Maybe I would have been better off skipping the early version of this film. You know, the one from 1989 that is a favorite of kids who grew up in the 80s. I'd never seen it before this year but in anticipation of the remake, I went to that well and took a draught. The film was terrible, and I will be making some comparisons in just a moment, but the premise had potential. It's that potential that made this movie seem so promising. Unfortunately both the first film and the trailers tell you everything that is going to happen, and there is just not enough to justify this movie, even though it is a dozen times better than the original.
Let's get a few of the comparisons out of the way. Starting with the cat, this movie is better cast. The animal that plays "Church" the first return visitor from the Pet Sematary of the title is great. He looks like a real pet at the start of the film, and the shape he is in near the end fits pretty well. I don't think Director mary Lambert cared much about the Pet" part of the story in 1989, but the directors here, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer emphasize the cat a lot more and it adds to the creepy vibe of the film. Also, the actors in the family are all much more invested and effective than the original cast family. The two biggest adds are Jete Laurence as the doomed daughter Ellie and Jason Clarke as the bereaved father Louis Creed. Laurence has a degree of professionalism around her that makes her more believable in the role than her predecessor. Jason Clarke is simple a much better actor than the wooden and painful to watch Dale Midkiff. As he has shown in a variety of films, even bad ones, Clarke can convey emotions and function as a human being, which he does pretty well here. The one actor from the original that was not an embarrassment was veteran Fred Gwynne as the neighbor who knows secrets, Jud. In this go round we are provided the excellent John Lithgow, who lends gravitas and some skill to the supernatural explanations.
The main problem for me continues to be the story. The willingness to ignore what they know to be a dangerous action, both for a pet and a child, defies all the emotional pressures that are built up. Rachel, the mom played by Amy Seimetz, is incredulous at the action her husband must have done to get to the twist in the story, and so am I. A man who is learned, had several warning from the afterlife and also has some negative experience to go with it, simply is blinded by inconsolable loss. I suppose it could happen but all that is required is to think past the next day and I think you would back off. Maybe the one place that the previous film was more successful was in the use of the character Victor Pascow. He was visualized more ominously in the 89 version and was better used to set up how dire things could be. That character is substantially reduced in this rendering, and that is a weakness.
Local ritual was brought up early in the film as kids bury their pets, but other than one creepy sequence with kids wearing masks as they take a dog to his final resting place, there is just nothing that comes from this. The new directors and screenwriters wisely trimmed the role of the grandparents down. We never really hear from them and the unpleasant history of Rachel and her sister is presented with just enough detail to be horrifying and relevant without stealing too much focus from the main horror.
Since I knew all of the story beats already, and the trailers, previous film (and this review unfortunately) probably telegraph them to you, there is not suspense, just dread as we await the results of Louis' action. The final scenes with Jud are not as scary as they were in the first film, but everything at the Creed home is more frightening this time around. I was not terribly disappointed because my expectations were tempered by the earlier film and the story. Early buzz had the film becoming a major upgrade and a modern horror classic. As someone once said , almost certainly in a movie, "reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated". I'm sorry to paraphrase, but it seems appropriate here, "reports of this films excellence have been greatly exaggerated." It's mildly satisfying, but it is not the shocker it so strives to be.