Pet Sematary, the second go-round at adapting Stephen King‘s fondly-remembered tale of mortality, the human condition, and how we attempt to push back against those inevitable constraints, served with a heaping helping of the supernatural, made quite the splash at SXSW when it screened in front of an eager audience of horror enthusiasts. The buzz coming out of that screening was pretty deafening, and the high Rotten Tomatoes score backed that up.
Is it possible that after Us, we were going to bear witness to two outstanding exercises in horror cinema in subsequent weeks? When I found out the film was screening for the press corps on the Wednesday right before release, I started to get a little nervous – or at least maybe a bit puzzled, as that’s usually reserved for films that aren’t expected to be well-received. All kinds of excuses ran through my head: “perhaps it’s to create a separate day of buzz apart from the deafening critical roar for Shazam! (it’s wonderful by the way)”
What hogwash. The truth is, this Pet Sematary redo is rather substandard, and in that way that horror remakes tend to be. Adding on lots of gloss and creepy imagery through extra dim cinematography, while losing the heart of what makes the original (in this case, really, the book) sing with its proponents of so many decades. Even worse, it’s also incredibly dull, a kiss of death where horror is concerned.
If you’ve read the book or seen the initial Mary Lambert adaptation, you probably know the facts of the case already, but Hollywood’s most boring everyman Jason Clarke plays Boston doctor Louis Creed, who moves into a new home in the country with wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two children: Ellie (Jete Lawrence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie and Lucas Lavoie). Rachel remains haunted by her traumatic childhood and the death of her sister, who passed in an unfortunate in-home accident. This leads to conversations about the the afterlife and religious philosophies that you’d think a longtime married couple would have had sometime long before now…but well…so it goes. This is, of course, all preambled by the fact that Louis was unable to save a patient that was in critical condition, and then begins experiencing surreal visions involving that person, and the pet cemetery (famously misspelled) that lies just beyond their home.
Then John Lithgow shows up as the local neighbor who knows way more than he’s letting on.
Then their household cat gets run over by a truck.
Then it gets buried in the “sour ground” of the cemetery.
And then it comes back wrong.
And so it goes…
As with every second take on a horror property, the bones are basically there, and there’s quite a bit of thematic material that filmmakers Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer could have really dug into – particularly the terrifying notion of forcing your loved one back into an existence they’re no longer a part of, or even better yet, the greater unknowable force from which they came and is potentially even driving their resurrection. Why is that ground sour anyway? Granted, King didn’t really provide those answers either, but his was a story that ruminated more and identified with a clearer perspective that drives the decisions that send Louis to make what to many would be an unspeakable choice.
Really, all Kolsch and Widmyer seem interested in are cheap jump scares and zombies. And either of those would be fine, though disappointing, I can get down with the Zack Snyder Dawn of the Dead after all. If you strip a thoughtful piece of horror down to it barest concept, but can still make a cracker of a picture out of it, that’s fine. This is not that…instead the filmmakers turn King’s words into a rote and hollow experience. With every climb through the mountain of sticks in the cemetery, and each flashback to Rachel’s past, I felt myself slowly growing older – and with a household full of people that were becoming increasingly harder to stand, that time was quickly turning into torture.
Once Pet Sematary turns into a near action-horror spectacle in its final 20 minutes, it pretty much feels like a final insult rather than an earned denouement. The tragedy that befalls these characters, which should resonate in a near EC-like fashion, instead is just a shrug worthy brushing off so the whole thing can just end. Really, the pacing here is so wonky, it’s like the kid who walks most of the mile they’re supposed to run in gym class, but then sprints in the last 50 feet. What’s even the point?
They’re not even scary zombies.
Also, to really nail how discombobulated all of this is, Rachel’s subplot regarding her sister’s accidental death – while literally pulled from the book at the outside – takes a larger center piece here – basically the create more opportunities for cheap scares. The problem being, when you try to produce body horror or even underline the idea that Rachel’s biggest fear is ending up like her sister, it leaves an awful taste in your mouth; specifically the usage of physical disability to provoke a reaction of that sort. It’s misguided at best, and downright offensive at worst.
As a character says at one point, “Sometimes dead is better”. Paramount should have heeded that advice.

1 COMMENT

  1. The 1989 movie version was pretty bad. Hard to believe people have been clamoring for a remake. But here we are.
    I wonder if the huge success of “It” will trigger a rash of King remakes … although “Carrie” has already been remade, and there have been TV rehashes of others.

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