Pet Sematary (Film Review)

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Stephen King adaptations have been coming thick and fast over the last few years, and show no sign of slowing down in the near future, with at least several films due for release in 2019 alone, including Mike Flanagan’s Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep, It: Chapter Two, and Vincenzo Natali’s In the Tall Grass (based on a novella co-written by King and his son, Joe Hill). Even better is that most of the recent films and TV series have actually been very good, compared to the much higher ratio of bad King adaptations we were gifted in the 80s and 90s.

Often, the quality of these works is dependent on the quality of the filmmakers adapting King’s writing. Mike Flanagan made a wonderfully visceral and nasty film from one of the author’s more visceral and nasty books with Gerald’s Game; Andy Muschietti’s It was a great surprise, especially considering its troubled production (although I’d still kill to see Cary Fukunaga’s original vision for his intended epic two-parter, but that’s a whole other rant); and Aussie Zak Hilditch worked wonders with the more stripped-down thriller 1922, featuring an amazing, literally scene-chewing turn from Thomas Jane.

So when I learnt that Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer were attached to direct a remake/adaptation of King’s bleakest of books, Pet Sematary, I rushed to heap a hefty weight of expectation onto the film. The duo’s previous horror, Starry Eyes, is a nightmare in the best possible way, a slow-burn about a woman’s transformative quest for fame in a twisted, occult Hollywood. Some of the violence in Starry Eyes is truly toe-curling, and the whole thing is steeped in a nauseating sense of unease; it’s a film whose imagery still creeps back into my head from time to time, even after only one viewing.

Like Jordan Peele’s Us, released only the week before this, Pet Sematary’s focus is on family. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two kids, Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), move down from Boston to a quiet rural town in Maine. Their new property encompasses a vast stretch of woods, within which is the town’s cutely misspelled “Pet Sematary”, the further reaches of wilderness beyond it blocked in by a towering deadfall of felled trees and branches. The road just in front of their house is also busy with speeding trucks. Both of these elements will come to tear the family apart, and also point to the fact that they must have had the worst real estate agent in the world.

When Church, the family’s cat, is killed by one of the aforementioned speeding trucks, crusty but kindly old neighbour Jud (a reliably superb John Lithgow) tells Louis about the resurrective properties of the “sour” land that lies beyond the pet cemetery’s deadfall. After burying the cat in this bleak and ancient place, Church comes back, but he’s not the same cat Ellie loved; he’s mangy and feral in both looks and temperament, scratching anyone who gets too close and ruining Louis and Rachel’s sex life with bloodied, half-dead birds.

Most of us know how this story escalates from pets to people, either from the book, the original 1989 film, or literally any trailer for this 2019 version. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that the land beyond the pet cemetery is inadvisably utilised after a tragic (human) death, which precipitates further violence and mayhem.

It’s a well-made and well-acted film, efficient in its evocation of the Creeds’ spiralling predicament. But Jeff Buhler’s screenplay is a little too efficient, and the film is frantically paced, excising character development in favour of the mounting scares which, despite looking fine, fail to actually induce terror. Where King’s book felt unrelentingly bleak (the author himself cites it as his darkest work), for all its supposedly grim subject matter, the film largely failed to rend my soul or raise my heartbeat. Scenes that should feel grand or awe-inspiring are brief, small and forgettable, and anything that does succeed just comes across as very bread-and-butter horror; good, but not much more.

I’m by no means a book-to-film hardliner, raging at changes made in the adaptation to the screen, and the different tact the directors have taken here in several key elements actually works to the film’s advantage in some ways, but one of the joys of King’s book, and arguably its thematic spine, is the surrogate father/son relationship between Jud and Louis, a bond we see barely fleshed out in the film – again, because it feels like it’s in too much of a rush to get to the nasty bits. But without significant investment in the characters, that horror’s bound to fall flat. I watched these people suffer trauma and heartache and eventually terrible fates, but I wasn’t scared and I wasn’t all that troubled, except by my glaring lack of reaction.

Other aspects seem shoehorned in just to give the audience a creepy vibe rather than because they actually fit into the story. There’s a cool Wicker Man vibe at the beginning, with a procession of kids heading down to the pet cemetery in creepy animal masks, but this local ritual is never further explored, and the sense of something larger going on – which is a staple of the novel, for me – fails to ignite. This is a shame, because given the quality of the directors’ previous Starry Eyes, Pet Sematary represents a step down for Kölsch and Widmyer.

Given the close release dates, I can’t help but compare Pet Sematary to Jordan Peele’s Us, which for me was a far superior horror film with not only a lot more to say, but, crucially, characters I cared a more about than I did the Creed family. Where Peele’s film was a fully realised work with many layers to unpack and an astonishing attention to detail, there’s so much in Pet Sematary that falls short, despite the great source material and the opportunities for some genuinely terrifying moments.

Where the family in Us had distinct personalities and interior lives, depicted through dialogue and body language, Pet Sematary’s characters seem flat and underdeveloped, coming across as cut-outs designed simply to put them through the wringer of this horror film’s trope-filled obstacle course. This is no fault of the performances, though. Jason Clarke does the best he can with the relatively bland Louis. Amy Seimetz is terrific as Rachel, whose traumatic childhood is touched on with some effective body horror, accentuated by her layered performance. John Lithgow is also great as Jud, even if his character is relegated to the role of Wise Old Exposition Man. Jeté Laurence does a lot of heavy lifting as Ellie, tackling one of the film’s more realised characters with her complex performance.

Like the characters, the world they inhabit feels a little off, and not necessarily in the right way. Months pass in the blink of an eye, but there’s no sense of a lived-in environment, which is partly the fault of the rushed story and the failure of the film to take its time with the characters. The barren landscape beyond the cemetery’s deadfall is also just too alien for somewhere on the other side of a big bundle of sticks, with its skeletal trees, swampy ground and a horizon constantly flickering with lightning. It all spells out its evil a little too loudly, and just doesn’t gel with the real-world setting of the rest of the film.

I haven’t seen the 1989 original so I can’t compare this version to that. My memory of the book is hazy at best, but certain scenes and emotions have stuck with me, distilled over the years into an impression that not only feels much more emotionally harrowing, but, through its dark and intimate character work, gives us a glimpse into a universe much more vast and alien and hostile than we can imagine. When King’s at his best this works beautifully, and Pet Sematary – the book – is a fantastic example of this. But this claustrophobic, character-centric horror that briefly flares into something more complex and incomprehensible isn’t remotely captured in Kölsch and Widmyer’s film, which is a huge shame and a missed opportunity. Pet Sematary isn’t a bad film by any means, and though it does try to impress with some interesting changes to the source material, its lack of guts is glaring, especially relative to other King adaptations and other recent horror films in general. As Jud tells Louis at one point in the film, sometimes dead is better.

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