Pet Sematary (1983) is one of Stephen King’s most profound novels. A book so bleak that King refused to publish it for years, the story of a father burying his dead son in the cursed soil deep in the woods only for him to be revived as a ghoulish shell of himself still packs a punch all these decades later. Historically, Stephen King adaptations have been a mixed bag. Pet Sematary seems to have done okay for itself, spawning a cult classic 1989 film and a respectable, albeit somewhat unfaithful 2019 remake. Follow-ups to Stephen King adaptations, though, are rarely ever any good, including the sequel to the first adaptation, Pet Sematary Two. Among the outliers like Mike Flanagan’s powerful Doctor Sleep and the promise of the Welcome to Derry series, the prequel Pet Sematary: Bloodlines does enough right to avoid being lumped in with the weak crowd.
At the top of the movie, writer-director Lindsey Anderson Beer does a fine job replicating the novel’s atmosphere. The year is 1969. The town of Ludlow, Maine is the definition of good ole apple pie Americana. Everyone knows each other’s name, except for the First Nations residents pushed to the edge of town. Beer and co-writer Jeff Buhler maintain the lived-in feel of a folksy Stephen King community, helped along by faded-in-color but rich-in-detail visuals courtesy of cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen. As the young Jud Crandall (Jackson White) prepares to leave Ludlow with his girlfriend Norma (Natalie Alyn Lind), there’s an ominous sense that there’s something rotten in the core of the town, not helped by Judd’s father (Henry Thomas) warning him not to come back.
When Jud and Norma encounter Judd’s old friend, Timmy Baterman (Jack Mulhern), from his honorable discharge from Vietnam, something seems off about him. He’s changed – his bones crack in unsettling fashion every time he moves, he stares with dead eyes, and his father (David Duchovny) is apprehensive about letting him be seen in public. Jud’s attempts to leave his hometown of Ludlow are halted abruptly by the mauling of Norma by the Batermans’ newly aggressive and disheveled dog. Forced to stay to tend to Norma, Jud links up with a childhood friend named Manny (Forrest Goodluck and soon uncovers Ludlow’s sinister secrets. He comes upon an ancient burial ground just beyond the town’s pet cemetery that brings people back. But sometimes, dead is better.
Stephen King’s original novel glows brightly from its slow burn. Pet Sematary: Bloodlines retains this aspect to great effect. The looks that the elder townsfolk throw at each other or their children when the sordid history of Ludlow gets mentioned are fraught. Henry Thomas, in particular, seems to take the weight of Ludlow’s many issues on his shoulders in a layered, very human performance. Duchovny’s character lives in denial of the ancient evil in the town. Henry Thomas is gruff and prickly, far from the amicable nature of Duchovny’s iconic role as Fox Mulder in The X-Files.
Without directly retreading the story of the book, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines does a fine job of showing the human psyche’s temptation towards rebelling against death, even when they know deep in their gut that fighting against nature will only bring its wrath… or in this case, the working of dark forces. One of the strongest examples of this is a flashback sequence set in the 1600s that breaks from the style of the rest of the film to something far more brutal, leaving a disturbing air of knowledge hanging over the rest of the proceedings.
Eventually, the chickens will come home to roost, and the slow build-up of that gutting dread plays out as it should. The lore of the novel is expanded upon, albeit not obtrusively. Rather, it enriches the source material, providing additional context that, while not necessary per se, clarifies the cycle with that temptation of resurrection that the citizens of Ludlow must shield themselves from. Beyond being a good expansion of the novel, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines is plenty scary on its own. Sure, there’s a large amount of jump scares, but they’re effective- almost like the town’s evil slowly, and sparingly, reintroducing itself, and there are plenty of practical gore effects to go around as well.
Pet Sematary: Bloodlines fumbles its storytelling in a couple of key areas. Jud Crandall, as played by Jackson White, isn’t very reminiscent of the character in the novel. Despite having Jud be the focal point for learning about the town’s lore, the character isn’t written in a way that makes him interesting enough to be the protagonist. He’s simply here because he was the legacy character that a board room decided could be interesting to center a story around. Much more interesting is his childhood friend Manny, of First Nations descent, played by Forrest Goodluck. Goodluck powerfully conjures a survivor who is stuck in Ludlow by a sense of duty, even though he doesn’t fit in. His relationship with his sister Donna (Isabella Star LaBlanc) adds some much-needed heart to the film.
Yet, clumsily, the prequel tries to make its heart the relationship between the Baterman father and son. While both performances are great for what’s asked of them, Bill (Duchovny) and his devotion to his son Jud never really centers itself in the way it needs to. This makes an otherwise very entertaining third act lose the emotional punch the movie so clearly wants to have. Furthermore, the newly resurrected characters of the film come across more like a variation of Hollywood zombies than the uncanny, deeply off-putting unholy monsters of the original novel. The 2019 remake also suffered from this, making connecting with the plight of those related to the deceased much more difficult than it should be.
Nonetheless, these are all minor quibbles in the context of what could’ve been a disaster. A Paramount+ Stephen King prequel doesn’t inspire any confidence, but Lindsey Anderson Beer stays the course in her directorial debut. With her next project slated to be a remake of Sleepy Hollow, Beer is going to be a name horror fans should look out for. The atmosphere is thick, the performers show up, and it works as a supplementary text to a staple horror novel. In other words, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines is much better than it has any right to be.