film.
King, who was friends with George A. Romero the writer and director of the Night of the Living Dead (1968) and many other zombi-themed films, wanted him to direct Pet Sematary (1989) but Romero got tied up doing reshoots on his film Monkey Shines (1988) and that ended his involvement in the project. Why mention this? Sometimes the zombie element of Pet Sematary gets oddly overlooked but essentially the book and films are a zombie story albeit one that delves much deeper into the emotional and psychological elements. Viewers and readers often first think of the tragic horror of losing a child and the effects it has on a family and the grief that they suffer, then they think of Church the cat, Rachel’s misshapen sister Zelda, and poor Jud Crandall’s Achilles’ tendon, or even the ghostly Victor Pascow. But at its heart Pet Sematary is a story about a burial ground that produces zombies.
The modern horror convention of the zombie and the Biblical teaching on the resurrection of the dead are as different as night and day. This contrast is a staple of horror fiction. Horror is often created by taking something good, in this case the promise of the resurrection of the dead, and flipping it on its head, subverting it by dragging it into the dark, and adding the paranormal or abnormal, or simply reversing it. This creates anxiety and horror in readers and viewers taking something they should be able to trust and making it untrustworthy. King is a master of this. He takes clowns, St. Bernard dogs, posh resort hotels, high school prom dances and muscle cars, and spins them into horror. However, Jesus’ resurrection is not a thing of horror but of beauty. While Jesus does bear the marks of His Good Friday crucifixion, His Easter morning resurrection is full of kindness, love, mercy and forgiveness. After Easter and before His ascension the incorruptible resurrected Jesus eats with and speaks to His disciples who can physically touch Him and see that He is not a ghost or putrid zombie. Later in Scripture Christians read the promise that they can likewise look forward to such an incorruptible and physical resurrection of the body when the Apostle Paul writes how Jesus, “will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself” (Philippians 3:21). King latches onto a detail from the Gospel of St. John about Mary and Martha’s fear that their brother Lazarus would smell if they open the grave as Jesus commanded (John 11:39). It appears in his book and films where the family cat Church is described as smelling bad even though he’s returned from the dead and looks very much alive. The new film expands on this detail as after her return Ellie has a putrid odor. Here viewers can start to see the reversal necessary for creating horror. While Mary and Martha were worried that their four-days-dead brother might likewise have an odor, their worries turn out to be unfounded. The resurrection Jesus provides for Lazarus contains no deleterious effects and the resurrection Jesus later experiences likewise is without adverse effects. The reverse is true in zombie fiction. In the Pet Sematary book and film adaptations zombies smell bad; they aren’t full of kindness, love, mercy and forgiveness. In fact they are murderous. They may even be possessed by an unspeakable evil. The happy reunion Christians look forward to in the resurrection on The Last Day is subverted and presented as something to fear. As Rachel says to her husband Louis about the burial ground behind the pet cemetery, “Don't... bury... me in that place...” because she doesn’t want to come back as a zombie. Christians on the other hand want to be risen from the dead by Jesus on The Last Day to everlasting life with Him in a heavenly paradise.
The genius of King’s Pet Sematary book, and the film adaptations to a lesser extent, is that it works for both Christians and atheists. For Christians the horror is in the subversion or reversal of Biblical resurrection; for the atheist it is in the idea that there actually might be something beyond this life. Pet Sematary (2019) never provides any comfort that heaven awaits the dead who have faith in Jesus. The film provides no heaven beyond death, only hell. Again this is meant to subvert and unnerve what the Christian believes, teaches and confesses to be true. But it is also potentially fear-inducing to the atheist who knows that if Christianity is true, unbelief is a ticket to hell. Christian viewers of this film (This is not a recommendation of such films, this film included. They are not for a broad audience and will not be something appealing to everyone regardless of whether they are Christian or not) will have nothing to fear if they reflect on the true nature and promise of the resurrection in Christ Jesus presented in the Bible. None religious viewers, once they have moved past the horror of the film-watching experience, may want to take the film’s subject matter as an invitation to contemplate the nature of death and what awaits them in death.
When it comes to Stephen King adaptations this new Pet Sematary film falls somewhere in the middle of the pack— not as good as films like The Shawshank Redemption (1994) or The Green Mile (1999) but not nearly as bad as Maximum Overdrive (1986) or Sleepwalkers (1992) or the critically-panned The Dark Tower (2017) or even the unnecessary Carrie (2013) remake. Some ardent King fans may well be annoyed by the changes made by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer but then again they may be equally annoyed by the changes Mary Lambert made in her 1989 adaptation! That said, with a $21 million budget and box office returns as of April 2019 edging towards $100 million it’s safe to say that however fans feel about Pet Sematary (2019) the film makers, financial backers, and King must be feeling fairly good about the project.