Fans have a strange relationship with the 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. The author’s readers were so delighted to finally have a half-decent King horror movie after the mid-1980s doldrums (remember Silver Bullet?) they developed more affection for it than it probably deserved. On the other hand, hard-core Ramones fanatics resented their title theme song as a Hollywood sell-out (as it sort of was). Serious horror watchers were encouraged when the up-and-coming team of Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer signed on to direct the remake, but the distinctiveness of their previous films is absent from the latest Pet Sematary, which releases today on DVD.
The Pet Sematary novel and subsequent films will annoy your spell-checker to the point of exasperation. The deliberate misspelling matches that of the pet graveyard the Creed family finds nestled away on the property behind their new Maine home. You would think the realtor would be legally obliged to disclose something like that. Behind it is a deadfall built by the Micmac tribe to keep people away from a hilltop burial mound with a serious reputation for causing heebie-jeebies. Reportedly, it was the Wendigo’s old stomping grounds. That definitely should have been covered in the mandatory disclosure.
Nevertheless, Dr. Louis Creed and his wife Rachel are still all smiles moving in with their eight-ish-year-old daughter Ellie and toddler son Gage. Since Jud Crandall, the crusty old codger living next-door turns out to be an nice old softie, they think the only down-side to their new home are the big rigs that constantly come barreling down the highway right in front of their driveway. Alas, “Church,” the family feline is flattened by one of those eighteen-wheelers a few days later. That night, Creed and Crandall set out to bury Church while Ellie is asleep, but instead of planting her in the Pet Sematary, Crandall leads Creed up the deadfall, to bury Church atop the mini Devil’s Tower. Within a matter of hours, Church comes back—changed.
And that should be enough to foreshadow the rest of the story. Of course, you know some mortal remains are going up there sooner or later. Mild spoiler: in a departure from the book and Mary Lambert’s movie, it will be Ellie who follows Church under the wheels of a speeding truck (but honestly, the evil looking little girl on the key art kind of gives that away already).
In fact, most of the changes from King and Lambert are not for the best. Lambert’s film recounts the prior history of Timmy Baterman, a recently returned WWII veteran, who also died prematurely and took a sinister detour through the Micmac burial ground, which gives the film a vibe of ancient evil hanging over the woods. Kölsch & Widmyer only show an old Baterman news headline brought up by an internet search (how Millennial). Conversely, the flashbacks featuring Rachel Creed’s late sister Zelda Goldman (who suffered from Spinal Meningitis) are expanded in ways that are exploitative and distasteful.
Frankly, the best part of this Sematary is John Lithgow playing old Crandall, but Fred Gwynne was still better in the Lambert film. In all fairness, Jete Laurence is terrific as Ellie Creed, even if a lot of her impressive third act work was a mistake in narrative terms. Jason Clarke also does a credible job portraying Dr. Creed’s descent from everyman to self-deluding psycho-tool-of-the-Wendigo. However, Amy Seimetz, a horror movie veteran, seems weirdly aloof as Rachel Creed.