PET SEMATARY Review: Should’ve Just Let It Lie

Pet Sematary poster.jpg

Movie adaptations of the works of Stephen King have never so much died as they have experienced waves, full of peaks and valleys of films considered both major and minor. For every one The Shining or Misery or Shawshank Redemption, you’d later get a Mangler or Dreamcatcher that would be followed by a multi-year lull. That is, until the next good one came along. With the first part of the remake of It, one of King’s most famous stories, making more money than any horror movie ever, it didn’t take a bout of clairvoyance to predict a new wave of films culled from the author’s macabre catalog in response.

Fitting that the first of such films - barring Netflix’s Gerald’s Game and 1922, both of which were complete by the time It hit theaters - would be another of his most well-known stories. Highly regarded with great thanks to the Mary Lambert-helmed 1989 adaptation, Pet Sematary is the terrifying tale of ghosts, death and the graveyard that brings things back from its cold, eternal hands - only at a cost…those things are never quite the same.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work; in the case of this remake, the corpse seems to have come back without much difference. Louis and Rachel (Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz) move their family to a house in the country. They meet their new neighbor, a folksy but strange, foreboding man named Jud (John Lithgow, wisely not attempting to replicate Fred Gwynne’s iconic cadence). Freight trucks scream down the two-lane highway in front of the house day and night. And their daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) discovers a spooky cemetery for pets in the woods behind the house.

One day Louis finds the beloved family cat mangled on the side of the road. They decide to bury it without telling Ellie. But Jud tells him of another place, further past the pet cemetery, where he can bury the cat. This place is even stranger and grimmer - but Louis doesn’t ask questions. The next day, the cat is back, alive and well…but different. More finicky. Less gentle. Prone to irritation. Even violent. The evident change, of course, isn’t enough to dissuade Louis from using the place again once a greater tragedy strikes.

The updates here are chiefly aesthetic and atmospheric. The cinematography has the slick digital sheen of most modern films, the house very polished and neat in contrast to the cluttered but ominously arranged refuse of the cemetery. Few exterior scenes pass by without a distant growl or a crack of tree branches punctuating the building dread. A presence hangs over the film the way personal ghosts haunt both Louis and Rachel. “There’s something up there…those woods belong to something else,” Jud tells Louis. The film, wisely, doesn’t show us whatever that something else might be, but we believe in it nevertheless.

Kevin Kölsch &
Dennis Widmyer

Jason Clarke
Amy Seimetz
John Lithgow
Jeté Laurence

Screenplay by
Jeff Buhler

That little bit does only that - a little bit. All of the familiar beats get hit, except for the parts in which the movie diverges overtly from a particularly famous bit. Those moments only serve as set-up for a fake-out, however. It’s always obvious; the camera will hang on an angle, ramping up anticipation for what the audience knows is supposed to happen, before skipping over it and moving along. The moment will then play out two seconds later, only somewhere else, or to a different character. Some may call it subversion. I would use the word ‘cheap.’

The ending is another point of deviation, but those who saw the directors’ indie breakout Starry Eyes won’t be too surprised with the direction they took. That film similarly leaned heavily on atmospheric anxiety and dread before devolving into a gruesome, schlocky conclusion intended only to shock. I was no fan of that film, but I admire much of Kölsch and Widmyer’s skills with building suspense. Their impulses for gnarly, gruesome violence aren’t well served in tackling a known property, mainly in it allows them to fall back on tired old habits in the name of subversion.

The other key difference lay in the thematic concerns of the script. Louis and Rachel argue frequently about telling Ellie about death; Louis, the scientifically minded doctor, wants to be honest with her while Rachel seeks to protect her from difficult truths. The arguments make plenty of space to state the themes explicitly - they haven’t been altered, but instead made thuddingly obvious - and the film only gets more insistent once young Ellie returns from beyond, full of rage and unrest. We could’ve seen these concerns demonstrated as is through the characters’ choices. Instead, Pet Sematary spends most of its time also telling us to our faces. The film has no faith in its audience. It should’ve just as well been left where it lay.

Pet Sematary is currently playing in theaters everywhere