“Sometimes, dead is better.” That’s what neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) tells Creed family patriarch Louis (Jason Clarke). It’s perhaps the most famous line of the original novel, and it perfectly represents the paradoxical dilemma the premise of the film offers. How can death be better? When a loved one dies, their energy, voice, emotion, and intellect all vanishes. All that remains are pictures, videos, clothes, and memories. While abundant, the memories alone can’t possibly fill the void that loved one has left. And Louis is not at all prepared to deal with that reality.
Being able to face the reality and finality of death is at the core of Pet Sematary, the 2nd feature film adaptation (the original hit theaters in 1989) of the highest selling novel of Stephen King’s bibliography. Given that we’re in the middle of a renaissance of Stephen King adaptations, it seemed inevitable we would receive this remake. But while adaptations such as It provide hope for the viewers, Pet Sematary has always been remarkably grim. And the new film arrives with a mean spirit and a gruesome tone. This may be the most graphic of the King adaptations since Stanley Kubrick tackled The Shining, but it fails to enrapture our imagination like that Kubrick horror epic.
The film begins with the Creed family moving into their new home, which includes many acres of land that they now own. Louis and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) are excited to get off to a fresh start with their daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and infant son Gage. Ellie, while exploring her new surroundings, meets Jud for the first time, and the two quickly form a bond – similar to a grandfather and granddaughter. Jud is welcomed into the Creed family as he seems to be their only neighbor nearby. But their relationship turns a bit sinister after the death of the family cat, Church, after he’s run over by a truck driver (more on this bastard later), prompting Jud to reveal to Louis a burial ground that can potentially bring the dead back to life.
This revelation may be gravely needed for the Creed family, as Louis and Rachel are ill-prepared to tell Ellie of the tragic news. Rachel wants to tell Ellie that Church just ran away. She believes that Ellie can’t handle the idea of death, but in reality it’s Rachel who can’t handle it. She’s still reeling from the psychological effects of caring for her disabled sister, who died while on Rachel’s watch. Both parents seem to be unwilling to engage with death, evidenced by the nightmarish visions that Louis receives after a patient of his died in his care. Even in adulthood, Rachel and Louis act like children when faced with the idea of death, and that fatal flaw is ultimately their downfall.
What transpires from there is a bizarre and horrific chain of events. Many of which could all be prevented if we just suspended the CDLs of all local truck drivers. On SEVERAL occasions, characters are either almost hit or hit by the wreckless truck driver(s) in town. There isn’t a speed limit in town that this trucker doesn’t want to break, and it’s amazing that no one has formed a lynch mob to kick his ass on behalf of the safety of the community.
But while Pet Sematary packs on the action, gore, and jump scares, the execution of the film is more eerie than horrifying, loud and blunt but not immersive. Much of that is do to how plain the cinematography is – co-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, along with cinematographer Laurie Rose, do not take many risks in capturing King’s grim tale. This leads to unremarkable photography and set pieces, areas in which the two primarily lauded King adaptations, The Shining and 2017’s It, excelled.
Lithgow, Clarke, Laurence, and Seimetz are turning in solid work, but nothing above average from your typical 2000s supernatural thriller. Perhaps their performances would hit home more if they were presented with a steadier hand; holding a critical close-up just a few seconds longer, or being more experimental with the camera angles with these characters once the story takes it’s darker turn.
Pet Sematary lacks sophistication, which makes the whole endeavor feel hollow. The ending left me cold, but it didn’t inspire me to ask more questions about it’s themes or it’s characters. To properly adapt King, you have to tap into the psychology of why his work is scary. It understood that highlighting the perspective of children is the key to it’s horror. And even though Kubrick changed a ton about his adaptation of The Shining, he still understood the themes of isolation and patriarchy that made the tale scary.
Pet Sematary only scratches the surface of how psychologically scarring the thought of being able to bring the dead back to life would be. Combined that with a rushed third act, and Pet Sematary never gets a chance to marinate with it’s viewers. The end credits kick off with a cover of The Ramones’ single “Pet Sematary”; a hollow copy of a superior original, just like the film itself. Perhaps we should’ve waited to tackle this material again; maybe dead was better.