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Pet Sematary •••

Starring: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow
Director: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer
Screenplay: Stephen King, Matt Greenberg
Genre: Horror/Mystery/Thriller; Rated: R
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Date: April 5, 2019



(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it’s one of my “pet” peeves that we occasionally have to review a horror movie.

Yes. I wish the genre would die because … sometimes… dead is bettah.

We meet Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), a doctor from Boston, who has moved from the stressful life as an urban doctor to a more relaxed rural community in Maine. He brings his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and his two kids, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie). Their neighbor is an old man named Jud (John Lithgow) who discovers that Ellie’s cat has been hit and killed by a car. Jud helps Louis bury the cat in the local pet “sematary”.

But the cat doesn’t stay dead. It comes back to Ellie but she realizes something is wrong. The cat scratches her and Louis decides to release it into the woods some five miles away. But on Ellie’s birthday the cat comes sauntering down the highway next to the Creed’s house and Ellie, delighted her pet is back, runs into the street to retrieve it – only to be killed by an oncoming eighteen-wheeler. After the funeral, a despondent Louis sends his wife and son away so that he can exume her body and bury it in the pet “sematary” in the hopes that she will come back from the dead. And when she does, she isn’t quite herself.

Greg, we rarely review movies from the horror genre, and for good reason. There’s rarely a good hero’s story we can sink our teeth into. This incarnation of Pet Sematary is no exception. Yes, we do have protagonists in the form of a family who moves to rural Maine to escape a stressful life, only to encounter supernatural forces that lead to their demise. But these protagonists are hardly heroes. They try to survive their ordeal, and they fail. Along the way they are terrorized and terrified, and they do their best to rise to the occasion and prevail, but their hero’s journey ends in utter blood-splattering disaster.

This year we’re rating the “message” of the movies. But let’s be real — Stephen King didn’t write Pet Sematary to convey some important truth about the human condition. He wrote it to inflame our fears and incite the darkest corners of our imagination. King largely succeeds here, as I believe this version of the movie far exceeds the 1989 version in quality by leaps and bounds. So if you’re looking to be scared, and you’re not interested in a story with some deep moral, personal, or socially redeeming message, then Pet Sematary is exactly the right movie for you.

This movie reminds me of the classic 1902 story The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs. The story has been retold many times over in one form or another for over a hundred years. Stephen King’s version relies on the “Indian burial ground” trope for the magical elements that allow the dead to rise again. It’s a fine retelling and this incarnation is both entertaining and completely creepy.

If we were to look at the hero’s journey here, we won’t find the usual one where the hero resolves some missing inner quality and learns a valuable lesson. Instead, this is a cautionary tale that sometimes what you think you want isn’t what you really want. As Spock once said, “having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true” (forgive my inner Trek geek). The most devastating thing that can happen to a parent is the loss of a child. King plays on that fear in Pet Sematary, throws in the fear of the undead, and twists it into the fear of having a child return as a demon-infested zombie (remember The Exorcist?). If there is a moral to the story, perhaps it is… sometimes dead is better.

This version of Pet Sematary is about as good as a horror story about haunted cemeteries can get. Yes, there are foolish elements to the story that we must overlook, such as – why would a family buy a house on a road with big-rig trucks barreling by at 70mph? And why would the family not be freaked out enough to leave this house when their dead cat comes back to life? Especially a dead cat that does disturbing little things like terrorize little Gage in his crib.

So this is a movie that we can enjoy by just putting our brains on a low setting and our emotional readiness for trepidation on high alert. Sometimes it’s fun to be terrorized and this film hit all the right horror-filled notes. I give the movie 3 Reels out of 5. As I’ve mentioned, there is no real (or reel) hero’s journey, and there is no attempt at a message except (as you point out, Greg) be careful what you wish for when you bury your loved ones. That’s not a terribly profound idea to chew on, so I’m compelled to give Pet Sematary a measly 1 Hero point out of 5, and 2 Message points out of 5.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

Pet Sematary is an uncommon horror story in that it is more than a mindless villain killing less-than-intelligent teenagers. King is a master storyteller and this story is one of his masterpieces. It plays on all of our fears while still delivering a story worth telling over again. I was confused about a couple of subplots (why was Rachel constantly revisiting her sister’s death?) and why did Jud have survivor’s guilt over his dead wife (did he bury her in the Pet Sematary too and not like the outcome?). Still I was entertained and enjoyed a more subdued Lithgow. I give Pet Sematary 3 out of 5 Reels.

As anyone can see, Scott, you and I differ on the hero and the message here. As with many tragedies or anti-hero stories, it is not a story of change so much as a cautionary tale. It might be that our ‘hero’ is displaying the pain of inconsolable loss. And the message is “don’t do that.” In any case, as a tragic hero, I give Louis 3 out of 5 Hero points.

Finally, I am a fan of the late, great Fred Gwynne who played the Jud character in the 1989 version of the movie. As much as I liked Jonathan Lithgow in the role – I really prefer Gwynne’s take on Jud. So I award only 2 Message points out of 5 for the clear message that “sometimes, Fred is bettah.”

Movie: Message: Heroes:

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