The Creed family moves into a new country house, where Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) can spend more raising daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and infant son Gage (Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie). While exploring the grounds of their new country house, Ellie discovers a pet cemetery, but is warned away from exploring further by her elderly neighbor Jud (John Lithgow). The land behind the cemetery has a terrible power: the ability to resurrect any body buried in it — although they never come back the same.
Based on one of Stephen King’s most despairing novels, Pet Sematary is fundamentally about how a people deal with death, or, more often, how they refuse to deal with it. Iconic scenes from the book remain and are still unnerving, like when Louis pulls back the bedcovers and sees his mud-smeared feet, a clue that his dreams might have been more real than expected. But overall, Pet Sematary is only a half-hearted update to the already strong story.
[Ed. note: the review contains spoilers for Pet Sematary, including moments featured in trailers and memorable scenes from the book]
The big change is how directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) focus more on the difficulty of communication, rather than grief itself, which accounts for some of the changes from King’s original. The most notable tweak is front and center in the trailer: the family’s infant son, Gage, survives while Ellie is killed. Ellie’s ability to verbalize her experience of being undead, and worse yet knowing it, is a prominent alteration in the second half of the movie, one that provides a new source of creepiness.
More so than in the book, it’s clear how specific decisions of action or inaction cause the rest of the story to unfold. Ellie’s death underscores this unraveling; she’s drawn into the street because she sees Church the cat walking up the road. Louis’ decision to resurrect Church, and then abandon him in the forest rather than dispose of him, leads directly to the car accident. What else can he do but dig himself deeper?
The best moments of Pet Sematary are pulled straight from the book, but the intermittent scenes that string these vignettes together don’t keep up with the intensity, and ultimately make the movie a bit of a slog. The plot falls out in logical ways, like Ellie seeing a procession of children walking to the cemetery, which leads her to explore it herself, which leads her to ask her parents about Church dying someday. But that logic is not buttress by believable emotional performances. Louis and Rachel’s grief is surprisingly muted — at Ellie’s funeral, Louis cries one solitary tear, which fails to capture the devastation of losing a child and in turn makes Louis’ descent into traumatized insanity less convincing. The acting isn’t strong enough to keep up the tension between scares.
The scenes that are replicated from the book are polished and creepy. Kölsch and Widmyer use just enough gore during the death of Victor Pascow to drive home how upsetting this experience was for Louis — to paraphrase one of the nurses, I could see Pascow’s brains. Other moments deploy familiar and underwhelming cliches, like indistinct whispers from the woods or Gage’s crayon drawing of sinister stick-figure dripping blood. Trucks speeding by with a blaring sound effect account for three separate jump scares. In general, these felt more like check marks than strong atmospheric enhancements.
At other times the scripting leaves important questions unanswered, like when Jud explains that he showed Louis the extended burial ground because he thought Church might resurrect differently than Jud’s childhood dog. He doesn’t clarify why he thought it would be different, which makes the scene perplexing and not particularly resonant. The moment got a big laugh from the packed theater at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival. Without context on Jud’s decision-making, the fallout from that pivotal moment feels arbitrary.
In contrast to the book or to director Mary Lambert’s memorable 1989 adaptation, the resurrectional land is never specifically referred to as an “indian burial ground,” which is a relief; the trope vilifies Native American history while erasing modern day native cultures, all for the sake of hand-wave storytelling. However the wendigo, an Algonquian legend, is still blamed for turning the land turning “sour,” which isn’t much better and doesn’t really provide grounding for what’s happening.
For people unfamiliar with the plot, the sheer blow-by-blow of the harrowing events might be strong enough to hold attention. If you already know King’s work, the additions don’t sufficiently elevate the story or themes to make it a worthwhile experience. As far as resurrected stories go, Pet Sematary isn’t quite villainous enough to terrify.