As part of our coverage of the 18th annual Fantastic Fest, Rob Hunter reviews a prequel that nobody asked for, ‘Pet Sematary: Bloodlines,’ that’s actually better than you’re expecting. Follow along with more coverage in our Fantastic Fest archives.
Stephen King‘s Pet Sematary is a masterpiece of horror, and Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation is pretty damn great too. Hollywood never met a film that didn’t need a remake, though, so it was remade in 2019 to much lesser effect, and now we’re reminded that Hollywood never met a film that didn’t need a prequel too. Pet Sematary: Bloodlines jumps back to the late 60s to tell a story that adds nothing new to the franchise, but on its own merits it works well enough while also being a less annoying film than that remake.
It’s 1969, and Jud Crandall (Jackson White, who you’d swear was Gil Bellows’ kid) and his girlfriend Norma (Natalie Alyn Lind) want out of Ludlow, but one fateful decision seals their fate in unexpected ways even after they’ve packed the car and hit the gas. A stop at the Baterman’s house — home to their friend Timmy (Jack Mulhern), newly returned from the Vietnam war, and his dad Bill (David Duchovny) — sees Norma bitten by the Baterman’s dog. Things spiral from there, and Jud soon learns there’s a secret that some of Ludlow’s residents have been hiding and protecting. See, it all started hundreds of years ago when members of the Mi’kmaq tribe built a cemetery…
Director/co-writer Lindsey Anderson Beer and co-writer Jeff Buhler are fighting an uphill battle here with a prequel to a story that not only didn’t need one but that already covered this story. If you’ve seen either adaptation of Pet Sematary you know that it’s an adult Jud Crandall who introduces the Creed family to the cursed burial ground which leads ultimately to their demise. His decision to do so, especially in light of what he knew about the place, always brushed right up against the line of believability, but his brief story about that past encounter (combined with his advanced age and loneliness) softened our doubt. Pet Sematary: Bloodlines is essentially Crandall’s brief recollection brought to feature-length life, and the argument could now be made that he should be viewed as the villain later on. What an asshole!
To their credit, Beer and Buhler do find some interesting threads to pull at in the story, and while some succeed better than others, most don’t seem to really go anywhere at all. We get some town history that suggests Ludlow is living beneath the weight of an old curse, and a flashback brings some of those beats to unconvincing life, but the script never actually commits to believing the issue sits anywhere beyond that cemetery and stupid choices made by desperate townsfolk. Henry Thomas (in his fifth King adaptation!) pops in as Jud’s father, who joins forces with a handful of other adults including Pam Grier and Vincent Leclerc (as a priest who thinks/wishes he was Father Malone from John Carpenter’s The Fog), to share the town’s haunted history and the efforts they’ve gone to to protect it.
There’s something to that idea, as if the town’s true curse is keeping people there despite the common sense urge to leave immediately, and Jud is only the latest victim as his attempt at escape fades into the darkness. Pet Sematary: Bloodlines also makes an overdue character choice by including a pair of Native teen siblings in Manny (Forrest Goodluck) and Donna (Isabella LaBlanc), friends to Jud and Norma who are equally interested in leaving Ludlow behind. The two aspects dovetail in a way, but oddly, little is done with the siblings outside of some visions suggesting a loose connection to the horrors over the hill and through the forest.
Delivering a prequel to one of King’s scariest stories, especially without King’s involvement, is a daunting task. Not every tale suggests a need for more backstory, and Pet Sematary needs absolutely none. Taken on its own merits, though, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines is a well-acted, well-shot little chiller complete with gory beats and haunting themes that almost land. Still, to quote Jud Crandall himself, for anyone over at Paramount who might be listening, maybe it’s time to just “stay the fuck out of Ludlow.”