Pet Sematary: Bloodlines [Fantastic Fest Review]

Horror prequels often exist in order to revitalize their franchises. Going back to explain the genesis of whatever evil the story revolves around is a way of squeezing a little more life out of an idea that has run its course. That tends to yield wildly uneven results. A few are good, many are pretty bad. Pet Sematary: Bloodlines, a prequel to Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s 2019 adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, follows Jud Crandell, the character played by John Lithgow in that film. It exists in a rare middle ground – not the best horror prequel ever, but not the worst either.

Young Jud (Jackson White) wants to move away from his hometown of Ludlow, Maine. That decision doesn’t sit too well with his parents, Dan (Henry Thomas) and Kathy (Samantha Mathis). His departure is delayed after girlfriend Norma (Natalie Alyn Lind) has her arm viciously mauled by a dog belonging to childhood friend Timmy (Jack Mulhearn). The brooding Timmy clearly has PTSD from his service in the Vietnam War, and his dad Bill (David Duchovny) resents Jud for having a father who was able to keep him out of the service.

If you’re familiar with Pet Sematary lore, you know there’s a burial ground out in the woods of Ludlow. Any deceased animal or person put in the dirt there comes back to life in a scary, aggressive form. Without spoilers, Jud discovers that his family has a tie to that land and getting away from town is therefore going to be virtually impossible. As for Timmy, he factors into this, too.

Bloodlines does a very compelling thing by putting class warfare in the center of its story. Blue-collar Bill doesn’t like the Crandalls, recognizing that their relative wealth has shielded Jud from Vietnam, whereas Timmy served his country and paid a terrible price in the process. Director Lindsey Anderson Beer and co-writer Jeff Buhler attempt to ground the horror elements in something human. The film is very much about service – the different forms of it, what it means, the impact it has. Keeping the plot focused on the people and the themes was an admirable choice.

Actual horror is where the movie comes up slightly lacking. Most of the brief 87-minute running time is devoted to the central Jud/Timmy/Bill drama. The actual burial ground only factors in intermittently. An opportunity existed to tie the two elements together powerfully. Pet Sematary: Bloodlines doesn’t quite achieve it. The filmmakers obviously want to infer that Jud’s connection to the dangerous area represents his own form of service, one likely to traumatize him as much as combat traumatized Timmy. Selling that idea would require additional scenes demonstrating what the burial ground can do, as opposed to relying on the audience’s knowledge from having seen the previous movie.

The performances are very good, although several of the supporting characters – including one played by the great Pam Grier – are disappointingly thin. Pet Sematary: Bloodlines is pointed in the right direction, it just doesn’t take the terror far enough to drive home what it wants to say.

out of four

Pet Sematary: Bloodlines is rated R for horror violence, gore, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 27 minutes.