The master of horror, Stephen King, has had his work subjected to many big- and small-screen adaptations. Some have been great, and some have been, well, less so. The question is, where does the updated Pet Sematary fall? If I’m working on a scale of It to The Dark Tower, it’s solidly in the middle.
Pet Sematary follows the story of Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), a burned out and overworked doctor who relocates his family – wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and son Gage (Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie) – from Boston to rural Maine, where Creed takes up the post of campus doctor at Ludlow’s university. While settling into his new, slow-paced job, the Creed family explore the woods near their new rustic home.
It’s deep in these dark woods where Ellie discovers a mysterious, hidden burial ground – labelled as the Pet Sematary – and runs into their new neighbour, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow). Kindly, but reserved, Crandall is the driving force behind what happens to the Creed family, starting with the untimely death of the family cat Church and ending in a far, far darker place.
Lithgow’s performance is by far one of the best things about this version of Pet Sematary. Though the bar for acting was already rather low after the first on-screen iteration from 1989, this cast puts in a vastly improved performance. I’m still not entirely convinced that Clarke is a strong enough presence to lead a film, though he fared well enough. Seimetz is more convincing as the worrying, mentally fragile Rachel. Laurence’s Ellie is a mix of serious and precocious, but not enough to irritate.
Unfortunately, whatever gusto the cast put into their characters is sidelined for the horror aspects of the film. Yes, I’m well aware that Pet Sematary is a horror movie, but when the focus is on freaking out the audience, you’re going to lose some nuance, both in performance and in the story.
Of the many themes that Pet Sematary could explore – from the fear of death and what happens to our loved ones, to the process of grief and how dead is, indeed, sometimes better – we get some hints at a deeper meaning, but that’s all they really are: Moments of possibly thematically rich storytelling that are glossed over for the next scene with a jump scare. I can only really make the connections between Rachel’s allegorical flash-backs to what’s happening in the present because I’ve read the source material. Otherwise, it’s not well presented or tied together.
This maddening gap between what’s happening on-screen and what we should be picking up between the lines is where Pet Sematary lets us down the most. We should be caring about the Creeds and their history. We should be lost in the quagmire of their grief. But the film can’t seem to draw that element in. Ultimately, what happens to the Creeds throughout the film is a tragedy, but you don’t really get the sense that these poor people are anything more than horror movie fodder.
I will say that what horror is present in the movie is done well. There is a lot of insidious build-up and some obviously telegraphed, but nonetheless effective, shocks and jump-scares. Pet Sematary is grounded for a horror movie, leaning more towards body horror than to weird hauntings or obvious demons. You can almost believe that there really is something malevolent in those woods.
Truth be told, Pet Sematary could have done better for itself. Make the storytelling more expansive, explore the wealth of topics from the source material, dial back a bit on overtly shocking the audience and you’d have a thrilling, nail-bitingly good horror. In this case, thanks to the gulf between its story, characters and its determination to scare, Pet Semetary is just another horror film, with little to distinguish itself from its peers.
Last Updated: April 16, 2019