Review: Pet Sematary
“Sometimes dead is better.”
The Stephen King renaissance continues into 2019 with a new adaptation of his nihilistic classic, Pet Sematary. Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura (responsible for producing 2007‘s 1408), and based on a screen story by Matt Greenburg (who also wrote 1408), this new adaptation brings back to life one of King’s darkest novels. Focused on zombie pets and children, Pet Sematary is among King’s more fatalistic reflections on the nature of death, and it’s popular among fans for the depths trawls. The 80’s adaptation, while not a perfect film, is a cult classic and crafts an atmosphere of tension and dread that most decent horror films have. A 2019 version had the potential to go even darker and fully capture the tone of the book. Sadly, with only a few exceptions, directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmeyer fail to get as nihilistic as they ought, and the result is a mixed bag of a film.
This version does contain a few surprises. They change the script in the second half to keep the story fresh and entertaining. Unfortunately, the marketing spoils most of these changes, ruining any potential for surprise if you saw even one poster for the film. Even those who ardently avoid trailers for this very reason will likely have the changes spoiled for them. Moving the lead family’s daughter, Ellie, into a more central role in the story allows for a comparatively mature discussion about death, but predictability substantially lessens its impact.
Kölsch and Widmeyer do deserve credit for preserving the central theme of the novel and exploring it in some appropriately grim ways. Jeté Laurence‘s performance as Ellie Creed is pretty fantastic for a child actor, and the way the directors frame her in the second half produces some truly chilling scenes. The film doesn’t shy away from blunt material early in the book, and the film tackles the idea of death head on. The writing also manages to preserve King’s trademark wry humor in certain scenes. John Lithgow‘s casting as Jud Crandall is a brilliant move in that regard; he captures the aged, rural wisdom of Jud and matches the tone of the book with perfectly-delivered dialogue.
Jason Clarke, on the other hand, is a case of less fortunate casting. On paper Clarke makes sense for Louis Creed, a character written as an everyman and who honestly doesn’t have many defining traits. Clarke is enough of a blank slate that he fits King’s spare depiction of the character. Unfortunately, Clarke is a largely terrible actor and lacks the nuance to deliver some of the script’s most interesting lines. One notably terrible line reading occurs when he and Lithgow take the family’s cat Church (a Maine coon this time, matching the breed from the novel) to the pet cemetery. His delivery lacks any emotion and sounds horrendously flat for a professional actor.
The directing pair of Kölsch and Widmeyer is a smart choice for the film. Their debut into horror was 2014‘s Starry Eyes, a fantastic and grim deconstruction of a character. They are the reason Clarke’s descent in this film is even a little convincing. The directors have previously shown a capacity to capture the surreal, making Pet Sematary‘s relative lack of surreal sequences disappointing. Whether they were held back by the studio or otherwise, they fail to create any sense of creepiness throughout most of the film’s runtime.
There is a welcome reliance on practical effects for most of the gore in the film, with no CGI animals, and the final thirty minutes manage to dig into the novel’s dark abysses, resulting in a truly depressing final blow. Pet Sematary therefore has elements to admire, and the film fits in an Easter egg or two by referencing other King films and properties. But, as they say in the film, the ground is sour. Despite a whispering allure, Pet Sematary‘s revival is ultimately like the revived creatures from the story — something is just off.