Stephen King’s 1983 novel Pet Sematary is a story about grief, which is its true monster. Recounting the ordeal that befalls the Creed family after they relocate to Maine, befriend their elderly neighbors, suffer loss, and then find ruination courtesy of a Native American burial ground that can bring the deceased back to life, it’s a cautionary tale about the terrible, spiraling power of sorrow—how it consumes the heart and soul if allowed to fester, beckoning one toward an abyss of corruption and madness. In King’s original, love (and sex) serve as barricades against its destructive allure, although ultimately, the only hope of escaping its grasp comes from accepting that death is a natural part of life, and preferable to the nightmares wrought by anguished men’s darkest impulses. As its most famous line warns, “Sometimes dead is better.”
Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s film adaptation, on the other hand, is about jump scares.
This isn’t the first time King’s masterful tome has received subpar cinematic treatment; director Mary Lambert’s 1989 version lacks much of its source material’s moral dread and horror, this despite the fact that King penned it himself, and it boasts standout supporting turns from Fred Gwynne and Miko Hughes (who both factor into the greatest Achilles tendon-related incident in movie history). Still, Lambert’s predecessor was far less shallow and shoddy than this latest iteration. There’s scant life in Kölsch and Widmyer’s modern update, but there’s plenty of slipshod plotting, ham-fisted dialogue and SUDDEN LOUD NOISES to be found throughout this torturous return trip to the unholy animal graveyard.
Dutifully rehashing King’s set-up, Pet Sematary concerns Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel Creed (Amy Seimetz), who along with their daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and son Gage (Hugo Lavoie) relocate from the big city to rural Ludlow, Maine, so Louis can begin a physician’s job at a university hospital. They soon meet across-the-way senior citizen Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), who’s a widower because his wife Norma has, like Rachel’s nasty parents, been excised from these streamlined proceedings (Lambert’s edition did this as well). Early on, Kölsch and Widmyer cast Jud as a potentially threatening old coot in order to generate additional unease. Yet it’s false to the character, who’s been neutered of his kindness and complexity, and it exposes their preoccupation with altering key elements of King’s saga as a means of keeping fans on their toes.
Despite that surprise-centric m.o., Pet Sematary’s advance trailers have already revealed its biggest change to King’s narrative. While I won’t restate that spoiler, the film sticks to a familiar script for its first half before switching things up in ways that are always for the worse. Upon arriving at their new home, Ellie witnesses a procession of kids in creepy masks heading to the pet cemetery (whose name the children have misspelled on a sign)—a sight that affords the directors a feeble creepy-mask motif. At work, Louis fails to save critically wounded student Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed), and is shortly thereafter haunted by his ghost, who tries to alert him to the burial ground’s evil. Nonetheless, when the Creed’s cat Church is killed by one of the scary trucks that speed down their road, Jud takes Louis past the cemetery, over a monolithic deadfall and through a misty landscape (inhabited by a wendigo?) to a more ancient place, where he buries the feline.
The next day, Church is back—albeit in altered form. Kölsch and Widmyer repeatedly attempt to jolt viewers with the cat’s Dolby-enhanced hisses and scratches, as well as blaring truck horns and crashing sound effects. It’s all very hollow and cheap, which goes double for Pet Sematary’s portrait of heartache. Louis and Rachel squabble about the afterlife and whether their brood should learn about death. Rachel then confesses the real reason she hates such topics: her late, meningitis-afflicted sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine), whose twisted body and dumbwaiter demise still haunt her. Zelda is also around just to provide some tacky shocks. None of them are very effective (unless you’re prone to SUDDEN LOUD NOISES!), but at least the subplot gives Seimetz something to do.
More objectionable than its second-rate scare tactics (and humdrum visuals) is the flippancy with which the film races through its action. Jeff Buhler’s script condenses King’s story with the grace of a trash compactor; scenes last only as long as it takes to dispense key plot information, and not a single second longer. It’s akin to experiencing the novel in fast-forward, with any observations about longing, regret and guilt addressed via the absolute minimum amount of dialogue, as if the filmmakers were petrified of letting events and performances breathe. At such a pace, every statement is a hastily-scrawled signpost pointing the way to the big finale. No wonder Clarke, a capable actor squandered by this mess, looks so harried.
That Kölsch and Widmyer don’t approximate King’s soulful storytelling might be more forgivable if it felt like they were at least trying to. Yet the further Pet Sematary travels down its supernatural path, the more it reveals itself to be a clunky carnival ride, full of portentous suggestions it can’t be bothered to develop, and gotcha moments that fail to getcha. Sadly, Lithgow, Clarke and Seimetz are reduced to cardboard cut-out pawns in a game with minimal stakes, since their characters haven’t been blessed with more than two dimensions (if that). Only a couple of fleeting vistas of the forest treetops blanketed by the cloudy night sky convey a whiff of New England atmosphere. The rest is dull and, in the case of some CGI-enhanced shots, ungainly too.
Then there’s the big switcheroo peddled by Pet Sematary, solely for the purpose of upending the expectations of King die-hards. The lame twists that follow in its wake are equally dismal, lowlighted by a reaction shot of a stunned Louis that’s played for misplaced laughs. As with a confrontation that directly exploits cinephiles’ memories of the aforementioned Achilles tendon massacre, these modifications pay no appreciable dividends, except to highlight the enterprise’s pointlessness. “If you’ve done something, Louis, it’s not too late to undo it,” Jud pleads shortly before the conclusion. Were that only true about the film itself.