Review: PET SEMATARY is heavy on emotion, light on scares

by Charles Gerian

“Sometimes, dead is better.”

Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer's 2019 take on Stephen King's iconic horror novel PET SEMATARY released this past weekend to critical acclaim and a worthy box office take and offers scares, mood, and a surprising sting of emotional pain.

The film opens with Dr. Louis Creed and his wife Rachel played with conviction by often overlooked genre actor Jason Clarke and relative hidden gem Amy Seimetz who move to a rural Maine town from their busy Boston life with their two children- infant Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) and 9-year-old Ellie (Jete Laurence). Soon, their elderly neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) informs them that their idyllic home is located near a pet cemetery (misspelled 'sematary' by the local kids) that seems to possess a mystical power to bring the animals buried on the grounds back to life. Soon tragedies begin to mount as tensions run high and the Creed family soon begins to realize Jud's cryptic words have a terrifying resonance...sometimes dead is better.

PET SEMATARY is a slow-burning tension piece that was rather marketed deceivingly as a “spook-a-minute” terror fest. Similar to 2017's beloved interpretation of IT, but whereas IT brought with it a sort of coming-of-age comedy akin to King's own STANDY BY ME or the heavily King-inspired “Stranger Things” series, this film is a very “adult” themed drama. It's not until the film's second half that things truly go bonkers and the horror and depravity of an authentic genre exercise come bashing the door down.

Working from a script by Matt Greenberg (Halloween H20, 1408) duo directors Kolsh and Widmyer are assisted by Director of Photography Laurie Rose (Kill List, Peaky Blinders) all of which come together to give the film a moody atmosphere that- maybe intentionally- comes across as “too clean” and Hollywood, except for the mystical lands beyond the “Sematary” itself which give off a very retro feel for the days of matte background paintings, fog machines, and dedicated set construction.

The cast is excellent, though, make no mistake. John Lithgow is a chain smoking, gravely voiced older man who has good intentions and an honest heart but quickly finds himself tempted by the grounds itself and, soon, it's occupants. Jason Clarke's brazen descent into madness is a joy to watch, and the actor can do more with physical language and watery eyes than most his age can with a 200 page script.

The true stand out here, though, is young Jete Laurence as Ellie Creed, who gets killed by a semi-truck in similar fashion to Gage from from the novel and 1980 film. She comes back of course, but like her undead cat Church, she's not quite right. It's with Ellie that the film really finds a good spot. The 11 year old actress manages to convey innocence and bloodlust with such alarming conviction that you can already see her name at the top of film posters in 5-10 years. Ellie, once back to life after being buried in the “sour ground” brings questions and answers in creepy equality to both her father's faith and his love.

PET SEMETARY is a film that begs the question “what would you do?”. If you cat or dog died, would you risk them coming back...changed...or let them be at peace? If your child was taken from you, would you want them back enough to accept the inhuman nature of their return?

“I just wanted more time with her,” Dr. Creed tearfully tells his wife after she realizes what he has done. It is heartbreaking and disturbing, but it comes across as more the former than the latter. PET SEMETARY is gory and has some scares, but the real horror comes from the realization of what it happening as the film winds down to the final eerie shot..and it doesn't leave you after the credits roll.

It's a slow drama that could easily have been a bit more well paced, but it is well worth the journey to see some great performances, stand-out scenes, and one of the most chilling ending shots I've personally seen in a long while.