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How Scary Is the New Pet Sematary?

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Pet Sematary is legend among horror fans. Based on what is arguably Stephen King’s most frightening novel — and with a screenplay by the man himself — the story follows the Creed family after they relocate to rural Maine in search of a quiet life. But instead, they find a spooky graveyard for pets in the woods behind their house, beyond which lies a mysterious burial ground that … well, brings things back from the dead.

And much like a cat buried in that sour soil, Hollywood has resurrected Sematary for a new era under the direction of Starry Eyes helmers Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer. Their rebooted, slightly retooled version arrives in theaters this weekend, starring Jason Clarke as the good doctor Louis Creed; Amy Seimetz as his wife, Rachel; Jeté Laurence as Ellie; John Lithgow as neighbor Jud Crandall; and the twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie as little Gage. The new story diverges from the original in ways that vary in effectiveness, yet the high notes are still there: Zelda’s gnarled back, that evil cat Church, poor Victor Pascow’s fatal head wound, the ankle slash.

But for those who are more into reading Wikipedia pages about scary movies than actually watching them, the big question is: How scary is the new Pet Sematary? Considering how subjective fear is, Vulture set out to answer that question with a very specific set of metrics. Based on how you feel about creepy killer kids, Jason Clarke movies, horrifying house pets, and a few other needlessly specific categories, here is a point-by-point assessment of the new Pet Sematary’s fear factor.

How scary is it compared to other Jason Clarke movies?
We can say this for sure: Pet Sematary is absolutely more frightening than Winchester, about a woman who thinks she’s being haunted by the ghosts of people shot by her family’s firearms. But that’s maybe the lowest of hurdles? The psychological drama All I See Is You actually holds tension surprisingly well, and Jason Clarke himself might have been at his most frightening yet in Serenity (which should still be haunting you). In the end, though, it’s fairly clear that Sematary wins for his scariest movie so far.

How scary is it compared to other John Lithgow movies?
Pet Sematary does not have the advantage here. Lithgow was in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, a classic neo-noir thriller. He was also in the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie, giving an all-time terrifying performance. And good luck convincing me Harry and the Hendersons isn’t a horror movie! Lithgow is a worthy heir to the basically irreplaceable Fred Gwynne, but Sematary is not the scariest movie he’s been in.

How scary is it compared to other horror movies with freaky animals?
Let’s talk about the cat. The new Church, played in part by a plush Maine coon named Leo, is so stately and handsome that I couldn’t focus on him being ominous. There’s something fundamentally more frightening about the original Pet Sematary’s short-haired gray cat crouching and hissing like he’s going to rip your throat out than a gorgeous kitten with his own Instagram account. Original Church’s shiny eyes looked mean as hell, like a soulless kitty zombie, even without the artificial blood and matting Leo got.

Therefore, in spite of Leo’s solid performance, you can do better for animal scares than the new Pet Sematary. Even among the Stephen King adaptations, Cujo gives you more pet menace, and Arachnophobia will serve up better domestic-setting animal suspense. (Rural showdowns with alligators and wild pigs and giant snakes aren’t really comparable here, so we will avoid referencing Razorback or Rogue.) Those kids in the animal masks during the dog funeral procession, however? Straight-up chilling.

How scary is it compared to other creepy killer kid movies?
One of the twists in the new movie is — and get ready for a light spoiler! — Ellie is killed by the semi-truck instead of Gage. This choice actually works out pretty well, since Jeté Laurence is old enough to do more than just be cute and scary at the same time. (Shout-out to Miko Hughes, the original Gage, for being both so cute and so scary!) Her ability to communicate with her parents after death and menace them in a very deliberate way is a good update if you’re going to make one. (Her first line after reuniting with her mom is outstanding, and yes, it helps that she looks discomfiting enough, with her grayed pallor and muddy burial dress, while delivering it.)

In the canon of creepy child horror movies, however, it’s good but not great. The Orphan, Ju-On, The Babadook, The Devil’s Backbone, Mama, Ringu and The Ring, Sinister, Hereditary, Them (2006), Goodnight Mommy, and even The Good Son will give you more enduring nightmare children. (Since classics like The Bad Seed, Firestarter, and both Village of the Damned movies aren’t exactly frightening for today’s audiences, we won’t go there.) Evil Ellie is unsettling, but she’s not in the hall of fame.

How scary is it compared to other Stephen King movies?
This is almost unfair, considering how stiff the competition is, but we’ll do our best to answer anyway: It’s no Shining or original Carrie or Misery. In terms of frights, new Sematary rests comfortably among the middle of the King film pack, maybe even high-middle. It’s not quite as scary as new It, but it’s definitely more scary than the Carrie update from 2013. It’s not as good as the recent Gerald’s Game, though it is more outright scary than 1922. (Note: Movies like The Mist and Children of the Corn and Christine have an icon status that the new Sematary won’t reach, even if they feel cute by modern horror standards.)

How gory is it, in the grand scheme of horror gore?
When the original movie debuted in 1989, it was certainly grizzly for the era. Pascow’s head, the ankle, every single thing about the dying sister Zelda — they were grotesque terrors. When the new movie premiered at SXSW, the Twitter chatter around how dark and violent it was had us prepared for something even gorier. The result is somewhere in between. If you prefer more sterile scares, proceed with caution — there’s a fair amount of exposed brains in the new Sematary. Let’s just say it has more blood and guts than a first-in-the-franchise popcorn slasher, but never reaches the level of “torture porn.” Given that this is 2019, and that the new Sematary had some nice resources behind, the movie’s carnage tends to at least look great.

Is new Pet Sematary scarier than old Pet Sematary?
In an immediate sense, yes, but that answer comes with caveats. Someone coming in fresh to both movies in 2019 will shrink at the scares of the newer version and think the old one is quaint. But Lambert’s Pet Sematary scarred at least two generations of moviegoers and left them screaming “Never get out of bed again!” in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. The original undead Zelda, for example, played by actor Andrew Hubatsek in prosthesis and makeup, looked like an actual monster, something between human and demon plucked from her mother Rachel’s disturbed memories. The effect might read as hokey now, but 30 years ago, the image of Zelda underscored how our minds can work against us when confronting trauma. It was terrifying.

The update — even if well-executed and very well acted — won’t define a decade of night terrors as Lambert’s film did. But it will provide some great shocks to your system if you’re looking for big-screen scares. (The way the directors toy with your expectations around the infamous Achilles cut is especially satisfying.) And we will fully concede that Jason Clarke beats Dale Midkiff in at least eight out of ten head-to-head votes in a Superior Dr. Creed poll.

How Scary Is the New Pet Sematary?