Movies & TV / Reviews

Fantastic Fest 2023: Pet Sematary: Bloodlines Review

September 23, 2023 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Pet Sematary: Bloodlines Image Credit: Philippe Bosse/Paramount Players
The 411 Rating
Community Grade
Your Grade
Fantastic Fest 2023: Pet Sematary: Bloodlines Review  

Directed by: Lindsay Anderson Beer
Written by: Lindsay Anderson Beer & Jeff Buhler

Jackson White – Jud
Natalie Alyn Lind – Norma
Forrest Goodluck – Manny
Isabella Star LaBlanc – Donna
Henry Thomas – Dan Crandall
Jack Mulhern – Timmy Baterman
David Duchovny – Bill Baterman
Samantha Mathis – Kathy Crandall
Pam Grier – Marjorie Washburn

Image Credit: Paramount Players

Running Time: 87 minutes
Rated R for horror violence, gore and language.

There’s always room in Hollywood for Stephen King stories. The iconic horror writer may have had his ups and downs in the adaptations of his many stories, but people will always be interested in bringing his famous tales of terror to the screen. The last several years in particular have seen an explosion of works derived from his stories, with many more still on the way.

Among those adaptations was 2019’s Pet Sematary, which attempted to re-adapt King’s 1983 book. While the Jason Clarke-led film drew mixed reactions, it was a financial hit and brought Paramount back to the well to see if there were more stories to tell. Pet Sematary: Bloodlines is the result of that. Lindsay Anderson Beer’s directorial debut, which had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest on Saturday and arrives on Paramount+ on October 6th, looks to the past of the novel’s story to reasonably decent results.

The film goes back to the Ludlow of 1969, where a young Jud Crandall (Jackson White) is looking to leave with his girlfriend Norma (Natalie Alyn Lind). While a number of Ludlow’s young adults have been swept up in the draft for the Vietnam War, Jud has avoided it – to his dissatisfaction – and he and Norma are headed out to join the Peace Corps.

But as Jud is preparing to leave, one of his friends is coming home in Timmy Baterman (Jack Mulhern). Timmy’s experiences in the war appear to have changed him as he has been acting strange since he returned. Meanwhile, Manny (Forrest Goodluck) and his sister Donna (Isabella Star LaBlanc) are at odds about Donna’s wish to use her dream-inspired artwork and leave Ludlow.

Jud and Norma set out to leave Ludlow, but they find their efforts stopped when hit a bird and encounter the Batermans’ dog on the road. That leads to a fateful trip to the Batermans’ and an encounter with Timmy. It soon becomes clear to Jud that there is something very wrong in Ludlow, leading to his joining forces with Manny to uncover some of the town’s dark secrets.

While Pet Sematary: Bloodlines comes from the same studio and producing team behind the 2019 film, it’s best not to think of it as a prequel to that film. Plot details are irreconcilably different and even this version of Ludlow, particularly the titular burial ground, looks entirely different from the previous film. Rather, it plays like a direct prequel to the book, exploring a story excised from the 2019 film that is told by the older Jud to Louis as a warning.

It’s a canny decision by the filmmakers, as it frees the film from the traps that prequels can fall into. There’s no need to litter the film with allusions to the previous film – and while there are a couple references to Louis Creed’s story, they don’t come off as especially egregious. Instead, the script by Beer and Jeff Buhler takes the time to explore its own story, one in which certain adults in the town are keeping the dark nature of the burial ground a secret.

The story as presented isn’t the most original thing put to screen; there are elements of A Nightmare on Elm Street mixed in here, among other clear inspirations that aren’t necessarily present in the book or the previous films. But it’s still very much a Stephen King story, drawing on themes about the nature of evil, towns with buried secrets, the relationship between fathers and sons and the changing tides of friendships as you grow older.

Beer clearly has a lot of love for King and for horror, and she makes sure there’s plenty of both in here. The first act takes a little while to ramp up and has to rely on the inherent charm of White, whose Jud is engaging enough, and his relationships with his father and Norma in particular. Once Timmy enters the picture more fully at the end of the first act, things start to gain momentum on the horror side and Beer is able to conjure some gruesome imagery. A later hospital sequence is quite good, with skin sloughing off a foot and a major character’s scream being interrupted by a spurt of blood across the face.

While the back half of the film really gets the momentum going, it’s also riddled with several logic gaps. It’s here were characters do what horror characters do and start falling prey to the traditional bad decisions so that they can start to get killed off. It provides the appropriate bloodbath, but it also causes a few eye-rolling moments. We also see some character motivations and conflict thrown aside because they’re inconveniently in the way of the key players banding together. These aren’t fatal flaws, but they do result in a more conventional and somewhat less interesting climax and denouement.

Fortunately, when the plot and character motivations start to become suspect the cast picks up the slack. White is fine as Jud; he’s not trying to do the previous versions that we’ve seen and goes his own way. Jack Mulhern has a difficult role as Billy, trying to bring something new to what is at its core a stock “possessed character” type and he succeeds more often than not. Lind and LaBlanc make their roles likeable without much to do, as does Goodluck for the role of Manny, who is a bit underwritten in comparison to protagonist and antagonist counterparts.

While the film’s focus is on the younger generation, the older stars more than carry their weight. Henry Thomas is going to be having a good month between his work here and in The Fall of the House of Usher; he puts a lot of work into the elder Crandall and his relationship with Jud. And even in a complete side role, Pam Grier will always stand out. It’s David Duchovny who has the most to work with here, and he goes full bore into the depression and pain that Billy has due to his impossible situation. Several sequences in the film work in large part because of how Duchovny handles his performance in the scenes.

There are a lot of challenges that Pet Sematary: Bloodlines are going to have with viewers. It plays a little fast and loose with even what’s presented in the novel’s few pages, and it notably changes the origin of the evil behind the cemetery. These are changes made for the best though; elements to the Native American aspects of the story are much better handled here, and there are a few nuances in terms of how war has damaged this small town. In a few ways, Bloodlines follows the path of Ouija: Origin of Evil and Annabelle: Creation in that it’s an unnecessary origin story, but one that manages to be more interesting – and frankly, simply a better film – than those that it follows.

Pet Sematary: Bloodlines premieres on October 6th on Paramount+. Fantastic Fest runs from September 21st through the 29th.

The final score: review Good
The 411
Pet Sematary: Bloodlines is a welcome surprise in that it's an origin story that, while far from necessary, manages to outdo its predecessors. Taking more inspiration from the book than any previous film, Lindsay Anderson Beer has put together a story that shows its cracks in the back half but also delivers as a solid horror film. It may not be the best follow up on a Stephen King adaptation, but it's an engaging enough horror film and that's all we could hope for from it.