I’m fairly certain I might be the only person on Earth who feels this way, but I stand firm in that the 2019 remake of Pet Sematary is a better rendition of Stephen King’s source novel than that of the 1989 original adaptation. There is an immense dread that slowly, but very surely bleeds into King’s novel about the importance and necessity of loss and grief, one that I feel is more important to capture than that of the plot details that might’ve gotten lost in translation. Still, the bleak, oppressive feeling that directors Kevin Kölsch (Starry Eyes) and Dennis Widmyer’s (Starry Eyes) retelling of the story felt far more in line with the “pit in my stomach” type of dread that reading King’s novel (one of his best works) tortured me with, and hit home the deeply heartbreaking core that the story has to it. So imagine my immediate interest in Paramount’s continued support of the franchise when they announced a prequel film, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines as a part of its growing lineup for its streaming service, Paramount+. Sure, a streaming sequel isn’t as preferred as something with a theatrical release, but seeing as I thought that the lukewarm reception to the remake, despite my support, meant that any chance of anything else felt dead in the water, I was happy to take what I could get.
The year is 1969, and the fabric of America is changing under the weight of the Vietnam War. Jud Crandall (Jackson White), having avoided the draft so far, dreams of a life bigger than his sleepy hometown of Ludlow, Maine, and his parents Kathy (Samantha Mathis) and Dan (Henry Thomas). Looking to skip town and join the Peace Corps with his girlfriend, Norma (Natalie Alyn Lind), Jud finds himself stopped by a mysterious force that brings him to discover his childhood friend, Timmy (Jack Mulhern) has returned from Vietnam, but as a shell of his former self. While Timmy’s strange behavior is initially attributed to PTSD, the town leaders of Ludlow, including Jud’s father and Sheriff Marjorie (Pam Grier), begin to suspect that Timmy’s father, Bill (David Duchovny), might have interred his actually dead son in the eponymous Pet Sematary, desperately looking to outrun his grief any way he can. As Timmy’s behavior becomes more erratically violent, Jud and his other childhood friend, Manny (Forrest Goodluck), begin to uncover the town’s dark secrets, and learn about the force that has taken a hold of their dead friend.
What makes Pet Sematary so engaging is how it follows a family as they struggle with different levels of distress and grief, from the stress of moving, to the sadness of losing a pet, to the earth-shaking trauma of losing a child, and the subsequent desperation that comes from being given an opportunity to fix it somehow. Being able to follow along with this family as it occurs, and being able to emotionally engage ourselves in their plight makes their pain so much more palpable, and their irrational decisions that bring forth unimaginable horrors somehow almost understandable. It provides a level of bleakness and dread that can only come from a story where any outcome will leave permanent, lasting scars on our protagonists. It’s the kind of expert horror storytelling that is so singularly that of Stephen King’s, and it’s the kind of expert horror storytelling that is noticeably absent from Pet Sematary: Bloodlines.
Perhaps the first indication that we were getting something that was operating on a lower competency level than any other film in the franchise before it simply comes in the pre-title sequence which treats audiences to not one, but two pointless false jumpscares that don’t even make sense given their placement directly within Jud’s voiceover monologue. These aren’t cheap cop outs as much as they are perplexingly random, and while the film’s cheap scares aren’t as strangely aimless as this intro might initially lead you to believe, it opens the door for expectations to be lowered.
What Pet Sematary: Bloodlines fails to understand is that so much of what made Pet Sematary, whether as a novel, or either films, a success is the emotional element at its core. We’re supposed to travel and understand the shattering grief that one must feel to make a decision to attempt to revive a loved one by means of the Pet Sematary. As we join Duchovny’s (The Craft: Legacy) Bill only after he has buried his son as an attempt at resurrection, we’ve already skipped past the trauma and heartbreak that goes into such a decision, quickly making it difficult to sympathize with Bill, or Timmy, even if we are to dually fear him. There is little grief to be found here, and that merely turns Pet Sematary: Bloodlines into a bog-standard zombie film, one that becomes difficult to place any emotional stock into.
This isn’t helped by the fact that Jud, at least in this iteration as a young man, is a painfully dull protagonist (by no fault of Jackson White (The Space Between), but rather the writing), one that lacks the homey charm that the character in the novel, as well as both iterations on film from Fred Gwynne (My Cousin Vinny) and John Lithgow (Hollow Point) possessed so wonderfully. He’s simply just another All-American boy with no real characteristics aside from being objectively hot and the character we’re told to focus on because he’s in the other film, even though nearly every single supporting character is more developed and interesting than Jud is here. Which really is a shame seeing that Jud is hands-down the best part of the original story, with such a rich charm and lived-in nature to him that to shave all that away from him really feels like a missed opportunity.
And perhaps “missed opportunity” is the main point that needs to be driven home here. I really think that the lore of Pet Sematary is absolutely worth exploring, but that has truly yet to be done in any substantial way. There’s a brief sequence that explores European settlers’ initial introduction to the Pet Sematary, but nothing is really expounded upon except for cheap horror for the sake of shock value. There’s nothing heavily explored with Jud’s relationship to the town beyond a revelation that’s treated as some big reveal to Jud, but does absolutely nothing to further the plot. What we get is a misguided retread of a story we’ve already read, told from a perspective that removes any sense of emotional engagement, and feels practically procedurally generated with how generic and familiar all of its horror tropes felt. There’re no scares to be found, no dread to be had, no sadness to be felt. It’s just a prequel that feels as if it’s on autopilot. A prequel that also has the absolute fucking nerve to waste Pam Grier (Jackie Brown) in such a manner.
I’ve seen musings that this prequel is “unnecessary,” a sentiment I nearly always reject when it comes to horror franchises. I’m always interested in someone else’s take on a story, or a franchise, or even what they have to say with a remake of something. I’ve obviously made my own views clear that I never found the idea of expanding upon the world of Pet Sematary “unnecessary,” but rather exciting. Pet Sematary: Bloodlines is neither offensively bad enough nor consequential enough to elicit anything other than a frustrated shrug from me, but rather just remains as meandering, dull, and frankly, mildly tacky in some sequences (the title card and end credits font bothers me deeply). But perhaps most frustrating is how the film has so little to say, and even less of a creative vision to be found at its core. The famous phrase “Sometimes dead is better” was spoken so many times in this film by so many characters that I thought I was going crazy, but really, it does make sense when you consider that sometimes, letting a beloved franchise go dormant is better than churning out soulless installments that add little to the overall brand. Sometimes dead *is* better.
Screening during Fantastic Fest 2023.
Available on Paramount+ October 6th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Fantastic Fest Pet Sematary: Bloodlines webpage.
Final Score: 1.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.