3/10 As the credits begin to roll for Pet Sematary, what sounds like the opening riff of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” begins to play, and for a moment, I love it.
It’s a bold choice. Movies have mostly moved away from traditional end credits songs, instead opting for overtures based on the original score, so going with a song here would already be an out-of-fashion choice. But to go with not just a song, but a famous song, a soft, light-hearted song that at once clashes with the bleak film and echoes its message – literally, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” – something so perfect, so on-the-nose and so ironic at the same time, it’s a spectacularly cheeky thing.
Then I realize it’s a cover of The Ramones’ “Pet Sematary,” a song written specifically for the 1989 adaptation and re-made specifically for this 2019 version, and my excitement abates. But more importantly, I suddenly realize that quickly-dashed excitement for a song that doesn’t even end up playing is the first emotion I’ve felt during the entire 101 minute film.
In Pet Sematary, Boston doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his family move to a small town in Maine to get away from it all. But when their beloved cat Church dies, neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) reveals that their several-acre backyard hides an ancient Indian burial ground that brings things back to life. Creed and Crandall resurrect Church, but he’s clearly a different cat, overly violent and still smelling of the grave. When his child is killed by one of the 18-wheelers that are constantly blitzing down the remote one-lane road right in front of their new house, Creed is faced with the choice of whether or not to resurrect that child, too.
Pet Sematary is a straightforward, unremarkable remake of the 1989 book adaptation with modern window dressing and dull jump scare sequences transplanted from the Conjuring and Insidious franchises. It seems to know it’s a remake, in a weird way – writer Jeff Buhler has changed significant details of the story, and there’s a heavy focus on those changes, while the more upsetting elements of the story, like the mutilated Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) are downplayed. It seems like a deliberate attempt to shock the built-in audience that already knows the story, but at the expense of making a movie that’s significantly weaker on its own merit.
The basic story about family that can’t deal with death is such a perfect framework that any iteration of this tale is going to be at least decent. Louis Creed, a doctor, deals with mortality as a fact of his everyday routine, but his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) is completely incapable of approaching the concept after being traumatized by her sister’s slow death as a child, which she blames herself for. This difference is attacked when Church dies and they have to decide how to explain the concept to their daughter, Ellie (Jeté Laurence). When Louis is given the opportunity to defy death, it’s not the Christ-like power any doctor would dream of, but an emotional cop-out, a way to avoid dealing with the issue.
I’m not sure why the ending details are changed so much. I’d guess it’s to shock fans of the book or original film, but is that really a significant enough audience to cater toward? It’s certainly not a large enough constituency to get the movie made in the first place – Pet Sematary was only greenlit in October 2017 after the runaway success of It, another remake of an ‘80s Stephen King adaptation which Pet Sematary is meant to ride the coattails of. Since it’s different I’ll not spoil it, but the original ending, which directly attacks the characters’ tragic flaws, is much stronger.
The interesting metatextual decisions won’t matter much to the average viewer, who’ll be in store for a boring, undistinguished late-‘10s jump-scare movie, albeit one with a more intriguing story than usual.
Pet Sematary is another interesting study in Rotten Tomatoes exploitation. Sitting at 82% before its release with a summary that read, “Sometimes remade is better,” the film’s approval rating has since rocketed down to 58%, and a summary that now reads much less positively.
The popular aggregation website has become a battleground in recent years. Weirdos on Twitter have attacked several films they perceive to be pushing a feminist agenda, but more recently, studios have been rigging the rating by only granting select, friendly critics early access, leading to precipitous post-release drops in rating like we see here.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.