Pet Sematary is known as one of Stephen King’s most devastating novels. It’s a novel that King almost didn’t release; his wife and good friend both thought it was too upsetting, and so King shelved the novel until 1983. Then just six years after its release it hit the mainstream with the film adaptation by Mary Lambert. Now almost thirty years after Lambert’s film, directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have collaborated on a new adaptation of King’s novel that succeeds in some areas where the 1989 version failed, yet overall it still doesn’t find its footing to resonate with its grief.
This new Pet Sematary comes right in the cusp of the Stephen King resurgence. Even thirty years ago when Lambert’s adaptation came out there was as well countless film and television adaptations of King’s work. And now after the successful arrivals of films like It, the resurgence of interest has come again. And it was likely only a matter of time before Paramount exhumed this particularly venerable old property and checked for signs of life. And up to a point it finds them. This adaptation is at times a swift and efficient delivery system for mechanized jolts and pummeling thrills. And though the filmmakers have taken some very dramatic liberties with the plot, their version faithfully preserves King’s setup. A doctor, Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), moves from the big city to a sleepy small town in Maine, hoping to spend more time with his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two children, preteen Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and toddler Gage (Hugo Lavoie). It’s a peaceful new life, save for one source of encroaching trouble on the horizon: the monstrous semi trucks that come roaring down the road in front of their house. Before long, the family cat, Church, ends up dead in a ditch, run down by one of the behemoth trucks.
How will Louis break the bad news to his daughter? Enter Jud (John Lithgow) who might know a way where Louis might not have to. Against his better judgment, the old man leads his new neighbor through the forest behind their house, past a pet cemetery, and straight to the soil of an ancient Indian burial ground that beckons to the bereaved. For a decent stretch, Pet Sematary works on a familiar slow-burn feel, skillfully ushering dark clouds over its idyllic setting. The screenplay, by Jeff Buhler, teases some interesting tensions during the first half of the film. Though he insists they discuss death with their kids openly and unromantically, Louis still can’t bring himself to tell Ellie the truth about Church. In linking the horror that follows to that failure of nerve, the film wickedly distorts an ordinary parenting pitfall: sheltering your kids from tough realities.
Jason Clarke & John Lithgow in Pet Sematary
Still, Pet Sematary doesn’t expend much time on its relationships, too busy is it chugging along from one plot point to the next. Nor does the film stare, with much courage, into the void of grief that opens up at the center of the Creed family’s lives, much like I’ve only heard King’s novel does (yeah, sorry I haven’t actually read it). If this version of Pet Sematary is scary, it’s in a much safer way, barely grazing the true horror of its premise. The meditation on morality and grief has been flattened into your atypical mainstream, jump-scare centric creepshow. Its material that called for the grueling intensity of Ari Aster’s Hereditary, yet plays closer to Blumhouse, down to the way Rachel’s traumatic backstory — her guilt about the death of her sister, twisted into awful shapes by her spinal meningitis — is mainly mined for jack-in-the-box jump scares. Proving yet again, that cheap jump scares don’t make a movie “scary”, it just makes them frustrating. And shows that the filmmakers couldn’t make something genuinely horrifying, so they instead went to a bag of cheap overused tricks.
This new Pet Sematary is slicker and steadier, with generally better performances, compared to the previous version. But it also feels more… well normal, and further removed from the uncomfortable emotional bedrock that sits at the center of the story itself. Which leads to the film’s climax, which trades what should be tragic for sadistic, and leaves you feeling more wrung out than disturbed. Taking a turn that spirals into the realm of the cartoonish with an ending that feels more like a punchline than a gut punch.