As the lights came up at the finish of a Thursday night showing of the new Pet Sematary remake, I took notice as a familiar tune began to play over the end credits.
It was a cover of The Ramones’ “Pet Sematary” — which was associated with the original 1989 movie of the same name — from Los Angeles punk outfit Starcrawler.
As covers go, Starcrawler’s version wasn’t bad. In fact, it legitimately rocked in places. But did it do anything demonstrably, wildly different than The Ramones’ version? Not really.
In that regard, the new version of the song has much in common with the cinematic reboot to which it is attached: While the film functionally works — quite well at times — as a horror movie, the story it tells is by now so familiar that the whole enterprise sort of felt like one big cover song. Granted, it’s a cover that had me jumping out of my seat on occasion and chewing on the collar of my T-shirt (my go-to scary movie nervous tick) for long stretches, but a cover nonetheless.
Directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (a duo perhaps most known previously for helming several episodes of the Scream series on MTV a couple years back), Pet Sematary is based on the 1983 Stephen King novel, and takes heavy cues from the 1989 film from director Mary Lambert.
The key story beats are still at play in the remake: Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his family have moved from the big city to Ludlow, Maine, where Louis is starting a new job with a local college. The Creeds move into a remote, but picturesque, old house in the countryside and try to settle into what they hope will be a bucolic new life. But, after discovering a pet cemetery on their vast property (local kids have misspelled it as a “sematary” on a sign that hangs there), and learning of the secrets of a mystical burial ground that lies beyond that cemetery, a sinister sequence of events is set into motion.
If you’ve seen the previews for the reboot — or are at all familiar with the book and original film that have each been a part of pop culture for 30-plus years — you know the central premise is that, if something dead is buried in the aforementioned mystical grounds, it comes back to life. This applies not only for pets, but for humans, as well. However, a being that re-emerges from the burial ground comes back … different from how it went in.
There are a couple of clear high spots in regard to the performances in the new Pet Sematary. One is John Lithgow as Jud Crandall, the neighbor who befriends the Creeds and ultimately divulges the secrets of the burial ground out beyond the pet cemetery. Lithgow gives a performance that is at once warm and enigmatic, imbuing what is a supporting role with a surprising amount of depth. Jud’s is a life with deep secrets that he has worked to keep at arm’s length, and Lithgow wears that right on his face.
The other top-shelf performance comes from young Jeté Laurence, who plays 9-year-old Ellie Creed. It is, essentially a dual role: Unlike in the 1989 film where son Gage Creed ends up coming back from the dead, in the new version it is Ellie who ends up in a tragic accident, and is subsequently placed in the mysterious burial ground by her grieving father.
As such, Laurence plays Ellie, at first, as an almost impossibly sweet, bubbly little girl. However, when she returns from the grave, the character is wickedly sinister. It’s not an easy task for a young actress, but Laurence pulls it off seamlessly. You’ll believe both versions of Ellie.
But while some of the performances were quite strong, and the film looks and sounds gorgeous (cinematographer Laurie Rose and composer Christopher Young did their part in nailing the atmosphere on this one), the 2019 version of Pet Sematary ultimately feels a little too familiar. “Oh, here’s where the cat comes back from the dead,” you’ll be thinking. “Oh, and now here comes the scalpel scene.” And so on.
Now, those well-known beats are, undoubtedly, pulled off with a certain amount of panache here. But we’ve heard this song before.
While it may rock, a cover is still a cover.