Review: Pet Sematary
Some spoilers follow for the events of Pet Sematary , the novel and its adaptations.
He’s known by many as a modern master of horror, but Stephen King is perhaps even more notable as an unapologetic sentimentalist. There’s a reason he kept readers (most definitely this one) engaged in his Dark Tower series, one which spanned decades’ worth of publications and doubled down on the intricacies of its lore to a level approaching self-parody, but had such an unwavering love for its protagonists that it was a ride worth taking even at its bumpiest. There’s a reason even his stories that dabble less overtly in horror trappings have found an audience, from his ambitious and weepy serial novel The Green Mile to his gripping and dramatic Dolores Claiborne. And there’s most definitely a reason he struck such gold with It — a sweeping masterclass in scaling horrific brutalities down to the scope of a coming-of-age adventure, one made both terrifying and touching by the power of its central Losers’ bonds.
King’s 1983 novel Pet Sematary is no less driven by its emotional core, but that core is used in a much more grim capacity — even by the author’s own horrific standards. King is on record calling it the most frightening novel he’s written — in a 2001 edition of the book, he introduced his story, writing in part, “Pet Sematary is the one I put away in a drawer, thinking I had finally gone too far.” And while it’s certainly among his most overtly morbid and macabre works, the story’s power is drawn from the personal nerve it strikes — put simply, it’s a parenting nightmare. Decades ago, King and his wife moved into a rural Maine home on a traffic-heavy road, much like the one central to both the novel and its 1989 and 2019 adaptations. The story’s autobiographical elements don’t end there — King found his daughter’s beloved cat dead, buried it in a nearby “pet cemetery,” and recalls rushing to keep his son out of harm’s way on that road.
In the novel, Pet Sematary comes across as the tragedy of that uniquely parental desperation being taken to its worst end — if everything that could have gone wrong for King went wrong. Though death is its central concept, the novel is far from an oppressive slog. Its subject matter opens up engaging threads of human interest, like the ongoing debate of how the Creeds should explain death to their daughter Ellie, and mother Rachel’s haunted recollection of her sister Zelda’s passing from spinal meningitis. There’s even a hidden layer of black comedy given father Louis’ close proximity to death as a doctor, and his observation that Ellie learned about “where babies come from” before the concept of dying ever crossed her mind. Each loved one Louis buries and brings back to life turns into the worst possible version of them — by the time he’s dealt with his hissing zombie cat and killed his newly violent son Gage, a reanimated Rachel almost feels like a punchline.
As a page-turning novel and a methodically paced descent into King’s very personal hell, Pet Sematary is a nigh-untouchable piece of horror. One wonders if there’s any way of capturing that same sense of dread on the big screen, farther removed from King’s wry and world-weary voice. But while Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation wasn’t untouchable by any stretch — a bit stiffly acted by its leads and bordering on melodrama in its execution — it still captured the spirit of its source to a largely satisfying degree. Most notably, Fred Gwynne left an impression as the elderly, supernaturally savvy Jud Crandall, and scares that might seem quaint to audiences today — namely the reanimated Gage — still manage to unsettle, coming across like chillingly corrupted innocence.
Where does all this leave the latest incarnation of Pet Sematary, newly adapted by up-and-coming directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer? For better or worse, it’s a different beast than its predecessors. It’s briskly paced at just around an hour and 40 minutes, and jam-packed with visually creative scares at a disorienting, often unpredictable pace. It’s a film that clearly revels in the most distinctive imagery of its source material — creepy kids, never-ending nighttime walks through a labyrinthine forest, and Church, the jump-scare cat. Kölsch and Widmyer often seem to be having a field day with all these moving pieces, but there’s an unfortunate catch — it comes at the expense of time spent slowing down with the Creed family, and contemplating what all this carnage means.
It becomes clear pretty early on that this won’t be too leisurely of a character piece — when Louis Creed and Jud Crandall, whose conversations give the novel much of its pathos and intrigue, are introduced to each other offscreen before we’re meant to believe they function as a family unit, this Pet Sematary has already spelled out its approach. Granted, I can’t quite say the film is trying and failing to sell its emotional core — it doesn’t seem to be trying for it that much in the first place. And while the book’s greatest virtue was the deceptively intimate way it made readers’ hearts break for Louis’ bad decisions, it feels like this adaptation has a twisted sense of glee about the trainwreck it’s making us watch. Where King’s novel played out predominantly as a human tragedy with a quarter of dark humor, this feels like three-quarters of a black comedy with just a pinch of human interest (but make no mistake— both are distinctly horror stories). Whether that’s a good or bad thing feels like a matter of perspective.
One should try to view this through the lens of its modern visionaries, rather than the iconic one who spawned its source material. Kölsch and Widmyer previously directed 2014’s Starry Eyes, an enjoyable if undercooked Hollywood nightmare. That film had a refreshingly playful mean streak once it hit its groove — the last 30 minutes really are quite a fun bit of slasher filmmaking — but it felt weighed down by the necessity to offer commentary on systemic abuse and misogyny in the movie business. It never really finds much of an angle on Weinstein-esque power players making young actresses’ lives a living hell — it comes close by suggesting the allure of acting as an alternative to its protagonist waitressing to pay the bills — or at the very least, not a constructive one. The commentary starts and ends at “Hollywood is a cult,” without offering much potential for hope — or by extension, genuine heartbreak.
Still, with both Starry Eyes and their own reanimated Pet Sematary, Kölsch and Widmyer show a knack for unnerving body horror and yielding magnetic performances. In Sematary, Amy Seimetz uses her distinctly indie edge to engaging results, and John Lithgow reminds viewers how a good character actor can make a world of difference. To my surprise, the standout of the adult cast is Jason Clarke — his brooding blandness is perfectly utilized, wringing twisted laughs out of his surroundings. And there are many twisted laughs to be had — again, for all its dramatic shortcomings, the film is effective on this front. From the zombified cat Church showing up like a bad penny before greater evil rears its head, to some memorably blurred lines between nightmares and reality (one taken from the book — Louis waking up with muddied feet after what he assumed was a dreamed-up night walk, is as fun a stinger as ever), viewers who prefer cackling through their horror movies are likely to have a field day here.
But even black comedies work best with a method to their madness. There are too many seemingly tactical, thematically relevant choices here that don’t go far beyond implication. Promotional material for this film has revealed that, rather than young Gage like in the novel and Lambert’s adaptation, the older Ellie (here, played with impressive commitment by Jete Laurence) is the Creed kid who dies and gets brought back to life. That’s a great idea on paper — the undead Gage’s creep factor was always a little lenient on the inherent scariness of killer children, while Ellie has more of an emotional resonance with her death and rebirth, given her curiosity about death and more intricate relationships with Jud and her parents. But in practice, it ends up as little more than a schlocky Exorcist riff — with the major exception of an excellent sequence where she pursues Jud, one that even provides payoff for seemingly insignificant conversations the two had much earlier. Maybe it has to do with the directors’ apparent assumption (however right or wrong) that viewers are already familiar with this story — most frustratingly, they blaze right by the looming menace Zelda provides for her sister Rachel, using the former as fodder for setpieces without much psychological weight. Kölsch and Widmyer are consistently skilled at visualizing King’s imagery — less so at contextualizing it.
There’s a sense of over-eagerness here that disappointingly, and almost deal-breakingly, carries into the film’s climax. Again, changing the tone and key events from the novel is fine, and honestly welcome. It just ends up becoming more about who’s killing who than why they’re doing it, and that’s a shame. Both the book and the Lambert film effectively conclude their character arcs with gut-punch endings — this feels like the mean streak culminates with an even meaner outcome that doesn’t elicit enough of an emotional response after the gasps. It’s Exhibit A of these clearly talented filmmakers’ most apparent Achilles’ heel — without any real sense of lived-in warmth (the kind King has made his bread and butter), their nihilistic tendencies just don’t add up to much more than shock value.
Perhaps that will be enough for some — for stretches of this, as with Starry Eyes, Kölsch’s and Widmyer’s sensibilities sure were effectively shocking. I just can’t help but feel that these are schlockmeisters mining scares from more dramatically capable material than they need to. I wouldn’t call this Pet Sematary a betrayal or even a total misunderstanding of its source material — just a waste of it, however fleetingly enjoyable.