How old were you when you learned about death? I mean, really had to come to terms with it. Maybe you lost a loved one, grandparent or maybe a pet. Mortality, the end of a life cycle is incomprehensible to kids, because they have barely come to terms with their own consciousness and what it means to be alive, to exist.
Stephen King is the master of horror; his novels and stories deal with the most difficult aspects of our lives and Pet Sematary is no exception. Questions of life and death, coming to terms with death and dealing with loss are central themes to this harrowing tale. It also features some of the creepiest kids ever. Who doesn’t hate a toddler with a scalpel?
Pet Sematary focuses on the Creed family, who move from a big city to the small town of Ludlow, Maine. Adults Louis and Mary are your typical all-American parents, and kids Ellie and Gage are cute and well-behaved. When Ellie’s cat Church is run over and Louis wants to spare her from the bad news, friendly neighbour Jud shows him a burial ground that has the power to bring back the dead.
I don’t think I have to say any more on the plot, we all know where this is going. Pet Sematary might be King’s most haunting and dark novel, one that deals with grief and loss in nightmarish ways, revealing the terrible effects grief can have on us and just how far we are willing to go to save us from more pain.
Pet Sematary is a strange beast. It’s not a bad film per se, it’s just full of unfilled potential. There are moments of greatness, glimpses of a better film, but it all gets lost in clichés and all too familiar jumpscares. Pet Sematary is so average it almost hurts, especially since it makes some improvements on the source material. If the film had committed to the premise and stuck to its guns, it would have had the potential to be one of the best King adaptations, because it’s smart enough to bring new layers and nuances to the story.
As spoiled by the trailers, this adaptation swaps the eventual child victim from the toddler Gage to the 9-year-old Ellie. And it’s genuinely a great twist, which would have been a treat, if it wasn’t spoiled by marketing. While a murderous toddler is terrifying and the stuff of nightmares, there is something even more sinister about a dead child who knows she’s dead. Ellie has questions about her own mortality before the fateful day, she’s at the age where one starts to understand that the condition of life is death.
After her return, she lies next to Louis in bed, all pale and a bit blueish, looking for confirmation that she is dead, already knowing the answer. It’s a chilling scene and I wish the film had used this setup better. Ellie’s awareness of her condition brings a whole different element to the film, but it’s wasted here, traded for cheap scares and kills.
The film takes its time to set things up for the tragedy. Much time is devoted for family relationships, Mary’s childhood trauma and Ellie’s sweet friendship with Jud. When tragedy finally hits and Ellie returns, the film switches on another gear and is over before you know it. There isn’t enough time for the grief Louis and Mary are forced to live through to sink in for the audience. A shot of Amy Seimetz crying or Jason Clarke’sone single tear simply doesn’t do. Compare this to the painstakingly physical way Toni Collette’s character reacted to the loss of a child in last year’s Hereditary. The new ending of Pet Sematary, while there’s much to chew on, seems rushed and doesn’t land. It all feels cheap, like you were fooled out of your money and feelings.
All this might make Pet Sematary seem like a bad film, and at times it truly is one. Yet, there are also scenes that showcase directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s talent. There are genuinely creepy moments and while the jumpscares might be overly familiar, they are almost always effective. There are surprising, shocking injections of gore, enough to keep it accessible for a large audience, but also enough to give the film a bit of an edge. The entire sequence of young Victor Pascow is haunting and downright scary, but the film never utilises the same type of brutality when it really needs it.
Pet Sematary is also a very literal film. We seem to be living some kind of horror renaissance where a bigger audience is attracted to horror stories. Some of the most popular and critically acclaimed ones, such as Hereditary, It Follows, The Babadookand The Witch, deal with something much more abstract. There are demons and witches, some very literal evils, but the themes are always something deeper, something buried deep within ourselves.
Pet Sematary wears all its tricks up its sleeve; there is nothing surprising, nothing to keep you up at night. Its biggest strength is how relatable Louis’ decision is; wouldn’t we all do the same? It’s basic self-preservation, if we had the means we would spare ourselves from the greatest pain known. Our fear of death, the uncertainty of it, pushes us to desperate measures, and Pet Sematary acts as a warning example of how that could come back to bite us in the butt.
Pet Sematary; Re-animated or dead on arrival?
Pet Sematary might not be the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel we had hoped for. It has some interesting new ideas, but it never quite reaches liftoff. Shame because the cast here do a fine job with their roles. It’s especially nice to see Amy Seimetz back on the big screen, even if the script treats her as nothing more than a hysterical woman, unable to overcome her trauma. Jason Clarke is reliable and believable as the tortured family man Louis, but there would have been potential for something more. As Ellie, Jeté Laurence is genuninely great, bringing much needed creepiness and sadness to her role.
Pet Sematary won’t be the worst horror film you see all year, but it also won’t be making appearances on anyone’s top 10 lists come the end of the year. The film lags badly in the middle, it almost becomes more of a dull drama, and it lacks the intensity to make it interesting and terrifying even when there aren’t kids on a killing spree.
This review appeared originally on Film Inquiry on April 8th, 2019.