Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (Film Review)

Over the last few years, a new Star Wars film has become something to – mostly – look forward to. The CGI-heavy but otherwise weightless prequel series put me off the franchise for a while, but after Disney’s dubious acquisition of George Lucas’ blockbuster property, The Force Awakens got me back into them. The standalone films so far could have been a lot better, but despite the infuriating level of studio interference in Solo and Rogue One, there are still things to enjoy about both. Recent Disney+ series The Mandalorian is solid, pulpy fun with some fantastic practical effects and the tactility of the original trilogy. My favourite by far, though, is Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which wasn’t just an incredible Star Wars film, but a great film, full stop. Given complete creative freedom by Star Wars boss Kathleen Kennedy, Johnson took the franchise in surprising new directions, doing something truly new with the universe and its characters for the first time. This second instalment in the new trilogy divided fans, however, many of whom have spent their days since Jedi’s 2017 release whining ad absolute nauseum about the film failing to pander to their expectations (as if that’s a bad thing), as well as hounding actress Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico) off social media.

After Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow stepped out of the director’s chair for the third and final instalment, not just for this trilogy but the Skywalker saga as a whole, J.J. Abrams returned to helm The Rise of Skywalker. Abrams’ initial foray into Star Wars gave us the brilliant The Force Awakens, which, although it didn’t break any drastically new ground for the franchise, has to be praised for introducing a great new cast of diverse and interesting characters in Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren, among others.

Abrams has a pretty good track record; I’ll defend Lost until my dying breath, and his Mission: Impossible film is one of my favourites. Before Star Wars he did a great job of reinventing another sci-fi juggernaut with 2009’s Star Trek reboot. Even his lesser films, like Stark Trek sequel, Into Darkness, and the Spielberg homage Super 8 aren’t outright disasters.

But then there’s The Rise of Skywalker, which, for me, was a colossal disappointment after the previous films, and a massive step backwards after Rian Johnson broke the mould with episode eight. And yeah, I’ll be mentioning The Last Jedi a few more times, so you might as well start a drinking game for every time it comes up. Comparisons are inevitable, especially with such a variance in quality from one film to another. That’s two drinks so far, by the way.

Here’s what’s good about it. It mostly looks great – there are some beautiful set-pieces, the costumes and practical effects are wonderful as always, and there’s a real physicality to some parts of the film. John Williams’ score is gorgeous. I don’t envy the filmmakers the task of incorporating the late Carrie Fisher into the film, and they did the best job they could with the material they had, even if it does feel quite clunky. The brilliant cast is back, but it’s the material they have to work with that isn’t so brilliant. At a basic level, the script, co-written by Abrams, and Batman v. Superman and Justice League’s Chris Terrio, is bog-standard. There’s no character-driven story here as in the previous instalment (drink), but an ugly mush of convolutions and contrivances comprised of hunts for boring McGuffins, plot holes bigger than the film’s budget, a whole lot of tedious exposition, and dialogue that sounds like the writers stole all the lines from some tepid book of motivational quotes.

I think the problem here is that the filmmakers didn’t have even a broad roadmap for their trilogy starting out. Abrams set up some big mysteries in The Force Awakens and Johnson jettisoned them in The Last Jedi (drink), from Rey’s parentage to the origins of Snoke. Abrams wastes time in The Rise of Skywalker re-establishing these aspects in a film that feels more like a direct sequel to The Force Awakens than a cohesive part of a trilogy. He even sticks poor Adam Driver back behind Kylo Ren’s reforged mask – which now looks like a cheap plastic Kmart knockoff – for far too much of the film.

Speaking of which, they spend too little time on further developing this trilogy’s genuinely engaging and unique characters, and far too much focused on what they try to pass off for a plot, which is frankly ridiculous even by Star Wars standards – I found myself wishing for the days of tedious Trade Federation politics.

Abrams pulls a Bryan Singer with The Rise of Skywalker, relegating characters outside the main four to the sidelines. Naomie Ackie, Keri Russell and Richard E. Grant are fun new additions, but Dominic Monaghan’s role is pointless. Most infuriating of the existing characters is Rose Tico, who gets nothing to do after such an interesting and promising role in The Last Jedi (drink). But even the protagonists get little room to stretch and nowhere interesting to go. Some of the arcs play out in exactly the kind of way I hoped they wouldn’t, and one is particularly cringeworthy. Disney, backtracking cowards that they are, have gone for the laziest, easiest approach here, and it’s agonising to watch the actors wade through the slush of this soulless script.

The Rise of Skywalker splashes around in the wading pool of mediocre Star Wars clichés and “Oh no, I’m related to X” tropes, not only doing nothing new but rehashing characters and scenarios from previous films. The big villain here of course is Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine, who’s suddenly back from the dead with zero explanation and an entire fleet of (again, entirely unexplained) Star Destroyers. At which point I just thought, Who fucking cares?

Where The Last Jedi (drink) had a crisp, beautiful clarity to its world and its action sequences, Rise feels, aside from a few epic-looking but ultimately empty set pieces, like a disjointed mess for most of its agonising runtime. From its annoyingly choppy and rushed opening, the way it was shot and edited feels like a series of separate scenes and elements hastily strung together like anal beads (and this questionable analogy), except anal beads would likely have been a far more enjoyable experience.

The final shot of The Last Jedi (drink) expanded the Star Wars universe in a way previous films hadn’t, redefining what its characters were capable of outside the select chosen ones. All Rise does is shrink it back down with more tepid familial “revelations”, an unnecessarily convoluted plot, and characters that don’t surprise or engage with their arcs or their actions.

“Some things are stronger than blood,” Luke’s force ghost says. Yeah, fan service, apparently.


In the Shadow of the Moon (Film Review)

With films like the moody remake of cannibal family saga We Are What We Are, the violent downward spiral of Cold in July, and a foray into TV with the excellent (and sadly cancelled) amateur crime-solving bromance series, Hap and Leonard, Jim Mickle always brings a fantastic energy and grit to his work.

While he’s dabbled in a number of genres, common across his work is a loving focus on character and, more recently, an exploration of timely social issues. In the Shadow of the Moon, just released on Netflix, is no different.

I’ll try to be as vague as possible here, but it’s hard to talk about this film without at least getting into some minor spoilers and the thematic meat of the story, so anyone who hasn’t seen the trailer and doesn’t want even a hint of the plot spoiled for them, go watch it right now with my ardent recommendation, and then come back and read the rest of this.

Still here? Okay.

Imbuing a gory serial killer thriller with time travel elements is a novel idea if not exactly brand-shining-new, but Mickle executes this surprisingly ambitious film with an assured hand, ensuring both elements are engaging and the sum of their parts coalesces into something surprising – and surprisingly heartfelt. Again, his focus on character over spectacle is what sets this apart from some of the more generic Netflix originals we’ve seen over the last few years.

(Side note: anyone aching for some more time traveling serial killer action should check out Lauren Beukes’ incredible book The Shining Girls.)

The film’s prologue opens in 2024, in Philadelphia. Some sort of fiery catastrophe has decimated several buildings, and a burning American flag drifts down past the blown-out windows of a high-rise office.

After this brief scene, we jump all the way back to Philly in 1988, where we follow Boyd Holkbrook’s Thomas Lockhart, a uniformed cop aiming for a promotion to detective and with a baby on the way. While on his nightly beat, Lockhart encounters some gruesome and seemingly random deaths that share an inexplicable M.O. The atmosphere here is grimy and palpable, and the character interactions are stellar, really giving us a feel for how each person works and feels within the context of the film’s world.

The film’s score, by Mickle’s regular composer, Jeff Grace, is moody and energetic, really oiling the film’s narrative wheels and exacerbating the tension and mystery.

From this emotionally gruelling and wonderfully moody set-up, the film jumps ahead nine years to 1997, and then again to 2006 and 2015, charting Lockhart’s dangerous obsession with the mysterious killer.

The always excellent Bokeem Woodbine and Michael C. Hall round out the cast as Lockhart’s partner and brother-in-law, respectively. Rachel Keller and Rudi Dharmalingam are also good in their brief roles, but relative newcomer Cleopatra Coleman is a standout as Rya, the time-traveling and obviously-more-to-her-than-meets-the-eye killer. She comes to do a lot of the film’s heavy lifting in many ways, shouldering the issues it explores with a sense of stoicism and determination, and her motivations aren’t just personal, but social, symbolic.

In terms of what we see on-screen, though, this is essentially Holbrook’s film, and through its time-jumping ‘chapters’ we witness the effect that the fatal 1988 encounter has on him, driving him to a decades-long obsession with catching this killer, whose motives and methods defy explanation.

In many ways, I loved this film. It’s all very well made – the directing is assured, the performances excellent, and everything feels fresh and dangerous and thrilling, with an emotional core that’s beautifully evoked on so many levels. Mickle juggles several elements (the least of which turns out to be the cross-genre aspect) in a way that a lesser filmmaker would almost certainly drop the ball on. The time travel element is great without being overbearing, and the investigative aspects and world-building are all beautifully executed.

While I absolutely love the direction the story chooses to head in, I think there’s a divide between what the film says and how it says it that doesn’t always work in its favour. The problem here is one of perspective.

Beyond the arc that his obsession takes him on, Lockhart isn’t a particularly interesting or unique protagonist in his own right, but Mickle’s direction and Holbrook’s performance elevate his story in execution if not narrative. The film’s shortcomings certainly aren’t Holbrook’s – or any of the cast’s – fault. It’s a pleasure to see him allowed to embody a lead role so well after the post-production disaster that was Shane Black’s 2018 The Predator, and so many small but memorable roles in films like Logan and A Walk Among the Tombstones. As a character study, In the Shadow of the Moon is still well executed and emotionally affecting, but I feel conflicted about the point of view it chooses to tell its story from.

Although it takes a while for the film’s prevalent themes to come to the fore, they’re telegraphed from the opening shot of the ruined buildings: the tattered flag drifting down over the carnage is a retooled version of the American Stars and Stripes, the stars portion depicting the Confederate cross, a common symbol of white supremacy. On one hand, the way it eases us into this exploration of race and terrorism – which has sadly never been more relevant today – is a smart move for a film marketed as something more commercial and popcorn-friendly (even if that popcorn came out of your microwave).

On the other hand, as Holbrook’s Lockhart gets closer to the truth about the murders he’s given up everything – including a relationship with his daughter – to pursue, he expresses no discernible opinion about the glaring moral complexities of the case beyond his single-minded determination to catch the killer. This is Lockhart’s problem in general – he doesn’t engage in much self-reflection until it’s too late, and this feels more symptomatic of his need for a particular character arc, than something his character might actually do. Maybe not self-reflection, but at least his reaction to certain major revelations the film throws at him about the nature of Rya’s murder victims doesn’t really ring true. If they’d tweaked this aspect, the problem of perspective wouldn’t be so glaring. It doesn’t ruin the film by any means, but it does leave a nagging little flaw in an otherwise excellent, and wonderfully ambitious narrative.

The way the film integrates its exploration of race as it reaches its quietly touching climax definitely feels earned in many ways, and I can see what Mickle is trying – and mostly succeeding – to achieve. It’s a film about finding something new, and how we can either kill our outdated and harmful mindsets or adapt to a new way of thinking, both of which occur in different ways as the story progresses.

This is an excellent, well-paced film that eschews expectations and moments of redundant action for a deeper exploration of how we fight, not just acts of organised violence and terrorism, but the idea of them. And this, despite the wailing protests of cry-babies the world over – who are going to have some serious tantrums about In the Shadow of the Moon – is what genre does best.

The Wind (Film Review)


Budgetary constraints in a film can be a difficult work-around, but they can also lead to some fantastic innovations. Although I find the deliberately small-budget-for-big-earnings method of a studio like Blumhouse to be a little tedious in its repetition, there’s no denying that this approach can work very well with genre films, and especially with horror. But there’s a difference between a film that simply didn’t cost much to make, and something that takes advantage of its limitations with a minimalistic or restrained approach.

Thankfully, horror/western gem The Wind is a fantastic example of the latter. This is the first major feature-length project for both director Emma Tammi and writer Teresa Sutherland – not that you’d know it from watching the film, which comes across as an accomplished and meticulous piece of work that’s as layered as it is genuinely disturbing.

Caitlin Gerard is Lizzy Macklin who, with her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) is attempting to carve out a life on the often unforgiving and isolated Western frontier in the late 1800s. The only other people for miles around are the Macklins’ new neighbours, Emma and Gideon Harper, played by Julia Goldani Telles and Dylan McTee, respectively. The only other character of note is a reverend played – briefly but brilliantly – by Miles Anderson, bringing the cast to a total of five.

It’s a lean film in many respects, including its 86-minute runtime, but The Wind never feels lacking, and it certainly doesn’t starve its audience, opting for a slow meal rather than a cheap calorie-dump. From the very first shot, bone-chilling and completely devoid of dialogue, we know The Wind is going to take its time. After seeing so many messy, rushed horror films lately (recent Stephen King adaptation Pet Sematary springs immediately to mind), it’s such a pleasure to sit down to one that’s both confident in what it’s trying to say, and how exactly it says it.

The Wind is a film told by women, about women, which not only makes a pleasant change from the usual stories told in this particular combination of setting, period and genre, but also allows the narrative to explore some interesting angles. At the story’s core is the relationship between the pragmatic Lizzy and the more mischievous, mercurial Emma, whose interest in Gothic literature and growing obsession with something she thinks is stalking the desolate plains at night cultivates both the film’s horror element and its thematic bent. It’s a film about paranoia and distrust, perhaps sown by the characters’ isolation, or perhaps something more sinister. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that we never get all the answers we want by the end, but The Wind’s ambiguity really works in its favour, because at times we’re left as confused – and terrified – as the protagonist. Speaking of terror, this film has a couple of genuinely scary scenes that eschew jump-scares for moments that unsettle on a much deeper level. In several instances the source of the terror switches in unexpected ways, the nature of whatever haunts both women evolving as the story progresses.

But whatever monsters may or may not be out there, it’s the human characters in The Wind, and the cast’s incredible, physical performances, that dominate. So much of the mood and tactility of the narrative is laid on their shoulders, Tammi’s direction really focussing in on the character dynamics, often born of insecurities and shortcomings, descending into unspoken conflict or outright hostility. Shots often linger to near breaking point on the characters’ physical or emotional trauma, with little or no dialogue needed to convey the tone of a scene. Lizzy and Isaac’s relationship, for example, has a tangible sense of history and intimacy as played by the superb Gerard and Zukerman, which makes their conflict all the more believable when it bubbles up.

The world built around the characters is impeccable, too, every object and situation inferring history and story. The frontier setting, by turns awe-inspiring in its beauty and terrifying in its naked hostility, is a character in itself, and shot with the same lingering determination as the rest of the film by cinematographer Lyn Moncrief. Both homesteads have a deliberately handmade, lived-in feel that lends itself to the film’s bloody physicality. Ben Lovett’s score accentuates the characters’ spiralling madness with its discordant strings; after his evocative work both here and on 2017’s The Ritual, he’s a composer to get excited about. Special effects are few and far between, but when Tammi does use them, it’s sparingly, lingering in the viewer’s memory with greater impact.

The Wind is a fantastic piece of horror in both its evocation of the weird and the subversive exploration of its two complex and tangible female characters, both caught in the teeth of a world otherwise dominated by men and defined by its harshness.

It’s like the filmmakers are actually using the medium they’re working in to tell their story with tools that are often overlooked or underutilised in favour of an easier approach. In other words, it’s a relief not having to listen to characters explain the story or their motivations to me. I said before that The Wind is a lean film, but it’s also rich with detail, the land and characters’ history lying just beneath the surface, every aspect evoked in a way that only film can. Everything works together here beautifully, and from script to screen there’s a sense of rhythm that’s rare in some of the most experienced filmmakers’ work. I can’t wait to see what Tammi, and everyone else involved in The Wind, does next.

Hellboy (Film Review)


I’m a huge fan of both Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics and the two mesmerising films based on them, directed by renowned Mexican monster man Guillermo del Toro. Starring Ron Perlman as the titular anti-hero in a couple of career-best performances, del Toro’s films capture the otherworldly feel of Mignola’s iconic artwork, distilled through the director’s particular vision. While Hellboy II: The Golden Army saw del Toro diverge significantly from the source material, and let rip with his love for bizarre fairy-tale creatures and misunderstood monsters, it’s still a truly magical film, both in itself and as part of Big Red’s impressive canon.

Like any fan of that series, I’d been waiting for a greenlight on the third film of the intended trilogy. But after apparently heading in a direction that del Toro and Perlman weren’t happy with, the studio announced a reboot of the series in 2017, helmed by Brit horror director Neil Marshall and starring Stranger Things’ David Harbour in the title role. The script originally saw several drafts by Mignola himself, Christopher Golden, Aaron Eli Coliete, and Andrew Cosby, but apparently Golden and Coliete’s contributions barely made it into the final film, with Cosby now listed as the sole writer.

As much I’m enamoured with del Toro’s films, I didn’t bear a grudge against this new version. On paper, this seemed like it might be an interesting take on the character at the very least, with the calibre of the people involved and its talk of a distinctively bloodier, darker direction that still remained faithful to some of Mignola’s best story arcs, particularly The Wild Hunt, Darkness Calls, and The Storm and the Fury. I love Marshall’s work, which can best be described as grungy and hyper-violent, and his use of practical effects is admirable, from the taut black humour of Dog Soldiers, one of the best werewolf films I’ve seen, to the squirm-inducing claustrophobia of The Descent, and the more streamlined thrills of Ancient Roman chase film, Centurion. His most recent work has been largely in television, namely two excellent Game of Thrones episodes that combine a sense of bloody scale with Marshall’s signature style. David Harbour is also an interesting choice for the lead, one of those character actors who seems to crop up in so many cool supporting roles (his turn as a psychopath in A Walk Among the Tombstones springs immediately to mind), and one of the highlights of a certain 80s-saturated Netflix series.

Given the talent involved and my love of the source material, I went into this new Hellboy film with genuinely high hopes and little trepidation. There was no reason this should’ve turned out the way it did.

The film opens with a tepid exposition-dump of a prologue that tries to go all Sin City with its colour-punctuated black-and-white visuals, brimming with hellish dialogue and clunky narration from Ian McShane. The delivery of lines here manages the seemingly impossible task of making the already awful writing sound even worse. Immortal, evil, and motivationally-bereft witch, Nimue (Milla Jovovich), is dismembered by a King Arthur so wooden he makes Guy Ritchie’s 2017 film look like a subtle and evocative masterpiece. Her divorced body parts are subsequently hidden in separate locations around the world, and to the present we cut.

Surely, surely the rest of the film can’t be this bad, right?

Not exactly. While the rest of Hellboy’s seemingly eternal two hours don’t quite reach the depths of that opening’s singularly abysmal bar, it doesn’t climb much higher. What we can glimpse of the plot beneath the bulge of baffling tangents and endless character backstories involves a resurrected Nimue intent on seducing Hellboy into triggering the apocalypse, destroying humanity, and ushering in a new world for the downtrodden monsters and fairy-tale creatures that follow her. It’s a story we’ve not only seen a hundred times before, but one that was done so much better in both of del Toro’s previous Hellboy films.

Even the actual apocalypse Hellboy’s so instrumental to only lasts about two minutes, those world-crushing, people-mushing monstrosities barely taking up more screen-time than they did in the trailer, which is a waste of some of their genuinely original designs even if they don’t match the rest of the film’s aesthetics by a long shot. There’s simply no threat here, and you can’t have narrative tension without any discernible narrative.

This might be a bad film, but it isn’t David Harbour’s fault, who’s one of the few things that come close to actually working. His Hellboy is uglier and grumpier and less nuanced than Ron Perlman’s magnificent performance (and involves a lot more yelling), but he’s trying something different with the role, bringing his own sense of the demonic anti-hero, and that’s to be commended, even if the film he’s wading through feels as phoney as the mountains of viscera it keeps throwing up onscreen.

On paper at least the rest of the cast is impressive, with sweary British thesp Ian McShane seemingly perfect as Hellboy’s adoptive dad, Professor Broom. But even this usually dynamite actor phones in his performance, shouting his way through every scene as if he’s addressing a crowd of hearing-impaired senior citizens at a midday bingo session. Shasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim, usually great additions to any cast, can’t seem to get past the sound of their frankly awful British accents or their wasted characters, as both written and cut.

Jovovich’s Nimue is a cardboard villain with little to no motivation for her formulaically world-ending scheme, and she rounds out the holy trinity of grating British accents that inexplicably populate the film. She comes across as a D-grade version of The Golden Army’s Prince Nuada – both nonhuman monsters bent on humanity’s destruction, but only the latter is written and portrayed with nuance and empathy.

And yeah, I know, constant comparison to the character’s previous cinematic incarnation – however superior – doesn’t exactly scream fair, but the truth is that even on its own merits, this Hellboy is a disaster. What makes things worse is that, occasionally, there are glimpses of what this could have been. There’s faint whiff of an interesting dynamic between Hellboy and his adopted dad, a much more calculating version of Broom than previously seen. It’s honestly great, too, to see aspects of the Mignola comics brought to life, like Hellboy’s flashback encounter with changeling fairy Gruagach, now a demented cockney pig-man bent on vengeance. The mostly practical effects used to bring him to life are impressive, but the execution renders everything around him both flat and garish at the same time. What makes this worse is that no single moment lingers long enough to have any kind of impact, one monster or action scene piled relentlessly on top of the other, any redeeming qualities drowned out by the sheer volume of blood and noise. Speaking of noise, every boring, gore-drenched action sequence is exacerbated by terrible song choices and Benjamin Wallfisch’s discordant deal-breaker of a “score”, which just adds to the genuine headache I ended up with by the time the credits started rolling.

But the blame for this garbage-fire might not lie solely on the shoulders of Marshall. The director was noticeably absent from the film’s publicity tour, and reportedly didn’t even attend Hellboy’s premier, due to apparent dissatisfaction over final cut and clashes with producers, who, among other instances of interference, apparently fired Marshall’s regular cinematographer, Sam McCurdy. Even without this knowledge, though, it’s clear that Hellboy is the unfortunate victim of the kind of studio-mandated hatchet job I haven’t seen since Suicide Squad or The Snowman, its narrative jumping from scene to backstory to bloodbath with barely a thread of coherence between them. Characters come and go, explaining more of the insensible plot before disappearing without notice or dying in a mist of poorly-rendered digital blood.

It feels like the studio executive in charge of this production was some mean-spirited, dead-eyed and deeply ordinary teenage boy who read the comics and saw the original films and thought they needed to be edgier, but wouldn’t know the meaning of the word edgy if it lobotomised him. You can just see him, sitting in his too-big high-rise office surrounded by cheap artwork and replica weapons, changing this plot point and smushing these action scenes together, masturbating furiously over every unnecessary splash of blood or ill-placed profanity. But running after Deadpool’s success screaming “fuck” and waving some severed limbs doesn’t make for a gritty or interesting or even fun film.

Ultimately, this is the studio’s fault. It’s bad enough that they didn’t let del Toro finish his trilogy because of financial cold feet. But then they orchestrate a pointless reboot that might actually turn out all right, hire a great bunch of people to make it, and then hogtie them right in the middle of proceedings. Neil Marshall clearly wasn’t given creative freedom to make the film he wanted or was even capable of, and the result is a tragic mess the filmmakers didn’t want and the audience didn’t enjoy. The only consolation is that this probably won’t make enough money to warrant the sequel they so clumsily try to bait in an epilogue as boring and unnecessary as every minute that came before.

So in the end, no one wins.

Pet Sematary (Film Review)


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.