Written by: Stephen King (novel), Matt Greenberg (screen story), Jeff Buhler (screenplay)
Directed by: Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer
Starring: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, and John Lithgow
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Sometimes, dead is better."
Pet Sematary fittingly hinges on an unseen, preternatural force that compels folks to bury their loved ones in sour ground in the hopes that they’ll return to life. Not to be Mr. Cynical, but nothing symbolizes one strain of modern studio filmmaking quite like that: we live in an era of perpetual resurrection, as nothing that was once vibrant and full of life can truly stay dead. Sometimes they manage to return with their former glory intact; often, they do not. Either way, they never quite come back the same, leaving viewers to pit fond memories against new additions, forever trying to reckon the past with the present. It captures the kernel of truth lurking in the black, rotten heart of King’s miserable novel: if given the opportunity, most of us absolutely would take a second chance, no matter how unnatural it might be.
As such, it’s no surprise that Hollywood has exhumed Pet Sematary itself, a turn of events that was practically woven into the stars once this recent King renaissance hit full swing. Sometimes dead is better, but not when there’s money to be made from a familiar title—especially one that’s already traumatized multiple generations. To its credit, this take is inspired on paper: Paramount tabbed Starry Eyes directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer for the gig, who subsequently surrounded themselves with an assortment of talent, creating the impression that this is a delicate, vigilant undertaking rather than a slapdash hack job.
Maybe this is why the final product somehow feels a tad underwhelming: this Pet Sematary has all the right parts in place, yet still only lurches on as a half-hearted retread for most of its runtime. Once it does attempt to lumber out of the shadow of its source material, it justifies its existence: no one will mistake this as a complete redux of the original film, much less a faithful adaptation of King’s novel. But because this stretch feels like a small appendage attached to vestigial whole, Pet Sematary is an ungainly Frankenstein monster that’s equally parts frustrating, intriguing, unsettling, and weirdly thrilling, something the original film certainly never aspired to be. They come back different, indeed.
Frustration sets in early on, as Jeff Buhler’s screenplay seems content to breeze through the expected motions. The Creed family—now transplated from Boston rather than Chicago—arrive in the sleepy town of Ludlow, where patriarch Louis (Jason Clarke) is set to be the doctor at a local university. Eldest child Ellie (Jete Laurence) is just about to start school but is captivated by the specter of death, especially after discovering the pet cemetery hidden in the woods behind her new home. Youngest child Gage (Hugo & Lucas Lavoie) is just formulating words but is well on his way to being a precocious toddler. Rachel (Amy Seimetz) is the mother looking to shield both children from the horrors of life, having endured a traumatic childhood that still lingers in her brain. And then there’s Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), their new elderly neighbor from across the road who seems cagey about the bizarre patch of land stuffed with generations of dead pets. Large trucks screech constantly across the road separating their homes, foreshadowing the inevitable doom that will tear this idyllic scene asunder.
Obviously, you can’t begrudge Pet Sematary for keeping this skeletal framework intact. However, it's just that: an obligatory, bare bones recitation of the book’s exposition that’s lacking any sense of investment. While it would be almost impossible to capture the largely internal nature of a book that’s pitched from Louis Creed’s increasingly manic head space, this particular adaptation barely feigns interest in doing so. Despite clocking in only one minute shorter than Mary Lambert’s take, it somehow just feels much less substantial, perhaps because most of the setup here resembles haphazardly arranged dominos that Kölsch, Widmyer, and company just can’t wait to topple.
Pet Sematary is an absolutely heartbreaking novel precisely because King invests heavily in these characters, envisioning them primarily as good, decent people before ruthlessly victimizing them. This adaptation takes the opposite approach: you can set your watch by familiar story developments and requisite dialogue, delivered here as a breezy prelude to the looming mayhem. Imagine skimming the first half of King’s novel without truly giving a damn about the characters in a hurried attempt to get to the ghastly shit, and you have a decent idea of how this Pet Sematary mostly operates.
It’s a shame considering it has so many terrific moving parts: Seimetz is always a welcome sight on the big screen, and she’s terrific as Rachel, especially once she’s forced to reckon with the horrors her husband inflicts during the final act. Likewise, Clarke captures the quiet mania of Louis Creed once this bereaved father becomes desperate to see his ill-fated child again. Stepping into the most imposing shadow is Lithgow, charged with the unenviable task of replacing Fred Gwynne’s iconic turn as Jud; he fares admirably enough by dropping the indelible accent and the warm, grandfatherly demeanor. Where Gwynne portrayed him as King wrote him on the page—loquacious, outgoing, and big-hearted—Lithgow is more subdued, haunted, and maybe even a little shifty. He practically snarls with a knowing, sinister intent at some points, acting very much like a cog in a horror movie machine.
The film spends much of its time treating the characters just so: like functioning parts meant to grease the wheels of the horror elements. Kölsch and Widmyer spend much of the early-going treating these characters as pawns in typical horror tableaus: they creep though eerie hallways and basements, trudge through the fog-drenched Little God Swamp, float through dreamy recreations of trauma, with most serving as the suspenseful setup to obvious jump scare punchlines. This Pet Sematary feels like a much more conventional horror movie compared to Lambert’s take; where her film burrows into your brain with a procession of oppressive, nightmarish imagery, this one mostly settles for bump-in-the-night jolts and haunted house theatrics.
Admittedly, Kölsch and Widmyer at least have a feel for this sort of thing, and they even do a solid job of replicating some of that indelible imagery; living up to the original’s pure nightmare fuel is a tall task, but the renditions of Pascow and Zelda here are suitably grotesque, and the latter proves to be an especially effective implement to coax further shocks and jumps. The production design is also magnificent; it perhaps feels less organic and more meticulously designed than previous incarnations, but the stretch between the cemetery and the Micmac burial ground is a creepy menagerie of fog, imposing woods, and eerie sounds—some natural, some very unnatural. King’s primal horror of of men trespassing the boundaries of the supernatural and uncovering unspeakable dread remains very much intact: Pet Sematary is atmospheric and macabre, urged on by the awful sensation that something horrible lurks in the distance.
But what this take misses is the opposite impulse, the voice of conscience that wants these characters to defy the pull of inexorable doom. Pet Sematary is a novel that I have often have to put down during the course of reading because it’s so genuinely unsettling, and the first adaptation likewise remains difficult to watch. In both cases, the characters are meticulously realized and given a chance to experience both triumph and tragedy before their entire world is upended. Buhler’s script doesn’t afford them to same space, in the process stripping them of their personality and chemistry.
In many ways, the tale hinges on the family dynamics, plus the Creeds’ relationship with Jud, both of which have a wonderful lived-in quality in the novel: King intricately sketches a portrait of authentic human beings with a rich vibrancy that’s sorely lacking here. The same is true of Ludlow’s lore, here mostly reduced to one of Jud’s anecdotes and Louis’s hasty web-browsing. Unlike the previous film, this one dares to utter the word "Wendigo" but is largely content to confine the creature to a page in a book. Names like George and Timmy Baterman flash by, reduced to Easter Eggs instead of crucial mythos, deepening that sensation that this adaptation just doesn’t carry the appropriate amount of gravitas. King’s novel dwells on its nastiness—the ghoulish gore, the awkward family drama, the nightmarish trauma, the oppressive grief; everyone here seems to be in a rush to rubberneck at the nastiest, most infamous bit involving a semi-truck, and they’re especially eager to show off the trick they’ve pulled with it. (Spoilers from this point on.)
It’s not a bad trick, either, though I have to wonder how much more effective it would have been without the marketing spoiling it: in this version, Louis Creed does what his novel counterpart constantly fantasizes about when he pulls young Gage back from the road just before the Orinco truck runs him over. Unfortunately, however, Ellie is also in the road this time, doomed to meet a grisly end when the truck jackknifes. Purists will understandably balk at the change, but it has the somewhat ironic effect of injecting some life into this otherwise moribund adaptation. For about an hour, you trudge along through the motions with it, only to perk up once you realize Kölsch and Widmyer really want to have fun with this alteration. This is where they want to dwell: in the demented margins of King’s nightmare scenario, where they’re free to run wild with deranged possibilities.
The gambit pays off for the most part, at least from a pure schlock perspective. There’s no genuine interest in examining Louis’s grief (the funeral scene might not even be a minute long, and it’s not nearly as uncomfortable as it’s supposed to be), but the film is quick to embrace his utter mania by drawing out Ellie’s return from the grave to its logical, twisted conclusion. Rather than immediately return as a demon from the beyond, Ellie returns just a shade off, allowing her father to believe his little girl has indeed come back to her. Laurence shines here as a living dead girl with straying eyeballs and distended skin; with a devilish glimmer in lurking just beneath the façade, she becomes something like the ticking time bomb beneath the table. It’s just a matter of time until the force resting beyond the deadfall surfaces, unleashing Ellie’s true, malicious intentions.
Once that happens—and, like most developments here, does so a touch too quickly—Pet Sematary abandons almost all pretenses of reverence for its source material. With the exception of Ellie’s profane outbursts—which sees her assuming the visage of Jud’s dead wife, Norma*, before hacking up the old man—the climax here gleefully strays off the page. If nothing else, it produces a natural intrigue: you certainly can’t set your watch by what happens during the last 15 minutes especially. At a certain point, though, even this wears thin: Buhler’s script becomes a little bit too enamored with its own topsy-turvy cleverness and stretches the story to a farcical breaking point. Granted, the film mercifully slams to its credits before we watch it completely fall apart, but you can certainly feel this thing fraying at the edges as it careens down a ramshackle rail, almost as if everyone suddenly decided to remake Pet Sematary Two.
The word “conflicted” keeps coming to mind as a result. On the one hand, I admire the audacity of exploiting King’s novel for its wry, black-hearted potential; on the other, this particular stab at it ultimately comes across as a little bit too self-satisfied and ridiculous because it’s essentially tagged onto an otherwise straightforward adaptation. I can indulge 100 straight minutes of pure, paint-huffing insanity in Pet Sematary Two; likewise, I can turn to Lambert’s film for a more faithful adaptation. Carving out a space for this adaptation to claim as its own immediately proves difficult because it doesn’t do enough to truly forge its own path. In its hesitance to embrace the thematic and dramatic heft that makes King’s novel so indelible, it diminishes itself as a gory trifle. Kölsch and Widmyer’s distinct vision is at the mercy of dubious storytelling instincts, and we’re left to reckon with a recognizable but largely lifeless husk, returned with a dreadful inevitability from Hollywood’s burial grounds.
Like so many revivals, it doesn’t engage with its essence: this Pet Sematary isn’t a haunting exploration of grief, trauma, and desperation—it’s simply about repackaging Pet Sematary’s greatest hits into a respectable but unremarkable tribute album, right down to breaking out a cover of The Ramones’s signature tune for the end credits again. Dead isn't necessarily better in this case, but it'd sure be nice if this resurrection had a little bit more life to it.
*A moment that would carry more weight had this adaptation bothered to feature Norma Crandall as more than a briefly-mentioned photo early in the movie
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