“What’s been tried once had been tried once before… and before… and before…” is a quote that I kept thinking about leading up to the world premiere of Pet Sematary at South by Southwest (SXSW) 2019. This adaptation of the Stephen King novel, of the same name, had a lot of weight on its shoulders. Not only was the film slated to close out the SXSW Film Festival, making it the last moment that festival goers would take with them on their travels home, but it also had the 1989 version of the film to contend with.
I know Mary Lambert‘s Pet Sematary by heart. She was one of the first women directors in horror that I knew by name and is the reason I’m terrified to walk in front of my bed in the dark. It’s safe to say that her adaptation is a classic, and one that I watch every October. With remakes failing left and right, it seemed like the film wouldn’t hold up. However, the remake breaks past expectations and becomes a movie in its own right, regardless of King’s name or Lambert’s version.
Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, a directing duo whose film Starry Eyes gave a unique take on the possession subgenre with its grotesque and perfectly executed body horror. The movie starts from the inside out, leading you to believe that the ending will match that of Lambert’s, by showing shots that spark existing fans memories. But the ride to the end is its own story, one that diverges from source material while embodying the heart of the story in truly perfect ways.
With this background, the pair were able to execute some deadly visuals, particularly in the makeup of Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed). I thought that the iconic image of a man with half a head would be tough to top, but they did it. After Pascow’s accident, Kölsh and Widmyer made it clear that every time your mind drifted toward’s Lambert’s vision of the book, they would pull you back and push you deeper into their new narrative.
With excellent use of makeup, they take the chilling images of Rachel’s (Amy Seimetz) sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine) to a whole new level. The close-ups of her twisted spine and knotted joints and her movements of them hit you in your soul. The pair also uses Zelda with more impact than Lambert did. Through Rachel’s connection with her sister and the guilt that resonates from the grief and fear of Zelda’s death, the pair explore death and trauma from the beginning.
The fact that fans of the original film know the reveal of Zelda, Kölsh and Widmyer don’t have to hold back in their use of the sister’s connection. Instead of being tucked away in a room for a shocking reveal, the film grounds the family’s hesitation to explain death to their child and creates stakes in answering their daughter’s questions in an impactful way. In this way, the pair and the film’s writers Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler pick at the wound of family trauma and ground the Creed family in real panic inducing fears.
By setting up Rachel’s grief in the beginning, they allow for Louis’ (Jason Clarke) descent into it to be all the much more meaningful. Not only does the discovery of Wendigo’s land (a great change from “Indian Burial Ground”) separate him from reality when he resurrects the family’s cat, but his switch from logical doctor to a man facing a traumatic loss is at the forefront.
The creative team allows us to see loving familial interactions to be set at the heart of the film. Couple that with Louis’ feelings of helplessness after the death of Pascow and every choice, even the obviously bad ones that he makes means something. The fact that the Creed family isn’t shown as at odds with in-laws or in turmoil, makes their trauma all the more real and terrifying.
The performances from the cast propels the storytelling even further than the script. Specifically, Clarke’s Louis and John Lithgow’s Jud are superb. Louis’ trajectory from a man in control of his life, in control of knowledge, and making good decisions for his family to a man spiraling downward into madness for the love of his child is what makes classics.
In the case of Jud, Lithgow had extremely large shoes to fill. With the most iconic lines of King’s novel delivered his character who was portrayed by the legendary Fred Gwynne, I was worried Gwynne’s specter would hover over every one of Jud’s scenes. Again, I was wrong. Lithgow embodies the role of Jud, both bringing clear call-backs to his predecessor’s portrayal while making the role totally his own. Jud is one of the ways that the creative team worked to keep existing fans at the end of the seat. With lines and scenes that are exactly like Lambert’s, they deliver changes that keep even those that have committed her film to their memory excited, engaged, and constantly wondering what will change next.
Then, there is Ellie, played by Jeté Laurence. In all versions of Pet Sematary, Ellie Creed is the character that brings death to the forefront. Her inquisitive mind asks questions about heaven, God, and works to showcase the evolving trauma around her. Unlike the book or Lamert’s film, Kölsh and Widmyer utilize Ellie even more. Not only does she drive home the conversations around death, but she also becomes it. Instead of Gage playing in the road, it’s Ellie, as revealed in the second trailer for the film.
By switching the children Kölsh and Widmyer set themselves apart from the material that came before them and adds an element of storytelling that was impossible with a reanimated toddler. Laurence delivers a terrifying performance. Watching Louis attempt to kill his child in Lambert’s was hard enough, but what if that child communicated back? You see that here and it adds a whole new layer to the film that maintains the theme of family at its center throughout.
Now, I won’t go into the third act, but it pulls off something I didn’t think possible. It has an even more emotional ending. The emotion in the film thrives because the pair, who prove within the film their ability to use physical scares and blood, know when to let traumatic events be the horror. In Ellie’s death, nothing is visible, not even a shoe on the road. We just see colors in the long grass and the two allow the impact of the event to breathe on its own, further focussing the narrative around the family and their pain.
Although I like almost all of the changes to both story and iconic moments, this also produces my only problem with the film. With the removal of Gage as the victim on the road, he almost falls into nonexistence. As a child with little speech, this could have easily been rectified, as the filmmakers consider him in the third act.
That being said, it is perhaps the underutilization of Pascow is the most the bothersome. Although the film is narratively well done, to introduce Pascow’s spirit and not use him to his full potential is a disservice to a great piece from the work. To that point, his influence can be removed and the film will still progress with little to no changes. This is truly sad to say since Ahmed is chilling on screen and his voice hits you.
Even with those critiques, the film is an accomplishment that shows that adaptations and remakes can knock it out of the part. I have a hard time using one word without the other here because neither description seems to do justice to the new narrative of Kölsh and Widmyer’s film while also acknowledging that it borrows heavily from Lambert’s. Pet Sematary is undoubtedly a film that will both thrill old fans and create new ones. By shifting a lot of the angst onto Louis’ shoulders instead of Rachel’s and using more hallucinatory settings, the two are able to lean into what they know.
Louis paternal struggle is on full display and his intimate knowledge of the results of the burial and denial of consequences creates a perfect mix of on-screen terror. Kölsh and Widmyer prove that is is possible to recreate and retell stories while maintaining faithful to the emotion and core of the original work. The Creed family’s trauma and the filmmakers’ exploration of it solidify the duo as directors to watch.
In the end, Kölsh and Widmyer’s Pet Sematary will stand on its own as an entry into the Stephen King films, apart from its predecessor and good in its own right, the ground is far from sour here.
Pet Sematary is undoubtedly a film that will both thrill old fans and create new ones. By shifting a lot of the angst onto Louis’ shoulders instead of Rachel’s and using more hallucinatory settings, the two are able to lean into what they know.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.