Watching the new Pet Sematary made me really wish I had never seen the chilling 1989 movie. Easily this retelling would have been twice as scary as it is had I gone into it completely fresh. As it stands, though, Pet Sematary is still unnerving as hell, and the knowledge of what was going to happen informed my viewing experience with the growing dread of awful inevitability. Kind of like how, if you are alone, and your mind is already in a really dark place to begin with, and you ponder – I mean really, deeply consider – how your death is coming, somehow, someday, no matter what you do. Yeah, it’s kind of like that.
Hey, put that bottle down and get back here . . .
Stephen King’s best works involve recognizable issues within the human condition. The Mist examined ignorance and tribalism. The Shining was about the isolation and destruction that are born out of addiction. Carrie looked at the emotionally violent period that is adolescence. In the case of Pet Sematary, considered by many to be among his most frightening stories, King focuses on one of the most difficult challenges a person can face: the loss of a family member. To be more precise, the loss of a child.
You would think that losing a child to the grim reaper would be the worst thing a parent could experience. And yet, in King’s universe, you would be wrong. Because sometimes, under very specific circumstances . . . they come back. And that is, assuredly, not a good thing.
Jason Clarke is not one of of my favorite actors. I keep getting him confused with Joel Edgerton, for one thing. He’s bland, not very distinctive, and until this film, has never done any work that held my attention. But his Louis Creed, a caring husband and father, and a doctor, who finds himself drawn down a dark path, is a nice fit for the veteran character actor with the calm, assuring voice and – I’m shocked I just realized this – utterly demonic face.
Parents watching this movie, especially those who have gone through the loss of a child, will recognize the different shades Clarke portrays here. Louis is a father who only wants to keep his family safe, and when the topic of death is broached by his inquisitive daughter, Ellie, the Doctor in him is all logic and reassurance, insisting that there’s nothing inherently bad about death, but that it is just another, natural part of life. But when tragedy strikes, Louis is transformed by the experience; while not going mad per se, he is quickly undone by the notion that his loved one could be brought back to him. And things only get darker from that moment on. As someone who experienced this kind of loss myself, this was not an easy thing to watch, and Louis’ journey, in spite of its fantastical, supernatural elements, looked very familiar to me. Something evil and paranormal may be taunting this character, but that ugly aspect of a man’s soul revealing itself is haunting because it is recognizable.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the legendary John Lithgow, who delivers another great performance as the Creeds’ next door neighbor, kindly old Jud Cranston. He completely owns this role, as the obligatory harbinger of doom, who knows what is about to happen but is sadly unable to prevent fate from arriving. And Jete Laurence, who looks no older than eight, is the rare child actor who radiates authenticity; there is nothing showy or, thank goodness, precocious about her performance, and thankfully the screenwriter did not give her anything Cute or Clever to say. She is just possessed of a believable child’s intelligence and curiosity, which goes a long way in scripted entertainment.
As far as how it stacks up against the ‘89 version, this new Sematary offers some new frights. Probably its best distinction is that we get a better sense of the nature of this ungodly burial ground. And if that sounds like explaining, which in horror is over-explaining, it’s not. If anything I was even more creeped out by learning more about the Sematary. And the story is ultimately more cohesive, and horrific, than the ‘89 film, for reasons I will not disclose.
It bears repeating: this movie can be unsettling especially for parents of little ones, so if you’re still sending yours to day care, you may want to do a gut check and evaluate how much of a horror fan you are. Pet Sematary’s depiction of a child’s death is not gruesome, but it can be upsetting. Like I said, my only regret is that I was already familiar with the story. However, maybe that was for the better in my case. As horror films go, this one is eery enough, creepy enough, and vile enough to keep you pinned to your seat. If nothing else, it will make you want to pay a little closer attention to the details of your eventual burial arrangements.